Most novice writers think that a concept for a story is actually the story. It is not. Sadly, many screenwriters don’t even know the difference between a story and a concept.
The concept is the eye candy. It’s the stuff you see in a trailer for a film. It’s what the audience thinks the story is about. It’s entertaining. It’s fun. It’s action-packed, scary or romantic. It’s what makes us go to the movie theater in the first place. Without a great concept, no one is going to see the movie and without a great story, no one is going to love the movie. These two elements go hand-in-hand.
Most people come up with a screenplay idea by asking the question, “Wouldn’t it be cool if ________________?” Whatever the “if” is, is usually a concept.
Let’s take a look at a few cool concepts from popular movies and see if they work as entertaining stories.
Cool Concept Example 1:
“Wouldn’t it be cool if a random person got this kind of super-hero power?” Plug in any one of the dozens of super-hero movies here. I’m sure it would be cool but there is no story there. That is just a way to get a super-hero.
Okay, they have powers. Now what happens?
Cool Concept Example 2:
“Wouldn’t it be cool if a married couple both found out that their spouse is a spy?” That’s the concept for Mr. & Mrs. Smith. That sounds like a neat idea, right? It is, but there is no story there either.
Since I’ve never been a spy or married to one (I think), I can’t really relate to that concept.
Cool Concept Example 3:
“Wouldn’t it be cool if a nobody boxer got a chance to fight the heavyweight champion of the world?” It does sound interesting but at this point all we have is two people in a boxing ring. There needs to be a story to work with this concept to make it an effective movie.
These are all great concepts to highly successful movies but they are not stories. They are not emotional. They don’t make us care about about the characters at all.
That’s what a story is for. To make the audience care about your characters enough to go on this journey with them.
Screenwriting Truth #1 – Story and Concept are two distinctly different screenplay elements that must work together.
Captain America is a story about a weak man with a big heart. As his powers grow, so does his heart. His power accentuates his goodness. He puts others in front of himself and gets chosen for a military super-soldier experiment (concept). It’s relatable because we all think that we have big hearts and with some success, we could be heroes too. We all feel weak at some point and wish we could be heroes. That is why we connect to the story.
Spider-Man (the first one with Toby Maguire in it) is about a nerdy kid who is irresponsible. He loves a girl who barely knows that he exists. He needs to become a man worthy of her love and through being bitten by a super-spider (concept) he evolves into a man who learns responsibility. This is a lesson we all had to learn in life and that makes it universal.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith is a story designed to emotionally deal with a married couple that have fallen into the monotony of work and life. They don’t have that same passion for each other that they used to. Their marriage is dying because they are lying to each other about their real jobs. This is something that anyone in a relationship can relate to. Lies destroy marriages.
We all get busy, we all let life slowly take over and beat us down and if we keep secrets from each other, it eats away at the foundation of our relationship. We get it. We feel for them. We root for them because, in essence, we are rooting for ourselves. We are them.
Rocky is about a man who has nothing and has to, literally, fight to get some respect and love. Even though he loses the fight at the end, he wins because he gets the love of Adrian. This is relatable because all we really work for in our lives is to be able to provide for the ones we love. Without their love, the winning is meaningless.
Can you see how these movies are so much more than their concepts? Each of them has a point they are making about life. Each of them deals with a very specific lesson that the protagonist has to learn. Each of them is about a character learning more about who they are and what they are capable of accomplishing.
Each of them have a concept that is interesting enough for us to pay money to go see them and each of them has an emotional story that resonates with us. The combination of these two separate items working together is what makes these movies successful. Most screenwriters don’t have both of these elements working together and that is a major reason why their screenplays don’t work.
If you enjoyed this excerpt from my book ‘The Top 10 Mistakes Novice Screenwriters Make” please join our mailing list to be notified when it is published.