Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What Makes for a Great Idea?

(Erik Bork, Emmy-winning writer for his work on BAND OF BROTHERS, contributes today's blog. Erik is speaking at the upcoming Screenwriting Expo.)

To my mind, there are four things a concept has to have for it to really work.

The first is, it has to be COMPELLING. By that I mean that we have to CARE about the character(s) and situation — to be emotionally involved, and to stay involved. We want to see what’s going to happen, and how it’s all going to play out. I think this is my first job as a writer — to (fairly quickly) present something that makes the reader/audience care — and to keep them caring. I don’t just mean make them interested or intrigued. I mean hook them, with something they can relate to on a human, emotional level.

Having your main character “save the cat” at the beginning can certainly be part of this: doing something that makes us think positively of them. But I’m not just talking about “rootability.” I’m talking about a problem that sets the story in motion that seems important and makes us care. It’s important to the character, and because we’re seeing things through their eyes, it’s becoming important to us. It matters. There is great conflict and we want to see how that’s going to resolve — and we are identifying with a specific person (or people) we feel a real emotional connection with.

How often do you read or watch something and put it down because you just “don’t care about these people and their situation”? It’s not big enough, important enough, relatable enough, and you don’t buy into them — it doesn’t MATTER to you whether they resolve whatever it is. Part of it could be you don’t like them (and they need to “save the cat”), but it’s often also about the nature of their situation. It doesn’t grab you. You’re not compelled to see what will happen.

Secondly, a really good story has to ENTERTAIN. That should be obvious, right? But plenty of situations that might meet these other criteria for compelling us emotionally don’t “entertain” us. What I mean by that is that they don’t make us FEEL MORE ALIVE in some way that makes them enjoyable to watch or read. Take THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS. I totally care about that character, but I’m not entertained by his situation. It’s a well-done movie, with good escalating conflict, and I’m somewhat moved at the couple of moments of victory that come, but they feel like too little, too late. It’s not the kind of story that becomes a smash hit (or gets a writer’s career started), in my opinion, because it doesn’t make the audience feel more alive — more amused, scared, excited, and/or truly fascinated. Compare this movie to I AM LEGEND or MEN IN BLACK, for example. They may not be as emotionally compelling, but boy, do they entertain.

Then there’s BELIEVABILITY. No matter how fantastic the premise might be, once we understand the “rules” (which should happen clearly and quickly), we must then feel that we’re watching recognizable human behavior. Every character at all times should behave in ways that seem real, given the situation. When they don’t, it seems like a contrivance the writer came up with to try to compel or entertain us — and it doesn’t work. We can’t care about or be entertained by something we don’t believe would really happen. This happens a lot in comedy — when characters do over-the-top things that may seem funny or silly, but in the context of a story, we don’t buy it, and so aren’t entertained by it. I think the best comedy (and every other genre) comes from identifiable and relatable human behavior, from characters who really care about something — like in EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND or FRASIER. No matter how exaggerated a character may be, once we accept their basic personality, everything they do has to be something we believe they’d do. I can’t tell you how often something I’m reading stops working for me (or never starts) because I don’t understand why a character is doing or saying something, and don’t really believe they would.

Finally, a great concept is UNIQUE. It’s fresh in some way. It probably has its roots in something familiar that has worked in the past, but it has its own new twist or point-of-view that makes it seem like something we’ve never quite seen before. Granted, there are plenty of things that get produced and published that don’t seem all that unique. If they are compelling, entertaining, and believable, that can be enough. But for something to really be great, to be hugely successful, to the point where it could get an unknown writer the beginnings of a career, for example, this freshness can be the final key ingredient.
Almost every aspect I’d ever critique about any story comes down to one (or more) of these four aspects. I think it’s true for what people would critique about my work as well.

And it’s not just about story concepts: ideally, EVERY SCENE should also be compelling, entertaining, believable, and unique — in some way. When the scenes, the story, and the basic concept all pass this high standard, then you really have something.

Please feel free to contact me with feedback or questions!

Wishing you all the best,

Erik Bork

Sunday, October 4, 2009


This past Friday the legendary television series, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, celebrated its 50th anniversary. An extraordinary conversation with series creator Rod Serling and a group of students is available on youtube. Here's the final part of that lecture series to inspire us all.

Tales from the Script (Trailer)


Billy Wilder and I.A.L. "Iz" Diamond had an amazing streak of brilliant screenplays during their many years of collaboration. Below is rare footage of them at work:

Tales from the Script

(This interview comes from Michael at Script-A-Wish. Michael is an industry-respected script consultant who gives great notes and you can read more about his services at

1. Tales from the Script is the title for both a film you've directed and a book you've written with Paul Robert Herman. What was the genesis of Tales from the Script, and what came first, the book or the film?

I've been writing articles and essays about screenwriting for many years -- in fact, my first book was a study of the legendary blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo -- so writing about this subject has always been an important part of my professional life. In addition to being a student of the history of screenwriting, I'm also a screenwriter. The impetus for this particular project was crossing paths with Paul, because he had the idea for a book about the rejection screenwriters face. That specific take on the subject got things started, and from the beginning the plan was to do the book and the movie simultaneously. Over the course of the next three years, the project evolved into a broader discussion of the lives of screenwriters, because my feeling was that if I only got into a room with people like Bill Goldman and Paul Schrader once, I wanted to explore a variety of topics. The conversations conducted for this project touch on rejection, but also explore a great many other subjects. The interviews reveal nearly every experience that a writer can have while working in Hollywood, so I like to think of the book and the film as records of the greatest screenwriting panel discussion imaginable.

2. The book is scheduled to come out next January. What kind of release will the film get?

The plan is for a DVD release at the same time as the book's publication. In the meantime, more festival screenings are planned for the fall, and a major screening in LA will take place on August 5 at the Egyptian Theatre, with a number of cast members in attendance.

3. What kind of response is the film getting from writers?

One of the most gratifying experiences I've had on the festival circuit occurred at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January. After a screening, two young men approached me and explained that they were struggling screenwriters. They said that the movie told them exactly what they needed to hear about the obstacles they would face and the rewards awaiting them if they found success. More recently, I showed the film at the Writers Guild in Los Angeles, and a writer said the movie lifted his spirits after a particularly disappointing rejection -- because he realized that everyone takes the same hits, even the superstars. I've heard reactions like this again and again from beginners and professionals, and I'm very proud of that. Writers feel the movie gives a true and complete picture of what it means to be a Hollywood screenwriter. As a storyteller, of course I'm also thrilled that people find the movie so entertaining -- nothing makes me feel better than listening to an audience laugh while they watch the film. I think audiences, including writers and non-writers alike, are pleasantly surprised by how much they enjoy meeting the colorful personalities featured in the documentary.

4. What do you find to be the common element in all these successful writers?

Without question, the most important thing a Hollywood screenwriter brings to the table is tenacity. You have to believe in yourself and your talent in order to struggle through early rejection, you need confidence to pitch, and you must wholeheartedly believe that your screenplays are the best scripts on the market -- or else why bother? And then when you actually achieve success, your troubles really begin -- because the compromises that are expected of screenwriters are greater than those expected of any other writers in the world. Nobody tells a novelist to change the gender of a protagonist because such-and-such actor might be available, and nobody tells a playwright to chop the second act in half because the budget got cut. Talent, luck, and a good personality can get a writer in the door of Hollywood, but tenacity -- in terms of keeping a positive attitude while enduring abuse -- is crucial for generating any sort of career longevity. One of my goals with this project was to move past the topic most screenwriting books explore -- how to write a script that sells -- and talk about the things writers need to understand if they want their careers to last.

5. At Script A Wish, some of our notes often revolve around explaining the differences between what spec writers have to deliver in a screenplay to get their foot in the door versus what a writer with a track record can get away with, both in terms of technical aspects and conceptually. In other words, Joe Schmoe trying to make a first impression doesn't have the same leeway that a Shane Black or William Goldman might get. What are your thoughts on the major differences between the spec writer and the writer with representation and credits?

This is a bit of a trick question, because the two writers you mention have idiosyncratic styles. Their marketability is based on the uniqueness of their voices. And as we all have seen with the success of Charlie Kaufman and Diablo Cody, writers whose work doesn't sound like anyone else's work can always blaze a path. But the fact is that most writers in Hollywood are artisans rather than artists, because most of the screenplays that actually become movies have been written and rewritten by many different people, only some of whom receive screen credit. So here's where this is a trick question -- new writers have to be as unique as they can be in order to get noticed, but once they start working, their writing will inevitably become homogenized. In other words, Joe Schmoe has even more leeway than an established writer to try things that are out of the ordinary. Therefore writers should embrace their uniqueness when they're trying to get on the Hollywood map -- the scripts that get noticed are the ones that catch people by surprise, like Kaufman's "Being John Malkovich" and Cody's "Juno." In my own script-consulting work, I discourage writers from trying to follow Hollywood formulas too closely. Yes, any script presented to Hollywood needs to have three acts and contain certain familiar dramatic elements, such as a protagonist who undergoes a personal change. But if you try too hard to make your script a carbon-copy of other scripts, you will miss out on your greatest opportunity, which is to show people why your storytelling is so unique that you should be paid for your work. That's why I'm wary of offering notes that scare writers into approaching their work too conservatively. A writer named Michael January said it best in his interview: "Hollywood lives and dies on something that seems new and original, but is very much like something that made money before." A great case in point is "The Hangover," which is like a mash-up of "Wedding Crashers" and "After Hours." It's new and familiar at the same time.

6. I definitely agree that a unique voice and a fresh take on an old formula tale is valued. I guess what I'm getting at is the necessity of a relatively high concept idea since an aspiring writer without representation probably doesn't have attached talent or literary property. Would you agree that this is a significance difference between the aspiring writer and the established writer?

Everybody in Hollywood is hoping for a great high-concept idea, whether the writer in question is a beginner or a veteran, because ideas are the engines that drive the business. A great idea is the seed that survives the rewriting process, it's the concept that lures talent attachments, and it's the basis for the marketing campaign. Case in point? Larry Cohen, one of the participants in the project, has been writing for film and television since the 1950s, but the biggest splash he made in recent memory was for "Phone Booth," which was about as high-concept as it gets. So the idea that writers have to come up with great ideas at the beginning of their careers, and then get to write more esoteric stories once they become established, just isn't realistic. I think where your perception may be coming from is the fact that a lot of writers get on the map by writing an original script with a big idea, then shift into for-hire work on adaptations, etc. In essence that first spec is like a calling card that gets the writer the job of writing studio projects that are already in development. So while it's true that new writers can get noticed more quickly if they generate great commercial ideas, it's equally true that established writers are pursuing the same goal. Another factor to remember is that every screenwriter in Hollywood has written wonderful scripts that never got made. A writer's list of produced credits doesn't tell the whole story about his or her career.

7. Did the writers make any comments about mistakes that beginners make?

Absolutely. Many of the writers lamented that reading screenplays can be torture, even when the scripts are written by professionals -- because screenplays are all about forward momentum. As Goldman says in the movie and in his many brilliant books, “Screenplays are structure.” So nearly every one of the writers in this project encouraged beginners to be as ruthless as possible when editing screenplays. If you’ve written a character description that takes six lines, see if you can get it down to three. If you’ve written a monologue that takes half a page, see if you can get it down to a quarter of a page. If a block of screen direction looks dense, see if you can replace certain sentences with evocative fragments. Even though everyone in Hollywood genuinely wants to find the next great screenplay, everyone in Hollywood dreads opening a new script because it’s much more likely to be overwritten and unfocused. Professionals interviewed for this project repeatedly made the point that a screenplay is not a novel, so if you’re a writer who likes to play with long, prosaic descriptions, then you might be happier writing books. The idea of a script is to create mental images in as few words as possible so that the reader can envision the movie you’ve written -- and part of that challenge involves writing so efficiently that the script can be read quickly. If it takes more than an hour to read your feature-film script, then you’ve probably overwritten. I can’t tell you how many of the pros interviewed for this project said that their early scripts had way too much description, on-the-nose dialogue, etc.

8. How long did it take the average writer to break in?

The old rule of thumb that it takes ten years to begin a Hollywood career provides a good average, but the clock doesn't really start ticking until you're in Hollywood and trying to get meetings. It's almost impossible to break into Hollywood without living here. For instance I tried to write scripts for years living outside of LA, during which time I only picked up a couple of small jobs. But now that I've been in LA for six years, I've been hired to write a pilot, I've had an original optioned, and I co-wrote an indie feature that got made (but not released). So if you've been in Hollywood for ten years and nothing's clicking, then the universe is probably trying to tell you something. Just remember that luck is such a key factor that if you don't make it, that doesn't necessarily mean you're a bad writer. A number of the participants in this project talked about talented friends who haven't become successful, even with powerful and established screenwriters introducing them to Hollywood players. As William Goldman says in the movie and the book, "It's a crapshoot."

9. Screenwriters today are increasingly coming from a film school background as opposed to a literary background. What are your thoughts on film schools and what affect if any does this have on American film as a whole?

The impact of film schools was felt most profoundly in the late 60s and early 70s, when the so-called "movie brats" -- Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, etc. -- attacked Hollywood armed with film-school educations and an academic understanding of not only Hollywood storytelling but the possibilities presented by ideas found in foreign films. And in fact my second book, "The Cinema of Generation X," explored the next wave of filmmakers -- Rodriguez, Soderbergh, Tarantino, etc. -- who were the first generation of filmmakers to enter the business after the introduction of movies on video. Being able to dissect films at home, thereby teaching oneself lessons about structure and narrative, had an immeasurable impact on Hollywood, because Gen-X filmmakers work almost exclusively in postmodern narrative -- movies about movies, if not literally than at least on a textural basis. In terms of where we are now, the next wave will be DIY filmmakers who grew up with DV cameras and YouTube. We're only just seeking the first inklings of what that does to narrative, in films like "Cloverfield." Ron Shelton, the writer-director of "Bull Durham," made an interesting remark during his interview -- he said that story is what matters, no matter the means by which the story is delivered. So I guess the adventure right now is waiting for the next change to take hold so that we understand how cinema storytelling will evolve.

10. Are most of the writers you interviewed in Hollywood for life, or is it possible to have a writing career outside of Tinseltown?

For most writers, living in Hollywood for at least a few years during the career-development phase is unavoidable. William Goldman was already established as a novelist when he got hired for his first movie job, so circumstances never forced him to relocate from New York to Los Angeles -- but keep in mind his career began in the 1960s, when the business was a lot smaller. Now, with the business as corporate and impersonal as it is, it's incumbent on any serious wannabe to live in LA long enough to develop a network of relationships. Once a writer gets a reputation as a moneymaker, by having written several successful films, he or she can set up shot wherever. But to begin the career, you have to live in LA unless you're already established as a brand name elsewhere -- if you're a political journalist in Washington, for instance, you might get away with selling a political script long-distance.

11. Do the pros have any thoughts or advice on writer's block?

Professionals don't have the luxury of writer's block, because they have deadlines. Plus, more often than not, professionals already have something on which to build -- a novel they're adapting, an original movie to which they're writing a sequel, a comic book that's being turned into a movie, etc. Even on original projects, professionals usually have an elaborate pitch that triggered a deal with a studio. Generally speaking, the only time professional screenwriters work on purely original spec scripts is when they're on strike, because paying work isn't available. I think the reason is that screenwriting careers can be very short for a lot of people, so once writers start working, they tend to shelve original projects for the days when paying jobs appear with less frequency.

12. Based on the trailer, disappointment and rejection seems to be a theme for many of the writers. Did you come away with any insight on how to deal with this?

There's no question that Hollywood writers are by and large an embittered population, because even though many of them are paid well, their work is not treated with the same respect afforded to the creations of novelists and playwrights. Therefore the new writer needs to understand what he or she is getting into before attempting a Hollywood career. If you're an individualist who doesn't like people changing your work, then Hollywood is not for you -- you're better off making indie movies where you can be the director and/or the producer. But if you like collaborating, and you want to help directors and producers realize their visions, then you're perfect for Hollywood. In general, the most successful writers I met during this project have all tried to claim some sort of autonomy for themselves in order to compensate for the abuse they suffer as writers for hire. Many become directors, many become producers, and many write books. Nobody avoids getting rewritten. Nobody.

13. What is the most important lesson they have for aspiring writers?

In addition to the lesson of tenacity, the writers want beginners to understand that what happens in the film business isn't personal. If an agent decides not to represent you, or an actor decides not to appear in your movie, or a studio decides not to purchase your script -- it's not personal. Movies get made because they fit the current needs of the marketplace, and the marketplace changes constantly. That's where luck comes in. If you present the right script to the right person at the right time, you can succeed. The only thing writers can control is the quality of their scripts, so remember the old saying: When in doubt, rewrite. And another thing the writers mentioned was the importance of having a network of trusted readers -- those people who review your work and give honest reactions, instead of simply saying that the work is wonderful. But many of the more optimistic writers, such as Adam Rifkin, made a point of reminding beginners that every time someone finishes a new script, he or she has created a new opportunity. In other words, keep at it until you either succeed or lose your enthusiasm.

The official site for Tales from the Script is, and Peter Hanson’s site is