(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,