The benefits of coming up with a truly original, unique, high concept idea are clear:
But BEWARE the concept that seems too good to be true.
For every PERFECT concept, there are a hundred IMPOSSIBLE concepts that seem perfect to the untrained eye.
Read this article to find out if your next project is one of a kind, or just another hunk of that familiar Hollywood Fool's Gold.
Think Before You Write
L.A. is riddled with concepts just like this. Projects that studios bought as pitches ten or fifteen or twenty years ago, that no writer has been able to break.
To help you determine the strength of your concept, we've designed the one-of-a-kind "Concept Quality Test."
The test consists of ten questions, each designed to put your concept through the ringer. If you don't have a satisfying answer for each of these questions, proceed with extreme caution.
The Concept Quality Test
- Has this been done before?
This question is first because it's pretty obvious. If your concept has been done before, it's not as good as you think it is.
One time Chelsea and I thought of the idea for "Drop Dead Fred." And her uncle thought of the idea for "The Sixth Sense" like three years before it came out!
Here's how you find out if your concept has been done before: First, google "movie about (concept hook)." If that doesn't turn anything up, don't get too excited. You might just be a bad Googler.
Next, call three movie-buff friends. Describe the concept to them and see if they've heard of anything similar.
Finally, comb through script sales databases like "The Grid" and investigate the Black List from the past few years. Make sure there aren't any similar concepts there either.
Actually, there's one more thing you can do: Research movies that are coming out in the next six months. Watch trailers etc. You'd be surprised how often your brilliant idea was just recently made into a movie.
That's the one that hurts the most.
- Is there a clear second act?
It can be easy to get caught up in your first act. That's where you launch into your great concept, and you love your concept, so that's what you're most excited about.
But before you jump in and start writing, make sure that first act will fuel enough drama to push all the way through the second act.
This is where planning comes in. Try to outline before you write. If you get stuck moving into Act II, you might have fool's gold on your hands.
- Are there logic problems with the premise?
You can't ignore gaping logic holes when they apply to your premise. That will immediately destroy the audience's suspension of disbelief and wreck any hope that you have of keeping your readers hooked as they work through the script.
Here's an example of a logic hole in a premise: A school teacher loses her mind as she engages in petty warfare with her second grade class, all while running for school board president.
The irony of a crazy teacher running for school board president is too good to be true in this concept. Because you couldn't have fun with the premise without destroying either her position as a teacher or her credibility with the board. She can't lose her mind and get elected too. She can't even begin to, there are too many restrictions on teachers for you to have any fun with this premise.
Logic holes suck.
- Is your mind immediately populated with ideas for this concept?
List ten scene ideas right now.
These ideas must all be unique to your concept and characters. If they could reasonably take place in any other script, don't bother writing them down.
If you can't come up with ten right away, your story doesn't go deep enough.
- Is this what you want to write most?
We've written an article about this before, but it bears repeating. If you're not writing this script because it's what you're most passionate about, don't even think about it.
It doesn't matter what producer or agent expressed interest. If there's something you'd rather be writing, this project isn't the one. Or maybe it is, and you just need more time to let it germinate.
Don't jump into something if your heart isn't in it. That will be all too obvious in the page.
- Does the concept uniquely challenge the hero of the story and their character flaw?
A concept that uniquely challenges the protagonist of your story will be rich with theme and conflict. It will yield a story with a satisfying character arc, that couldn't be told any other way.
If your concept does not uniquely challenge your hero, re-think it. This is where all the depth of your story will come from.
It's important to remember that at its very core, concept can never really exist without a character perfectly matched to it.
- Does this concept allow for an active hero?
This is, after all, how many of us see our own existence.
But you're going to need a concept that allows for an active hero if you want to maximize your chances of writing a commercially viable script.
An Oscar nominated screenwriter once came into our screenwriting group to discuss his career, and he described a fool's gold concept he had worked on that had this exact problem.
The concept was about a hero that traveled back in time, and although he knew his own future, he had no power to change it.
It's sexy on paper, but when you get down to it, because of the inactive hero, the concept doesn't hold much water.
- Does this concept have a strong desire line built in?
If your concept allows for an active hero, that's good. Now take things a step further: Does the concept also provide that hero with a clear goal to pursue throughout the story and obstacles that stand in the way of that goal?
A strong desire line is one of the fundamental building blocks of a structurally sound screenplay. While strong movies can be written with meandering heroes, you will run into problems as you write if your concept is not inherently linked to your hero's goal.
- Do you have the skills to best execute the concept?
If you're a beginning screenwriter, jumping into a complicated, non-linear, high concept sci-fi suspense thriller for your first script might not be the best idea.
Be unforgiving with yourself. Simple ideas typically work best, especially when you're just starting out.
If you don't have the know-how to best execute your concept, let it ruminate for a little while, until you do.
- Is this compelling beyond the first act?
This is very similar to one of the previous questions, "Is there a clear second act?" But it's actually much different.
Here's the story: If you've got a really cool idea, and most of that coolness is the concept itself, you're going to run out of steam in the second act. Even if you have a clear second act in mind, if the concept can't be built upon to create an even cooler middle and end, it's not worth writing.
These 'flash in the pan' concepts are everywhere. Don't let one catch you by surprise!
What's So Bad About the Drawing Board Anyway?
It happens to everyone. It will happen to you again. It's already happened to us once in 2013.
Don't let that get you down. Putting a concept aside does not mean that it's gone forever.
Detecting conceptual fool's gold is one of the hardest skills to master as a screenwriter. It may sound odd, but it takes an incredible amount of discipline not to write a concept you know doesn't quite work.
When you think back, all you remember is how excited you were when you thought of the idea. Or how that producer you know thought it was brilliant. But none of that matters if the script is impossible to execute.
You'll save yourself a ton of time and heartache if you move on now instead of learning the hard way.
What's your experience with conceptual fool's gold? Did your concept stand up against the CQT?
Let us know in the comments!