WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

THE SECOND IDEA THEORY


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You all know about the second gunman theory in the Kennedy assassination? Well, recently I was sitting on a grassy knoll thinking about magic bullets and I realized something about screenplays - the second high concept may be more important than the first.

Second high concept?

In that darned book of mine, SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING, I say that a script needs to begin with a great big idea. A high concept. High Concept is STORY as star. The central idea of the script is exciting, fascinating, intriguing, and different. High Concept films can usually be summed up in a single sentence or a single image. In this case, "High" does not mean "High Brow" or "High Intelligence", nor does it mean something that only sounds good when you're stoned. "High" means big, exciting, larger than life. The average movie costs $106.7 million by the time it hits the screen of your cinema, which means that in order to break even, it must attract millions of people with $12 to spend. A small, personal idea may not attract the mass audience that a film requires... which is why every producer I have ever talked with is looking for a great high concept script. An idea the audience can instantly understand. An idea that intriques the audience and excites them.

Yes, there are small personal films made... usually outside the system by writer/directors who find the money to make these films on their own. If you don't want to direct and don't want to find the financing? If you just want to write screenplays? You need a great high concept idea!

Let's say our high concept idea is that scientists discover a "planet-killer" asteroid hurtling towards Earth - and we're all doomed. Okay, we can instantly see that this is a big dramatic disaster film - very exciting. So exciting that they made a whole bunch of films with this high concept! DEEP IMPACT, ARMAGEDDON, and an HBO World Premiere Movie produced by my friend Stan Isaacs THREE YEARS BEFORE the two big studio films called WITHIN THE ROCK. (Studio films frequently seem to have ideas found in B genre flicks - they just take the same story and add $20 million stars and it's a studio film.) There were actually a couple of other big-rock-slams-Earth films (TYCUS, etc.), but we'll just look at these three.

What makes each one different isn't the FIRST high concept idea, but the SECOND high concept idea.

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In DEEP IMPACT the second idea is the "survivor lottery" - there are nuke-proof caves that will hold a limited number of people, so they hold a lottery to pick who lives and who dies. The result of the lottery is that Elija Wood is picked to live, but not his parents or his girlfriend. Tea Leone is chosen to survive, but not her father or the young mother she works with. Families are torn apart. The lottery turns some people into the walking dead! You KNOW your father is going to die - you wish you could save him, you feel guilty as hell for knowing you're going to live - and there's still plenty of time to deal with all of these complicated emotions before the asteroid strikes. This is a big dramatic film like ON THE BEACH.

In ARMAGEDDON the second high concept is THE DIRTY DOZEN in outer space. They decide to send these deep core drillers in a shuttle to plant nukes on the asteroid and blow it to bits. These scruffy misfits are going to save the world. It's a macho adventure film, complete with big explosions and fist fights. The story is about the mission to blow up the asteroid.

Three years before ARMAGEDDON, the HBO flick WITHIN THE ROCK also sends deep core drillers up to nuke the asteroid... but when they drilled into this huge asteroid they uncovered an alien! This isn't an asteroid, it's an INVASION! Now they have to kill the aliens before the aliens kill them, and nuke the asteroid before it hits Earth and the aliens invade. This film is a monster movie, like ALIEN, about a group of blue collar guys trapped with warrior aliens on an asteroid.

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The second high concept is what makes each of the films different... but it's also what supplies the tone and theme for each film. DEEP IMPACT is a drama about forgiving - and the second idea is what sets up the situation so that we can explore that theme. The second idea also turns the dilm into a drama rather than a big action film like ARMAGEDDON or a horror flick like WITHIN THE ROCK. The second high concept is more important than that first high concept!

I'm also beginning to believe that the WRONG second idea - one that doesn't mesh well with the first idea - might sink your script. After you've seen A.I. come on down to the message boards to discuss the Pinocchio/Blue Fairy 2nd idea...

In SECRETS OF ACTION and my IDEA MACHINE Blue Book I say that one idea is not enough - you need hundreds of fresh original ideas to make a screenplay. But that second idea is the most important. If your script is about a life insurance salesman who is mistaken for a Mafia Don, that's a start... but what is the SECOND idea? The second idea is going to set the tone for the script, establish the theme, and give us an idea of what happens once this life insurance salesman finds himself in charge of the mob. Without that second idea, you don't have a story!

What's your SECOND big idea?

More on this in the Idea Blue Book!

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Your story is like a road trip... but where are you going? What's the best route to get there? What are the best sights to see along the way? Just as you plan a vacation instead of just jump in the car and start driving, it's a good idea to plan your story. An artist does sketches before breaking out the oils, so why shouldn't a writer do the same? This Blue Book looks at various outlining methods used by professional screenwriters like Wesley Strick, Paul Schrader, John August, and others... as well as a guest chapter on novel outlines. Plus a whole section on the Thematic Method of generating scenes and characters and other elements that will be part of your outline. The three stages of writing are: Pre-writing, Writing, and Rewriting... this book looks at that first stage and how to use it to improve your screenplays and novels.

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