I recently received the following question from a student:
“I'm having trouble making an idea stick. Or should I say I'm having trouble sticking to an idea ... something draws me head over heels into an idea like into a dream, and then -- it's like falling out of love -- a critical voice sneaks up and switches out my spectacles and, in the blink of an eye, the beautiful idea looks tawdry and shopworn, and I start casting about for something new.” Tony G.
Tony’s question points toward one of the biggest problems faced by young writers—starting one screenplay after another, only to lose faith and abandon them in search of greener pastures. The non-stop pattern of abandoned projects further fuels the vicious cycle of the writer’s self-doubt. Soon, every idea you can think of is dismissed as “just not good enough.” And before long, you start to wonder if you’re ever going to come up with an idea worth finishing.
Is Your Idea Good Enough?
As writers, we’re all horrifically insecure. We’re afraid of being judged, we’re afraid of not being good enough, and most of all, we’re terrified of putting months or even years of work into a script, only to realize that our idea isn’t sellable and that all of our work was for nothing.
These insecurities are only increased by the paint-by-numbers techniques espoused by so many screenwriting books and gurus, and a Hollywood system that seems to run off of elevator pitches and loglines. All of which seem to suggest that until you have a great idea, you shouldn’t even start.
Of course, this approach ignores the fact that it’s almost impossible for even the best professional writers to know if an idea is actually good enough ... until they write it.
The chances are, there was a time every movie you ever loved was just another messy rough draft that some writer was wondering if he should give up on.
Here’s a great quote on the subject from M. Night Shyamalan, describing how at one point early in his career, he nearly abandoned his screenplay The Sixth Sense for fear that his idea wasn’t good enough:
“I remember, swear to God, I remember I had this Sixth Sense idea years before and I put it away 'cause I heard they were making Casper ... swear to God, I was like, 'Well there goes that.'”
And the crazy thing is, at that point in the writing process, he may have been right. It wasn’t until the fifth draft that Shyamalan finally realized the real hook that made his movie so special: the trick ending in which the main character realized that he was dead.
Had M. Night Shyamalan succeeded in convincing himself that his idea was “just not good enough”, he would never have discovered the powerful ending that ultimately made it good enough.
His baby idea would never have grown up. And he never would have truly been able to see its full potential.
All Ideas Start Out Like Babies
You can think of your early drafts like little babies. Full of potential. Easy to love. But nevertheless, a little bit funny-looking.
Like babies, our infant scripts need lots of nurturing, love, guidance, and hard work if they’re going to succeed.
You wouldn’t dismiss your baby as “just not good enough” or exchange him for another because he wasn’t born knowing how to walk.
Instead, you’d spend time with him appreciating all the things that were great about him. When he was ready, you’d help him take those first steps, celebrate his victories, and keep believing in him when even he fell and bruised his knees.
And before long, you’d notice that he wasn’t just walking. He was running. Without any prompting from you at all.
Turning a Good Idea Into A Great One
Here's what it comes down to: The way you find a truly great idea is not by searching for a great idea. It's by picking any idea that interests you, and examining it so closely and so specifically (and having so much fun playing with it) that whatever is most compelling about it comes to the surface.
You turn your good idea into a great one by refusing to give up on it. By trusting yourself and the initial impulses that drew you to it in the first place. By forcing yourself to keep writing and writing until the real story reveals itself to you.
When you’re thinking about your ideas in terms of “good enough” or “not good enough,” it means you’re looking at your movie from the outside: casting a critical eye on your writing, and holding it up against an impossible external standard of a polished script that’s been through many, many drafts.
So, instead of stepping outside and questioning the validity of your premise, I want to encourage you to step inside your scenes, not worrying about how they compare or even if they compare to anything else, but simply having fun with them, getting the most you can out of each one, exploring questions and truths that matter to you, and playing with them until they make YOU happy.
Rather than wondering if your idea is good enough, start asking yourself how you can make it more compelling. Instead of wondering if your idea is too much like other movies, start asking yourself how it could be even more exciting. Instead of wondering if you’re good enough to write it, start asking yourself what you need to learn to take it to the next level.
Look for the opportunities that already exist in your ideas, rather than the “perfect” idea that’s going to sell to Hollywood, and you’ll discover the secret that great writers already know:
You Can Turn Any Idea Into a Great Screenplay!
When it really comes down to it, The Sixth Sense is just a new riff on Casper The Friendly Ghost. Star Wars is just a Spaghetti Western in space. And even Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is just an update on the Roman myth of Pyramus and Thisbe.
It’s not the ideas that made these screenplays great. It’s the execution of those ideas by writers who pushed them to their extremes, believed in their characters, and didn’t stop when the going got tough.
Stop Selling Out, And Sell In
So often, screenwriters make the mistake of thinking the way you sell a movie is by figuring out what producers are buying, and coming up with a great idea that fits that market.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Hollywood is an inconstant lover, whose tastes change by the second. And even if you had a direct line to what producers were looking for at the moment, by the time you finish your screenplay, they’re going to be looking for something different.
The way you actually sell a movie is by writing the kind of script that you wish Hollywood was making, pushing yourself through draft after draft until anyone who read it would be as captivated as you are, and then transforming what you love most about your script into a pitch that screams “you’ve got to make me” to anyone that hears it.
Learn To Pitch Like a Professional
Everybody knows that if you want to sell your screenplay, you have to learn how to pitch it. But what many writers don’t realize is how important honing your pitch can be in the process of writing it.
A great pitch is not just a sales tool, it’s a way of looking deeply at your screenplay, focusing in organically on the elements that most matter to you, and verbalizing them in ways that make them as captivating for your audience as they are for you.
A great pitch is not a fixed document, but an evolving way of understanding your story, focusing your rewrites, and turning your good ideas into great ones, by unearthing the opportunities that already exist in your writing.
In fact, by the time you are done, it won’t just be your script that you can pitch. You’ll know how to pitch every element of your story: from act, to scene, to the smallest line of dialogue, in ways that captures your audience’s attention and exceeds their expectations.
That’s why I’d like to invite you to my on-demand webinar: Pitch Like A Professional.
Whether you’re in your first draft, or carrying a perfectly honed screenplay in your back pocket, this webinar will teach you how to transform your baby premises into full-grown superstars, by focusing on the things that drew you to your story in the first place.
You’ll learn how to pitch a finished script to producers, and how to pitch your rough drafts to yourself, so that you can focus your rewrites, and exceed the promise of your premise.
You’ll learn when to pitch your screenplay, and how to identify the people most likely to buy it, by using the power of your own social network.