What I Used to Think: It’s easy and boring to write a simple story, but it’s much harder and more ambitious to write a big, complicated story.
- What I Now Realize: The opposite is true: Every first draft is naturally going to be big and complicated. Streamlining those events down to a simple, meaningful story is one of the hardest things to do in the world.
What I Used to Think: The more big ideas you pack into your story, the more meaningful it will be to an audience.
- What I Now Realize: The audience will be far more affected if you develop one idea powerfully than if you toss in several ideas that have no thematic connection to each other.
What I Used to Think: Don’t tell too many people about your valuable concept.
- What I Now Realize: The gatekeepers have already heard every possible concept a million times. They’re looking for a unique voice and a unique vision that can reinvigorate classic stories. If you can sell them that, then they’ll have to hire you to write it, since you can’t steal somebody’s voice and vision.
What I Used to Think: A good story idea is one that is one that has never been done before.
- What I Now Realize: If you’ve never seen a certain concept done before, it’s not because they’ve never heard it, it’s because they’ve consistently rejected it. The story ideas that buyers buy over and over are those that resonate the most with audiences. A great writer is one that can take a classic idea, infuse it with new meaning, and make people care about it in a new way.
What I Used to Think: In order to create a unique story, you need to create a never-before-seen type of hero.
- What I Now Realize: It’s hard to create a character that is unlike any other and still have that character be recognizable and relatable. A better way to create a unique story is to write about a relationship that’s never been seen onscreen before. Before Silence of the Lambs, we had seen both brilliant psychopaths and and hard-charging FBI rookies, but we hadn’t seen a story in which these two were suddenly dependent on each other. It was the uniqueness of that relationship that sold the story, more than the uniqueness of the characters themselves.
What I Used to Think: You can create a great story by throwing lots of obstacles in your hero’s path.
- What I Now Realize: Obstacles are fine, but conflicts are better. An obstacle is anything that makes a task physically difficult to do. A conflict is anything that makes a character not want to do that task. Defeating a ninja is hard to do. Defeating your brother is hard to want to do.
What I Used to Think: You should just develop and perfect one concept at a time.
- What I Now Realize: You should always be developing more than one concept, for several reasons:
- You can compare and contrast the various concepts with each other, you’ll get a much better sense of each concept’s strengths and flaws.
- It reminds you that not all stories can be all things to all people. You don’t want to be tempted to shoehorn a dozen great unrelated characters into one story. Let each one find the right story for them.
- The holy grail of writing is to finish one script and start another the next day, so you always need to be preparing the next one so that it will be ready to go.
What I Used to Think: “High concept” ideas are complicated.
- What I Now Realize: The term “high concept” has changed in meaning over the years. It used to refer to complicated, “highly conceptual” ideas, but it now it refers to the opposite: a concept that is uniquely simple. Limitless was high concept because you instantly understand the appeal of the premise: what if a pill could make you rich and powerful? In the case of Wedding Crashers, you got the unique appeal of it as soon as you heard the title. “High concept” now refers to a simple one-sentence concept that makes everybody say, “Stop right there, I love it!”
What I Used to Think: A movie should have two hours of plot.
- What I Now Realize: A two-hour movie shouldn’t have more than an hour of plot. By the halfway point, most of the unexpected external events should cease, and the rest of the movie should be driven by your hero’s uniquely volatile reaction to the events of the first half. Your concept should allow some room for friction, which will occur as your characters develop minds of their own.
What I Used to Think: When an audience watches a movie, they care about the story.
- What I Now Realize: At first, concept is king: That’s what you’re selling in your pitch, and it’s what the studio is marketing to audiences. But as soon as the lights go down, the audience loses interest in all of that, and from now on they’re only able to care about the characters. They care about the story only to the degree that it affects the well-being of the characters.