The Idea is a book that could save screenwriters weeks, months or even years of time wasted on projects that will never make it to the screen. Erik Bork points out that readers, agents and producers are “…severely underwhelmed by more than 99 percent of what they receive.”
What they are looking for is “a great idea that’s well executed – one that grabs them emotionally, holds their attention, and powerfully entertains them.”
Erik Bork is the winner of two Emmys and two Golden Globe Awards. He wrote for Band of Brothers (executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks), From the Earth to the Moon and has written screenplays on assignment for Universal Pictures, HBO, TNT, Playtone and Imagine Entertainment. He teaches the Extension’s Writers’ Program at UCLA and the MFA in Professional Screenwriting at National University. In other words, he knows his stuff.
Rather than tell writers to go away and come up with a great idea, he explains how this is done. The idea, he says, comes down to five questions.
- Whose story is it, and why should we identify with them?
- What do they want in their life circumstances and relationships?
- What’s in the way of them achieving that?
- What are they doing to try to resolve this? What makes it so hard?
- Why does it matter deeply to them, and hopefully to us?
Most books on screenwriting don’t spend a lot of time on the idea. They concentrate on story structure, character, the writing process and the “business”. Erik Bork suggested that 60% of what makes a project potentially successful is the core idea. 30% can be defined as structural choices, and only 10% of the script’s success is due to the words on the page.
Using the acronym, PROBLEM, Bork sets out the underlying principles of a great idea. It must be Punishing, Relatable, Original, Believable, Life-Altering, Entertaining and Meaningful. He devotes a chapter to each of these concepts, and argues convincingly that ideas that lack these concepts will fail. Or, at least they will fail to appeal to a large American audience.
Erik Bork states, “…the number one piece of advice I now give to writers is this: get serious objective feedback on the idea before you launch into structuring or outlining – let alone writing the script.”
The idea should be captured in the logline, bearing in mind that “…99 percent of the time they (readers, agents, producers etc) can tell from the logline that they don’t want to read further.”
Erik Bork suggests a good logline should include three elements – a quick sense of who the main character is, the catalyst that launches the story, and the nature of the challenge the main character now must face.
I have to respectfully disagree with one of these elements. Sometimes, there is no room in a logline to include the catalyst that launches the story (the inciting incident). In this case, they just include the protagonist, the problem and very often, a twist.
More Screenwriting Tips
The focus of the book is the idea, a concept Bork quite rightly suggests is undervalued in other screenwriting manuals. However, he also sprinkles other worthwhile tips throughout the text. For example:
“Many stories get tripped up because the problem just isn’t hard enough.”
“Stories are not about intellectual interesting things (although that might be a side element). They are about emotionally impactful things.”
“…beginning writers tend to obsess too much about character arcs and flaws, and work too hard to give the main character too much room for growth, to the point where they start the movie rather unsympathetically.”
“Industry buyers, writers’ representatives, and audiences don’t value “newness” quite as highly as writers or critics.”
“Simple stories tend to work better than complicated ones, because there is only so much information a writer can download to a reader in an effective fashion.”
“Do not give characters freedom – hem them in.”
“… something really big should be at stake… half of the produced/published stories out there have lives threatened and/or taken as the main problem of the story and the primary thing that the main character is trying to stop, prevent, or get justice for.”
“The greatest, meatiest, and most memorable stories say something, somehow, about deeper concepts that resonate with people in a significant way.”
On this last point, Erik Bork suggests that writers should ask themselves why they are writing a story. What does the story mean to them? Here, he is in general agreement with Yves Lavandier. In Constructing a Story, Lavandier suggests writers should begin with the general intention – the meaning they want to communicate through the story – and write this down before considering the idea, logline, structure etc.
In a very readable and entertaining work, Erik Bork has introduced the centrality and importance of the idea, shown readers how to create and confirm the value of their idea, and how to save time by not working on projects that could be doomed from the outset by a weak idea.