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"I wouldn't start a screenplay without a solid concept," says screenwriter/editor Jackie Pike. "Develop your concept to carry you through three acts before you start writing." Skip this step and you risk getting stuck somewhere in the second act.
Use this checklist to test and elevate your concept:
Is my idea universal?
This isn't a matter of appealing to the lowest common denominator but of touching what is shared by all of us. Is your concept about something everyone has experienced, such as the death of a beloved one, the threat to life and limb, or the weight of injustice? Will the audience respond emotionally?
Can I give my idea a unique twist?
You want to write a story about a couple of bachelors who fear commitment. This is a universal theme, but we've also seen it hundreds of times. Now give the concept a twist by having the bachelors display their party-on attitude in a unique way, and you end up with The Wedding Crashers, a fresh and successful comedy written by Steve Faber and Bob Fisher.
Is my protagonist likable? Does she elicit empathy?
Will the audience care about what happens to your protagonist? In a dark piece, like Monster, will your audience understand and empathize with your protagonist, even if they find her behavior despicable? Have you given her inner as well as outer conflicts? Will she have to grow in order to accomplish her goal?
Are the stakes high enough?
What will happen if your heroine doesn't achieve her goal? In Freaky Friday, a mother and daughter magically switch bodies and desperately search for a way to switch back. Naturally, they each detest being in the wrong body. But screenwriters Heather Hach and Leslie Dixon raised the stakes yet another notch with a plot complication. The mother, Tess, is getting married in 24 hours. If they don't switch back in time, either the daughter, Anna, will have to go through with the wedding (unthinkable!), or Tess will lose her fiancé. Elevate the excitement of your script by elevating the stakes.
Can I summarize my concept in a logline of 25 words or less?
Distilling your idea to a 25-word logline forces you to clarify what your story is about. A clear concept keeps your screenplay on track. (For more on loglines, see tip #76.)
Does my title capture the spirit of my script?
Give your script a title that fits with your logline and makes your script stand out from the pile. What's a reader more likely to pick up: The Shark or Jaws? (For more on titles, see tip #18.)
Once you've elevated your concept, pitch it to as many people as you can—your friends, your family, even strangers. If it elicits the kind of emotional response you're hoping for (laughter, chills, excitement) move on to the outlining stage. If instead you're met with polite smiles or blank stares, keep working on your concept. And don't be afraid to ditch an iffy concept altogether. The creative mind is infinitely fertile, and you'll soon come up with a new concept to test.