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Testing Screenplay Ideas

The Screenwriting Process

Every story starts with an interesting "hook". For example: Two teenagers from different feuding families fall in love. (Romeo and Juliet)

The story is then built to illustrate a "premise". For example: Love is more powerful than the fear of death. (Again for Romeo and Juliet)

The story starts with a compelling scene as the characters are introduced, the world of the story is presented, and eventually the believable actions of the characters leads to a realistic and interesting conclusion. Every great story, and every successful movie, has followed this general outline.

Sounds easy doesn't it? Well, it's not easy for most people. You will be smart to not underestimate how much effort it takes to create a great story. And without a great story your movie is going to be a flop.

Writing great stories is both an art and a craft that takes time to learn. All the great writers of all forms of literature spent time learning how to write original stories that people would care about. I don't say that to discourage you, only to emphasize how important it is to have that great story before you start filmming.

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Learning from a good teacher is a great help. Some people have a lot more natural story telling ability than others. The fact that you are reading this web site probably means you have more interest and likely more talent at storytelling than most people.

The best way to get good is to have great feedback and not be discouraged if the feedback isn't always positive.

Secrecy Limits Your Creativity

The first mistake nearly all beginning filmmakers make is being too secretive. You may find yourself telling people that your idea is so brilliant that you don't dare tell anyone lest someone steal it.

Be honest with yourself. You're actually afraid that if you tell people what your idea is they will not like it, or even make fun of you. Well, get your courage up and start telling people the story you want to film.

The Filmmaker's Handbook is the "bible" to creating and distributing your film. The one essential book every filmmaker needs to own.

The second mistake beginning filmmakers make is to sit on an idea too long. Tell your story to people who will give you honest feedback and either improve the story, reject the idea, or get on with making a movie of the story.

Unless all your friends are screenwriter looking for ideas to steal you have nothing to fear. No one is going to steal your idea unless you sit on it forever and never write that screenplay.

Finally, you need to pick people that will really give you good feedback. Your parents are probably the worst people to ask. Their opinion will be too colored by their feelings for you to really judge your story. The ideal person to ask is someone who is a serious reader, going through a book a week or more, of the genre your story is about.

How to Test Screenplay Ideas

Write out the hook of your movie as a two sentence "log line" and run it by the friends you have chosen to give you feedback. Ideally you will have up to a dozen such ideas. Ask which of your ideas do they find the most interesting. If they saw these ideas in a movie ad which one would they go to?

Of course you want to think about all your ideas first and only pick the best to present to others. Great ideas are all around you. Just look at the headlines in the paper. The daily newspaper has at least a dozen possible ideas for a movie. If you are having a hard time coming up with ideas you might check this website for some ways of finding movie ideas.

Once you have the best possible hook for you movie you are ready to start writing a first draft treatment. The treatment is a full telling of the story, like a short story, written in prose without dialog and not in screenplay format.

The treatment is a quick, easy to read document for you to use when you pitch your idea. Start with a one page version and gradually expand it as you flesh out the characters and action. By the time you are up to 8 to 12 pages you will be ready to start writing the script.

Know Your Audience

As you develop your story be thinking about your audience. What kind of story are they wanting to see? Look back at the article about movie genres and be sure what you are creating fits into story genre that has an audience.

Don't Get Too Complicated

What kills most first independent film efforts is getting too complicated. Your script requires a cast of thousands, on an ocean liner, with children, acting animals, massive special effects, music by your favorite international pop star, etc.

Guess what? You'll never get it off the ground.

So how simple can you make a movie that could be a major success?

  • A bunch of friends hanging out at a convenience store. Clerks (1994)
  • Three people having an argument in a motel room about misunderstandings. Tape (2004)
  • Two guys chained together trying to kill each other. Saw (2001)
  • One guy driving a car and talking on his cell phone. Locke (2014)
  • One guy buried alive in a box. Buried (2010)
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That's five examples of movies made very quickly on tiny budgets that got great reviews and people went to theaters to see them. Make a film like these to start with that is a success and you will have people lining up to finance the big budget epic you have in the back of your head.

Look at the actors, equipment and locations you have available right now and build your story around those.

Do a Screenplay Reading

A screenplay reading really is a great way to test a screenplay. Once you've got a first version of your screenplay together do what they do in Hollywood. Get some friends together and do a screenplay reading. Assign parts to everyone, give them a copy of the script, make sure you have lots of beer and pizza and sit back and listen to what your story sounds like.

You'll get lots of good feedback (probably hear things you didn't want to hear) but you'll have a somewhat honest opinion from friends who also had a great time helping out and will become some of your biggest supporters as your efforts progress.

Don't Give Up

Just don't give up. You're having fun being creative. Don't let a few initial setbacks discourage you. Never, never, never give up!


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