This is going to be a quick one about screenplays, because I’m in the middle of a writing bender, a doozy, a 2-day sabbatical that turned into a 3-day frenzy because of a 4-alarm migraine. It has to do with two things that hate each other: cleverness and emotion.
The “clever” is that part of your story that made you want to write it in the first place. It’s the central hook of your plot, and it is an IDEA, and it what our old housemate Caleb Southern dismissed as “premise”.
I get “clever” in two ways: either it’s the can’t-miss idea for a story, like this true fact: “in 58 BC, a young, going-nowhere, debt-laden Julius Caesar stuck ruling a Roman garrison in rural Gaul befriends Diviciacus, a Celtic druid priest, and the two solve crime using each others’ strengths – both magical and military.” Will I ever write that script? Or pitch it? Even somewhere cheesy? Maybe not, but the fact that it could actually sorta have happened is pretty sexy.
The other “clever” is just a scene I want to see, it’s just that simple. I had a friend who used to do cocaine by dipping his house key into the glass vial and snorting it – and I kept thinking: his house in the suburbs, complete with wife and kids… there’s a shitload of cocaine inside the front door lock that they don’t know about. Translate that to a plot point in a crime drama, and you can write the rest.
Plot and clever are all a big studio cares about, but your audience actually just wants to see two people fall in love, get revenge, or find redemption. This piece I’m working on now, it’s a combination of Three Days of the Condor, The Dead Zone, and Malcolm Gladwell’s non-fiction book The Tipping Point.
But it’s really a love story between two people who don’t know each other yet, and every time I come back to that simple fact, the compass find true north again.