A note before we start this month. Lately, a number of readers have been reposting my columns on a number of other websites and in a number of other blogs. While I am certainly flattered that people think enough of my work to want to share it, I need to advise you that this is not an okay thing to do. All of my writing is copyrighted. That means that it belongs to me and cannot be used in any way, shape or form without my (written) permission. Using my work without first getting my permission to do so is stealing. What is okay is to post a note on your own site saying something like “Hey, Ray Morton wrote a piece I think you should read…” and then providing a link to this site or any other site where I publish original material. That’s fine and I am grateful to anyone that does do that. For any other use of my material, you must contact me (at firstname.lastname@example.org) and obtain my permission or else you cannot use it. If you don’t, then you will hear from me and/or my lawyer. Sorry for being so hard-nosed about this, but I have to be – the Internet has become something of a Wild West when it comes to the wanton use and reuse of material. Many people think that just because something appears on the Web, it is free for them to use. This kind of attitude seriously impinges on the rights and property of people who create intellectual property for a living, including me. If I don’t vigorously and rigorously enforce my copyrights, then I endanger my own livelihood. Okay, enough with the legal stuff -- on with the show…
Every screenplay starts with an idea. But where do ideas come from? Lots of places:
• Your imagination: make something up.
• Your interests: What do you like? Do you like ping-pong? Then write a movie about ping-pong. Or mountain climbing. Or politics. Or brain surgery. Or whatever else you feel passionate about. Drama can be found in just about everything and chances are that if you think something is interesting, other people will also.
• Your life: take inspiration from things that have happened to you. Warning: it’s not enough to simply write down what happened – real life events might be interesting, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are dramatic. To transform an actual happening into a great screenplay, you must find and emphasize the drama in the event. If there isn’t any, then you may need to introduce some fictional elements that will provide drama. Also, just because an event has meaning for you doesn’t mean that it automatically will for others – you will need to find and highlight the universal truth in your experience in order to make the story as relevant to viewers as it is to you.
• The lives of others: The experiences of famous or interesting people can be fertile sources of material for a screen story. However, as with scripts based on your own adventures, you will need to find the drama within your subject’s life. Many biopic authors simply write down everything that ever happened to their subject from birth to death and assume that that’s enough. It’s not – as previously mentioned, real life isn’t always (and in fact, almost never is) dramatic. To write a successful biopic you will need to identify and highlight a strong narrative arc in your subject’s life story. If one doesn’t exist, then you will need to invent it. Amadeus is a great example of a biopic done right: the film contains lots of information about Mozart’s life, but it is not a biography of Mozart – the story is about Salieri and the extremes his jealousy of Mozart drives him to. So you get the best of both worlds – lots of info about Wolfgang and a ripping good yarn as well.
• Current events: local, national, and world happenings, trends, and fads can all be excellent jumping off points for a screenplay (Erin Brockovich, All the President’s Men, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Saturday Night Fever are all good examples of scripts spun out of things that were happening in the culture at the time).
• History: events from the recent and distant past can also make exciting movies.
NOTE: If you choose to write biopics or stories about recent or past events that feature real living or recently deceased people, then you will need to give some thought to the matter of life rights (a.k.a. life story rights).
Under the First Amendment, you are allowed to write about any topic that you choose, including other people. However, under the law, we all have a right to privacy (which includes the right to be left alone and the right not to reveal or have revealed previously non-disclosed information) and the right to control the commercial exploitation of our name and likeness (the right of publicity), as well as protections against defamation (libel and slander). We are also entitled to sue if we feel that any of these rights have been violated. [Of course, all of this applies only to America. Different countries have different laws regarding this sort of thing.]
People – especially public figures (politicians, celebrities, etc.) cannot legally object to creative accounts that depict them accurately or that depict them participating in events that are part of the public record (occasions that have been chronicled in the media or in public domain documents such as court transcripts or recordings of public hearings), but they can object if they feel that the creative account portrays them inaccurately or violates their privacy. This does not necessarily mean that they have a legitimate legal case, but even the threat of a lawsuit can be costly – both in terms of time and money. To avoid legal entanglements, writers can either sufficiently alter names and details so that the people seen onscreen cannot be mistaken for their real-life counterparts (which is often done in stories about real-life occurrences in which the participants are not as important as the events themselves, but obviously defeats the purpose if the point of the script is to chronicle the life of a specific person) or else – as part of a legal agreement worked out by an experienced and knowledgeable attorney -- pay the real-life people for the right to depict them on screen (and, more importantly, for their agreement not to sue if they don’t like how the portrayals turn out). Privacy and defamation rights expire upon a person’s death, but in certain circumstances the right of publicity can be passed down, so arrangements may have to be made with the heirs of subjects who are recently deceased.
• Pre-existing material: Filmmakers have been making adaptations of books, novels, short stories, magazine articles, and other existing properties since the beginning of the cinema. It’s easy to see why – the concepts have already been formed, which relieves the creative team from the burden of having to start from scratch, and the material has already proven it can connect with an audience (since people rarely adapt unsuccessful material), which makes it a much safer bet.
Before adapting a pre-existing piece of material, you must first determine (with the help of a competent attorney) if the property is in the public domain or under copyright. If it is under copyright, then you must obtain the screen rights to that material from its creator or its current owner. If you are writing on assignment for a producer, production company, or studio, then it is their responsibility to do this before bringing you in. If you are writing on spec, then you must obtain the rights yourself before you write and especially before you attempt to sell your script, because it is illegal not to (since without those rights you would essentially be trafficking in stolen property) and because no legitimate buyer will even look at your work unless you can produce the necessary documentation to prove that you have the legal right to adapt the source material (any association with your script could make the buyer a target of any legal action the owner of the purloined material may decide to take and nobody wants that kind of trouble).
Optioning or buying adaptation rights can be expensive, but lawsuits are even more expensive (and can ruin your life and career). Don’t make the mistake that some aspiring screenwriters do and submit an unlicensed script in the hope that if a producer likes it, he will take on the burden and expense of obtaining the rights. He won’t – it’s too risky and too much trouble. It’s much easier to simply not bother. For sure don’t do what some desperate writers have done and adapt an unlicensed piece of material and change to surface details in an attempt to hide the theft – you will be found out and that will certainly end your career and land you in a lot of hot water.
• Other movies: Whenever a movie is a hit, it’s always followed by a string of imitations. It’s understandable – people always want more of a good thing and those that can provide it can make a fortune. If you are approached by a producer to do a takeoff on a current hit, there’s nothing wrong with accepting the job, as long as you put some sort of original spin on the material – it’s okay to riff, but not to rip off. However, if you’re considering penning a knock-off as a spec, you need to understand that, by the time any movie reaches the theaters, most of the industry has already seen it and has a sense of whether or not it’s going to work. If the consensus is that the picture is going to be a hit, then there are probably already twenty imitations already in the works and it will do you no good to be number twenty-one. When it comes to writing specs, it’s probably best to try to anticipate the next trend rather than to follow the current one.
Also, don’t ever make the mistake that some aspiring screenwriters make and write a sequel to a current hit. Many scribes do this because they hope that the producers of the parent film will see their script and decide to use it as the basis for a follow-up film. This will never happen. Most sequels are already underway by the time the original movie hits the theaters and, with very rare exception, they are almost always developed in house, using (at least to start off) whoever wrote the final draft of the original movie to get things rolling on the sequel.
For an idea to work as a screenplay, it must:
• Be able to be told in cinematic fashion: through action and images and dialogue (but not primarily though dialogue – talk-drive stories tend to be static and movies need to move). Ideas than cannot be expressed in this manner should be developed in other formats (as plays, novels, short stories, etc.).
• Have commercial potential: Film is a very expensive medium – even a low budget picture costs a lot of money to make. For a film’s backers (be it a studio or private investors) to be able to earn back their money and perhaps even turn a profit, the movie must attract a sufficient number of paying customers, so a viable screenplay idea is one that has the potential to appeal to a sizeable audience -- large scale (and therefore big budget) material has to appeal to the widest audience possible; smaller scale (and therefore smaller budget) material can appeal to a narrower, more niche audience as long as that audience is big enough to give the film a shot of covering its costs.
So how can you tell if an idea is sufficiently commercial? You can’t know for sure, of course, because so much depends on how well the final movie is executed and on the mood of the zeitgeist at the time the picture is released, but in general, the films that tend to have the broadest appeal tend to be genre films that contain generous helpings of action, stunts, special effects, and broad, physical comedy. Drama, topical stories, character pieces, “personal” films, and movies in which the humor is dialogue based tend to have narrower appeal and should be scaled accordingly.
• Be entertaining: The primary purpose of movies is to entertain the people that watch them -- to fully envelop audience members in an exciting experience that can hold their attention for 90 – 120 minutes; to present them with a sufficient number of the twists, turns, and reversals that all good dramatic narratives offer; and to move them (emotionally, intellectually, or a combination of the two) in some significant or memorable way, from making them feel that they have just had the greatest roller coaster ride ever to prompting them to reconsider their entire philosophy of life. Movies can entertain in any number of ways – through spectacle, comedy, and thrills to be sure, but also by engaging viewers in more complex and challenging ways – by provoking, informing, confounding, inspiring, disturbing, and transforming. An idea that has the potential to do even a few of these things has the potential to make an excellent screenplay.
Copyright © 2012 by Ray Morton
(and I mean it)
- Curiosity Did Not Kill the Cat: Can New Story Ideas Thrive?
- Story Talk: High Concept - Yes - It Actually Means Something
- Get a New Story: Don't Wait for Writing Inspiration
- Balls of Steel: Pursuit of the Project
Tools to Help:
- Creating Original Series Ideas and Writing Spec Pilots with Erik Bork, writer/producer of HBO's Band of Brothers
- Shaping True Story into Screenplay
- The Writer's Toolbox: Creative Games and Exercises for Inspiring the Write "Side of Your Brain"