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Screenwriting, Testing Ideas

You think you've got brilliant screenplay ideas ... I'm sorry ... maybe you don't!

At this point in your screenplay development you may be thinking, "I've already got a Great Idea. Let's get on with it."

Many "wanabe" filmmakers think they already have a great story idea. They can picture it perfectly in their head. Often they're reluctant to talk about it because it's such a Great Story Idea that someone would steal it.

Nine times out of ten I find that their Great Story Idea has major flaws. At the very least, their idea isn't fully developed and not ready to film.

In this section, we're going to work on how to find screenplay story ideas and how to test them for greatness. It really isn't very hard.

Testing the Great Movie Idea

The first step is to read the following two movie ideas:

A doctor is sentenced to be executed after being wrongly accused of murdering his wife. On the way to prison, he escapes and begins a desperate race to find the real murderer before a relentless police detective can capture him and return him to be executed.

An aspiring model named BJ Smith is trying to make it in Hollywood like so many other young hopefuls in Los Angeles. She works part time in a beauty shop to keep the bills paid because she is not at the point in her career to be a full-time model/actress. BJ is in pursuit of the attention of NP, so that she can possibly get signed to his popular model promotion company, NP GIRLS. She meets a guy named Uptown Joey who claims to know NP and offers a helping hand. However, this proves to be somewhat of a difficult task, as NP has ambitions and issues of his own to deal with. NP has been trying for years to befriend and work with MR ENTERTAINMENT, the industry feared television mogul who is infamous for his barbaric and gangster ways. NP becomes the center link of the story as he struggles in his relationship with his wife Lisa due to his lifestyle and the obvious fact that he manages beautiful models as an occupation. Not only does NP have his personal issues to deal with, but he also has to call on his friends Bruce and Billy to help him with an even bigger professional opportunity, threat, and responsibility.

The first one is, of course, The Fugitive and was a very exciting and successful movie.

The other was a feature length comedy from a film festival I recently attended. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Which one of these sounds like a movie you would pay money to see? The first one sounds like an exciting roller-coaster ride. The second sounds like a confused mess.

Great story ideas are almost always quite simple and straight forward.

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A word about Secrecy

Many beginning filmmakers are convinced everyone is trying to steal their great idea. Get over it. Ideas are stolen but you don't need to worry about it if you do things right.

Ideas are cheap, anyway. Everyone who's taken a shower has had a great idea.

Your idea isn't anything until it is fully developed and written into a dynamite screenplay.

Different people often come up with the similar ideas at the same time for the simple reason that we're all humans experiencing similar lives at the same time in human history.

We reads the same newspapers, watch the same shows on television and have friends going through the same crises.

Ideas can't be copyrighted until they are turned into a screenplay, or at least a full story outline. The way to protect your idea is to develop it into a killer screenplay which you can copyright.

No one in Hollywood wants to find himself or herself in a copyright lawsuit. They know it's hard work to write a good screenplay and they don't want to do it themselves or pay someone else to write your idea into a screenplay if you've already done it and they can just pay you.

It takes a lot of people to make a movie. The sooner you start getting people involved the better.

The way to know if your idea is great and ready to make into a movie is to pitch your idea to other people and see if you get a good reaction.

Get over worrying about someone stealing your screenplay story idea. First, let's find out if it really is Great, then let's turn it into a Great screenplay you can copyright so it can't be stolen.

Test your Great Story Idea

Write out your screenplay story idea on a sheet of paper in the format in the box. It should sound original, interesting and most of all it needs to evoke emotion. Try to get it down to two sentences at the most. I've provided some examples.

(This exercise is about building your "pitch". You'll need it later when you're trying to get people involved in your movie so don't skip this exercise.)

(Your story name) is a (genre) about a (description of your hero) who, after (something big happens to them), wants to (what is the solution the hero seeks?) by (what is the hero's plan?). This become increasingly difficult because (what obstacles and complications happen?).


The Fugitive is a drama about an innocent doctor who after being wrongly sentenced to be executed for killing his wife manages to escape and needs to clear himself by finding the real murderer. This becomes increasingly difficult because a determined police detective is hot on his trail.

Some Like it Hot is a comedy about two carefree, single musicians who, after witnessing a gang murder want to save themselves by dressing up as women and joining an all-girl band. This becomes increasingly difficult because they find themselves becoming romantically involved in awkward ways but don't dare reveal who they really are or risk death.

Rear Window is a thriller about a photographer who is convalescing in a wheelchair after a serious accident, who after thinking he has witnessed a murder, wants to learn the truth by investigating the suspected neighbor. This becomes increasingly difficult when the neighbor learns what he is up to and decides to silence the helpless photographer.

Now write out your idea just like these examples. Do it in your word processor and keep redoing it until it sounds as exciting as you can make it.

Test 1 Read your idea and ask yourself honestly if this really sounds as exciting as my examples. Copy my examples and paste them, along with your idea, into your word processor. Print them out on a single sheet of paper and read them all.

If my examples are different genres than your idea then pick your favorite movies from your genre and write at least two of them out in the same format. (This is good practice. Just do it.)

Does your idea really sound as simple, original and emotionally exciting as the others? If so then go to the next step.

Test 2 Now show it to a couple of good friends who like the same movies you like. Don't tell them it's your idea. Tell them it's a new movie you heard is coming out soon. Do they want to know more about it? Would they like to see it? You should be able to see them get visibly excited.

When you have passed Test 2 move on to Test 3.

Test 3 Now find some people who are not relatives or best buddies but see a lot of movies or, better yet, read a lot of novels.

Show them your idea printed out on the a sheet of paper along with the other examples. Ask them to read these descriptions and rank them by which one sounds the most interesting down to the one that sounds the least interesting. Listen honestly to their opinions and reasons.

If your idea doesn't rank well then you still haven't developed it enough, don't know how to write it out in a compelling way or it's just not a good idea.

Not everyone likes every movie idea, and some people never like a new idea no matter how good it is. You'll never get everyone excited about your idea but you should find that MOST people think it sounds genuinely interesting.

The Entertainment Business

You're trying to get into the Entertainment Business. If you can't deliver Entertainment then you're not in the Business.

When you pitch your story to someone it's bad if any of these happen:

  • They don't seem to get it
  • Their eyes glaze over
  • You have to explain it more than once
  • They think of problems with your logic
  • They mention another movie or book that sounds exactly like it

It's good if these happen:

  • They become visibly excited
  • They start offering additional ideas
  • They can imagine which big stars should play the roles
  • They ask to be kept informed of progress
  • They offer to help or finance it (a REALLY good sign!)

You may decide you don't care whether anyone else gets your idea. YOU know it's a great idea and when the film is done people will understand. Anyway, you're doing ART.

There are several problems with this kind of thinking.

  • It takes a lot of people to make a film. If you can't give an exciting pitch for your film you aren't going to be able to get a crew or actors who are excited and do a good job.
  • It's expensive to make a film. You aren't going to get financing if the film doesn't sound exciting.
  • If you can't even write a two-sentence description of your idea that sounds interesting do you honestly believe you can make a two hour feature that people will want to see.
  • Even art needs an audience.

It takes a lot of time, energy and money to shoot a film. Spend time up front perfecting your Great Idea so when you start filming your time, energy and money are well spent.

The intended audience

This is a good time to talk a bit about your intended audience. It is conventional wisdom at the studios to divide the audience into four "quadrants": males older then 25, females older than 25, males younger than 25 and females younger than 25.

A film that can appeal to all audiences is know as a four-quadrant movie and is the "holy grail" of studio filmmaking. This kind of thinking has lead to much of the bland movie making that happens today but the concept is useful.

Think about what is the age, sex and general interest patterns of people you are trying to talk to and really concentrate on a message that will be interesting to that audience.

MPAA film ratings

Another way to think about your audience is by using the MPAA film ratings. Your intended film will need to be rated and a particular rating will draw a certain audience. Therefore it is useful to know what constitutes the various ratings.

G:"General Audiences-All Ages Admitted." - This MPAA film rating is for a film which contains nothing in the way of theme, language, nudity, sex, violence, etc. which would, in the view of the Rating Board, be offensive to parents whose younger children view the film. The G rating is not a "certificate of approval," nor does it signify a children's film.

Some snippets of language may go beyond polite conversation but they are common everyday expressions. No stronger words are present in G-rated films. The violence is at a minimum. Nudity and sex scenes are not present; nor is there any drug use content.

PG:"Parental Guidance Suggested. Some Material May Not Be Suitable For Children." - This MPAA film rating is for a is a film that clearly needs to be examined or inquired into by parents before they let their children attend. The label PG plainly states that parents may consider some material unsuitable for their children, but the parent must make the decision.

Parents are warned against sending their children, unseen and without inquiry, to PG-rated movies. The theme of a PG-rated film may itself call for parental guidance. There may be some profanity in these films. There may be some violence or brief nudity. But these elements are not deemed so intense as to require that parents be strongly cautioned beyond the suggestion of parental guidance.

There is no drug use content in a PG-rated film. The PG rating, suggesting parental guidance, is thus an alert for examination of a film by parents before deciding on its viewing by their children. Obviously such a line is difficult to draw. In our pluralistic society it is not easy to make judgments without incurring some disagreement. So long as parents know they must exercise parental responsibility, the rating serves as a meaningful guide and as a warning

PG-13:"Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some Material May Be Inappropriate For Children Under 13." - PG-13 is a sterner warning to parents to determine for themselves the attendance in particular of their younger children as they might consider some material not suited for them. Parents, by the rating, are alerted to be very careful about the attendance of their under-teenage children.

A PG-13 film is one which, in the view of the Rating Board, leaps beyond the boundaries of the PG rating in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, or other contents, but does not quite fit within the restricted R category. Any drug use content will initially require at least a PG-13 rating. In effect, the PG-13 cautions parents with more stringency than usual to give special attention to this film before they allow their 12-year-olds and younger to attend.

If nudity is sexually oriented, the film will generally not be found in the PG-13 category. If violence is too rough or persistent, the film goes into the R (restricted) rating. A film's single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, shall initially require the Rating Board to issue that film at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive must lead the Rating Board to issue a film an R rating, as must even one of these words used in a sexual context.

These films can be rated less severely, however, if by a special vote, the Rating Board feels that a lesser rating would more responsibly reflect the opinion of American parents. PG-13 places larger responsibilities on parents for their children's movie-going. The voluntary rating system is not a surrogate parent, nor should it be. It cannot, and should not, insert itself in family decisions that only parents can, and should, make. Its purpose is to give prescreening advance informational warnings, so that parents can form their own judgments. PG-13 is designed to make these parental decisions easier for films between PG and R.

R:"Restricted, Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent Or Adult Guardian." - In the opinion of the Rating Board, this film definitely contains some adult material. Parents are strongly urged to find out more about this film before they allow their children to accompany them.

An R-rated film may include hard language, tough violence, nudity within sensual scenes, drug abuse or other elements or a combination of some of the above, so that parents are counseled, in advance, to take this advisory rating very seriously. Parents must find out more about an R-rated movie before they allow their teenagers to view it.

NC-17:"No One 17 And Under Admitted." - This rating declares that the Rating Board believes that this is a film that most parents will consider patently too adult for their youngsters under 17. No children will be admitted. NC-17 does not necessarily mean "obscene or pornographic" in the oft-accepted or legal meaning of those words. The Board does not and cannot mark films with those words.

These are legal terms and for courts to decide. The reasons for the application of an NC-17 rating can be violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other elements which, when present, most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children.

Time to move on

If your first idea didn't test out well don't be discouraged. Screenplay development takes time. Ideas are all around and I'm going to help you find more of them in the next section on finding ideas.

If almost everybody LOVES your idea as much as you do and you're ready to move on then skip to the section on story development.

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