003 – Story and Embracing Your Concept

In this episode I talk about Story and Embracing Your Concept. I also have a guest on to explore these topics with me (I’d post his name…but you don’t know him).

If you have any scripts or movies that you love that embrace their concept, please post a comment to make the rest of the world aware of them.  Also, feel free to talk about what embracing the concept means to you.

Are there any movies you can think of that didn’t maximize their concept?

SIDENOTE:  If you happen to be a screenwriter who is also proficient at WordPress, and would be willing to exchange notes for some website assistance, please contact me.  And when I say proficient, I mean proficient.  Not…”I dabble” or “I could probably figure it out.”  Thank you in advance.)

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  • Scott Serradell

    140 downloads! Nicely done, Mike.

    So. Some impressions. I know I was one of those who initially criticized the part of your Steffan interview that veered into — shall we say “the esoteric side” — of his script, and how I felt the conversation was closed off for a time because I was not as familiar with the territory you two were exploring. I still feel that way — but understand and respect your want to continue with this feature, as it seems one of the primary ones for starting in your podcast in the first place: To delve into the choices the writer makes.

    I think the key (and perhaps a solution) is in one word: Orientation. That you are now providing the scripts ahead of time certainly helps — but is there a way for you, the interviewer, to set up a bit of background in the question beforehand?

    Or perhaps: When the occasion arises is there a way to frame the question as such that is both specific to the screenplay you are featuring AS WELL AS in general screenwriting problems? As an example: If when asking Steffan about a such-and-such motivation from Odysseus … Could that also be tied into questions as: Is that a choice the main character would make? Or the hero? Or if Odysseus is neither of these things, why is he making these decisions?

    (I hope to Christ I’m making sense here. If not, I’ll work on it…) But you never know: We could all be wrong with our criticisms! What you are trying to do could really work out. But also: What you are striving for is difficult, and it make just take some time.

    I personally struggle with “concept”. On one level I kind of get it, on another I’m suspicious of it, because I don’t believe a writer needs a concept to write a story. To SELL a story — to producers, to studios — is another thing entirely, and at that point, yeah, you probably need a concept to whet their appetites. But a far-reaching glance into the history of storytelling and literature will tell you: No, a writer doesn’t need a concept to make a story (and there’s an idea for a future cast for you to chew on: “Writing Vs. Screenwriting”)

    Would have liked to have heard more about “Leon: The Professional” being a concept. For some reason that doesn’t ring right to me…

    Piece of advice: When having a discussion with someone (who happens to be a good friend) about movies, perhaps think of some key points to go over beforehand and stay within those parameters. Because — honestly — your focus died, and though it wasn’t incoherent, it felt like rambling (e.g. like you weren’t prepared.) Just my opinion.

    And the movie — “Behind the Mask” — sounds a lot like the French film “Man Bites Dog”, where a documentary film crew follows a serial killer. I’m not sure, but your descriptions of the former kept popping up memories of the latter.

    But an enjoyable show overall. But I would say — like your praise of Alison and “Log” — don’t be afraid to really dive deep. I really wanted to hear more on “Fight Club”, as a concept, and how the decisions by the screenwriter (or the book’s writer?) propelled the narrative while staying true to the world of the story. Were they good? Did they work? Was there something better? (And that “greasy film” over the movie, I really believe, is somehow from the book, as the writer lived in Portland when he wrote it. I will tell you: That’s EXACTLY how much of this place is. Charming, no?)

    Really looking forward to next week! I’m sure it’ll be great.

    • Behind the Mask is an ok film. Interesting premise, an ok execution. I guess the director didn’t really have a vision.

      The most interesting part is that its script development was documented on a kinda interesting documentary on four struggling screenwriters. The guy was the only one who got his script sold and made.

    • Linkthis83

      Wow. Lots of great feedback here. Not sure in what order I should respond…Since concept was the topic of the show, I will start there.

      You are absolutely right. You don’t need a concept to write a story. I was exploring this from the other perspective: If you have a concept, you don’t have a story – you have an idea. And I’m advocating for the pushing of that idea in order to extract the most impactful story from it. And in order to do that, you must…embrace your concept. By embracing your concept you’ll also maximize your intention.

      I’ve read a lot of scripts where it felt like the writer was so excited by their idea that they wanted to get it out there as soon as possible. Thus the story is less effective. So then us readers of this script will give the note “This is a great idea/concept, but I’m not invested in the story.”

      And my apologies if I didn’t make it clear that I was exploring concept from this perspective. I know I said just because you have a concept doesn’t mean you have a story, but I probably conveyed that as the angle of exploration poorly. But it is also why I brought up my own experience with a concept I had but didn’t start it until I had the story — or at least a way into the story.

      —The framing of the situation before the question is a great suggestion…or ‘orientation’ as you put it. I know with Steffan specifically, I was fully aware that I was going over on time and really wanted to get to that stuff. I don’t think if I had plenty of time that I would’ve set up those questions, but the only thing on my mind at that point was covering what I wanted because of time.

      —I really hope this new interview format will be a solution for all. So people can bail if they have no interest in the specifics of someone’s script and listening to them talk about it. If they only listen to 85% of the show, then I will take the 85%.

      —LEON as a concept would be if someone pitched the idea “What if a hit man had to care for a 12 year old girl?” — there’s no story there, but an idea.

      —As for MAN BITES DOG, I just read an interview with the writer of BTM and he admitted that he’s tired of that comparison. He totally understands it, but the stories exist in two completely different story worlds. His movie is about a documentary crew taking place in a slash movie universe. Not the real world. If I’m him, I completely get his frustration. That people don’t make that distinction in the comparison.

      —About ‘diving in’, it wasn’t that I was afraid to do so, but that wasn’t what this particular show was about. I felt I wanted to provide/discuss more examples of where story maximized concept because the concept was embraced. Which is more surface level in order to cover more concepts.

      Had I dove into FIGHT CLUB at the level you would’ve preferred, then that would’ve been a different show than I intended for this episode — at least I think so anyway 🙂

      —All of your comment is valid and helpful. This I cannot deny. I’m pretty much learning that after every time I finish one of these things, I discover much more I wish I would’ve said. Not sure how to fix that yet.

      —And…you know I’m new at this and admittedly no expert…right? LOL. This type of feedback is invaluable. Thanks, man.

  • Marija ZombiGirl

    “It’s not because you have a concept that you have a story.”

    Yes. This. So much this. And that is the first thing you discover when you start developing an idea: Is there a story in there? I think some writers don’t spend enough time finding the story before they start writing. And while I do believe that we shouldn’t slavishly follow rules, I do believe that some things can’t be ignored such as character motivation which basically drives the whole story. It’s easy enough to come up with situations and action but if it doesn’t fit the characters, it feels unreal or like a string of pearls without the string.

    It’s the end of the day for me, I’m tired from writing so I don’t really have a lot to say and also starting to feel a little burned out from this whole scriptwriting thing. Sorry if it sounds like I’m just ranting or rambling 🙂

    Signing off, looking forward to what’s next 🙂

    • Linkthis83

      Thanks, MZG.

      I should’ve done a better job of communicating that even though a concept does not equal story, it doesn’t mean you can’t start writing something in order to discover a path into the story.

      • Marija ZombiGirl

        Oh, that’s just basic Screenwriting 101 knowledge 🙂 I mean, it seems obvious. Still, not all ideas make a story, some fall flat on their face when you start digging. I mention “digging” a lot – I wholeheartedly agree with what you do yourself which is to ask questions. Nothing should be left unanswered. It takes time, yes, but the writing itself is so much easier…

  • grendl

    First off, ( and don’t worry I have nothing mean to say, it was a decent episode) Dreams on Spec should be required viewing for anyone who wants to pursue the screenwriting grail.

    Three very decent people trying to break into a business inundated with similar individuals. Maybe they were talented, it was hard to tell without reading their work. Behind the Masks director came across as a bit of a pretentious bro, not exactly an Alfred Hitchcock or John Carpenter.

    The writer who visits the writing guru was interesting. Especially when he was at dinner with his wife telling her he had the most recent draft in a line of what was probably twenty drafts for her to read, and her priceless reaction that every writer has gotten from a spouse, utter indifference and just a tinge of abject disgust.

    The female writer who talked to her friends about getting Adrien Brody to read it, along with the woman who was begging a contact to give the script to her father, ostensibly some producer or manager, was a touching plot.

    Her emotional lows are common amongst anyone trying to break into a business so utterly indifferent to their plight and so rigidly affixed to the system of cronyism that exists. These writers, like the teen campers at Crystal Lake never stood a chance.

    Even the writer who did make Behind the Mask did very little afterward, and the movie probably didn’t even break even.

    It’s a cautionary tale, and one that Script Shadowers should heed. It’s not an easy road. Disney has taught them that anything their heart desires and their dreams come true. More often than not they don’t.

    Which makes the ones that do all the more special. Those who succeed were able to weather those emotional storms, and endure the never ending stretches through the doldrums. Many made the necessary connections to get their work seriously considered and therein lies the factor Carson and other gurus seem to undersell. Knowing the right people.

    Dreams on Spec shows what happens when you don’t. Not that the scripts of the three involved were the next Pulp Fiction, but there may have been some undiscovered, undeveloped talent there that ultimately remained buried.

    So I hope this site attracts newbies, but I also hope it has a realistic attitude towards their collective hopes and dreams. And pulls no punches where it comes to honest assessments of their work. It may placate ones ego , but candy coated criticism is really useless.

    Not to say all criticisms are valid. They’re not. But consensus can be a determining factor as to their validity.

    Carry on.

    • Linkthis83

      Both the writer and the director of BTM haven’t really done much – at least their credits wouldn’t indicate that, but being successful creatively doesn’t mean credits in the business.

      I wanted to see BTM because of the struggle of the writer to bring on the director as a co-writer. I wanted to see what became of the writer’s vision, but wanted to see what influence the director had. As one opinion, I love the movie and I’m glad that had no studio involvement and got to make the movie they wanted.

      There are many lessons that can be learned from DREAMS ON SPEC and the guys involved in BTM.

      That movie is now 10 years old and has a cult status and following. It will be getting an updated 10th anniversary blu-ray that will be available in the fall. They just completed an Indiegogo to get funding for a prequel comic book series.

      One of the reasons they are going this route is because their movie performance is considered “toxic” even though they only had a limited release and no advertising. But Hollywood won’t touch their prequel script. So they are creating their own opportunity to build an audience for it.

      The writer is also directing a short based in the BTM universe.

      If I were cynical, I would call these guys a one-trick pony, but I’m not, so I won’t. I love that they are keeping after it. And the movie/story has actual fans. They even had screenings of the movie at the most recent SXSW. It’s got a following, just not enough for the business standards of Hollywood. I don’t know these guys as people, but I love and respect their pursuit.

      • grendl

        I agree. Being creatively successful doesn’t necessarily mean credits in the business.

        Try explaining that to my detractors though.

  • grendl

    Now with regard to concept…

    There are two thing going on with most movies. The human story, the emotional throughline which we latch onto that everyone can empathize with, and the strange attractor, the glitzy new angle you can put on a poster to lure the rubes into the carnival tent.

    The shark in Jaws was that strange attractor. The human story was one as old as time. The schoolyard bully picking on some poor schmuck.

    That human story works in nearly every single story ever written. The underdog who has to muster courage to stand up to whatever forces are keeping their lives out of balance. And what makes an audience connect with that is not just the external forces, like a great white shark, or a Mayor and business community pressuring you to keep the beaches open July 4th, but the internal emotional weakness or flaws one must first overcome in order to finally pop that can of spinach open and unleash some cinematic whupass.

    And that internal flaw is fear. Fear is what audiences connect with. It is something they recognize because they themselves have been bullied in their lives, and can see in the plight of Martin Brody their own struggles.

    Now an example of having a concept WITHOUT the human story is League of Extraordinary Ineptitude…er Men, starring Sean Connery as a fearless know it all teamed up with a bunch of one dimensional cartoon characters. Nothing to latch onto emotionally on screen. No humanity present. All spectacle, posturing, pyrotechnics. Full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

    It wouldn’t have mattered how hard the writers tried to embrace that concept, the fact that there was no underlying human fear, no consequence made it impossible to give a damn about anything that was happening onscreen.

    Writing a story requires putting personal fears and hopes into it, albeit dressed in the Halloween costume of fiction. The eyes beneath the mask must be human for us to care. And what we see churned out by soulless studio execs are these quilt work movies without unity of vision. No heart, no intellect, just a checklist of what they deem necessary elements in a blockbuster film.

    There was nothing for us to match onto in a movie like Cowboys Vs. Aliens . Nothing human.

    I’ll expound if I feel like it…

  • Levres de Sang

    I haven’t finished listening to the Steffan show, but thought I’d respond (before I forget) to your request at the beginning of this show… YES, I enjoy the deep-dive / scene specific / authorial intention stuff!

    N.b. It’s what I’ve missed about SS conversation over the last 18 months or so (too much box office and chitchat for my personal taste).

    • Linkthis83

      Amen! It’s what I’ve missed about SS as well and why I wanted this space.

    • grendl

      I think getting into the nuts and bolts of screenplays is what’s missing from Safe Shadow as well.

      I also think it’s important to note at what precise moment a reader gives up on a script. If it’s at the logline , the first page, the premise, page 10, 30 or at FADE OUT.

      Pro readers will bail on a script if they don’t feel like it’s in the hands of a capable pilot. Blog runners will often read to the very end out of a sense of obligation to the writer.

      From what I read of Log, Alison is a capable writer, but I got the story after twenty pages. And wasn’t compelled to read to the end.

      She embraced her concept certainly but the problem was one of emotional connection. Tonally the story was erratic, cringe inducing at times, funny at others. It’ll make for a good midnight movie, probably but isn’t going to earn anyone Oscars. Maybe a Green Peace lawsuit.

      Incidentally 18 months is about as long as my banishment from the site. Coincidence????

      Maybe this could be a better forum for screenplay discussion, bereft the autobiographical testimonials of the basket cases who have hijacked Carsons site.

      Just a wish.

      • Levres de Sang

        Mike’s off to a really promising start here — and while for now it’s a bit like a quieter, alternative universe Scriptshadow — I hope (as you say) there’s enough of a desire to get into the “nuts and bolts of screenplays”.

        — “Maybe this could be a better forum for screenplay discussion, bereft the autobiographical testimonials of the basket cases who have hijacked Carsons site.”

        I had to laugh, but sadly I also agree.