One of the most important decisions screenwriters must make is WHICH PROJECT TO WRITE. Great characters and great dialogue can overcome most any obstacle -- but not a broken concept. New writers in particular often get excited about a great scene, or a great hero, then charge ahead into a story only to find themselves at a figurative dead-end. Experienced writers too make the mistake of thinking they can "write their way out" of story trouble-spots, but choosing a weak, faulty or woefully cliché concept is a problem much better fixed UP FRONT, before the first word of a new screenplay is written.
Picking the "right" concept for your next script is never easy -- it's a constantly moving target, and one that will require some serious soul-searching and a little research. The most important rule of thumb is NOT to go with the very first idea you have. It may be great. It may even be the best idea anyone has ever thought up for a script. Even then, you should WRITE IT DOWN on a list and tuck it away for a few days until you can review it with some perspective (see the post: Midnight Genius). Use these days in waiting to BRAINSTORM other ideas, and see what else spills out of you. Some ideas will suck, and some will be damn good. Other ideas might STRENGTHEN your original concept, or change it into something else entirely. That's OK-this up-front work is worth the effort, and will save you WEEKS of agony down the road when you have to start dealing with the shortfalls of your initial outline. While brainstorming, let the DAM FALL--challenge yourself to think up the WORST film you've ever heard, or to outline a storyline in a NEW GENRE, or area of difficulty for you. Brainstorming is a wonderful exercise, and a hugely important step in crafting a compelling script.
Once you've narrowed your list of likely ideas down to just a couple, consider each one carefully. You may have thought up a whole new twist on Indiana Jones-but is this really a script you want to spend the next two months or two years focusing on? This is important. In the past, I've thought up and even beat-sheeted projects for scripts that I know others would love to read-action films with exciting twists and marketable characters. But in the end, I had to ask myself: Is this really something I will ENJOY writing? Or am I drawn to this idea simply because it has commercial appeal? Sell-ability can be a consideration, but must never be the main consideration in choosing your next project. The story must ignite your passion, or else you risk losing your momentum for the project early-on. Yes --writing is fun, but it's also A LOT OF WORK. Never embark upon a project that doesn't tickle you deep down, or you'll waste time, and ultimately end up with an un-finished or uninspired screenplay.
After picking a story that EXCITES you, you need to ask yourself a few questions: First, is this a screenplay concept with enough inherent conflict to support a feature script? If not, go back to the brainstorming session. If the answer is yes, ask yourself: Is this also a project in which my main character will be allowed to substantially CHANGE? A changing hero is the backbone of any good movie, and you don't want to start into a script with a main-character that is stuck in one place. Third: Is this a concept that will work ON-SCREEN? Many times, new writers will get excited about a story that is better suited to novel or short-story writing. Close your eyes and try to VISUALIZE your movie. What do you think? Will it work as a film, or should you save this particular idea for next Spring's New Yorker submission? Finally (and perhaps most annoyingly), you need to ask yourself: Is this a concept that is right for the times?
Picking a project that is right for the times may seem counter to the "go with your gut" model for choosing your next screenplay, but filmmaking is a BUSINESS, and you don't want to spend months of your life working on a script that will NEVER GET MADE. To decide if your project is right for the times, start by asking yourself: Does this feel like a project that could play in theatres THIS YEAR and attract a modern audience. A modern-day Casablanca may sound pretty cool, but I'm not so sure that a 2008 audience will have attention span for a expatriote World War II club-owner that they did in 1942. You may need to UPDATE your concept, or cast it aside altogether if it is wholly mismatched to the contemporary market.
If you feel your concept is indeed right for the times, you now need to do a little RESEARCH. Get on IMDB, wikipedia, or other film databases, and double check that: a) a film with your EXACT concept has not been made within the last three years, and b) a film with a SIMILAR concept has not been released to the public that LOST a substantial amount of money. Surprising, step-B here is more important. Remakes are making up a greater and greater share of release schedules these days, but NO ONE wants to make a movie that reminds viewers of a recent flop. It doesn't matter if your script about a firey-skeleton biker is the freshest, coolest twist on this concept anyone has ever read-they already made Ghost Rider, and it was a disaster. Any forays into similar subject-matter will not be read, and passing out a script with obvious parallels to a box office wipe-out will make you appear amateurishly out of step with industry trends.
So, there you are -- go forth and conquer, but be sure to start your screenplay off on the right foundation. A poorly thought-out, weak or generic concept cannot be overwhelmed by good writing-it will always be there, lurking below your well-shaped characters and witty dialogue. Spend some extra time BEFORE YOU START, and you'll not only wrap up your next script sooner, but the process itself will be a far more joyful ride...