May 02, 2013

Test Your Idea

The first idea I had had for an original film script was when I was seventeen. I am yet to develop that idea into a screenplay. In the years that followed, innumerable concepts fascinated me, and I thought I was going to be one of the greatest film writers, versatile and universally loved.

Today, I understand that most of those ideas can not be made into commercially viable films aspiring to find an audience. And several of those which fascinated me are not good ideas at all. Storytelling in cinema is different from writing a novel or a play or a nostalgic memoir of a distant past. Storytelling in cinema is different from social activism and aspiring to change the world. But still, when a new idea strikes us, we are excited and inspired, and believe we have a film in hand. What works and what does not, in cinema, is an elaborate argument and let us spare it for later. For now, I have come up with a list of 15 questions that may help you judge whether your idea is good enough for a film.

Not all, but most of these questions should be answered in affirmative, if you want to check the promise in your idea. Take this test. See the result. Then either believe in this questionnaire or reject this post of mine. The least I promise is - it will enhance your understanding of the film 'in your head'.
  • Have you got nine other ideas with respect to which this is the best? Remember - the best way to find a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.
  • Are you really inspired to tell this story? If yes, do you think you can work on it even if the script may not see the light of the day and the film is never made? Developing a script is the riskiest phase of film-making. No one can guarantee that the film will be made. You should not regret later if it's not made, because if you are inspired with your story, you will 'make it in your head' as you write it and you can 'watch it' all your life when you read it.
  • Is it original enough? Have you not seen this idea flourish into films/scenes from films/ soap operas/plays/novels before? Beware of the subconscious influences!
  • Do you have an appropriate ending in mind? It is important to determine the ending of the story before deciding to work in it. It's not absolutely essential. But it is important.
  • Is it emotionally involving? Will most people relate to it? An emotionally involving story is universal, unlike an 'intellectual' or 'cerebral' one. An emotionally involving story is also more likely to be made.
  • Are you sure you do not have predictable elements or cliches in your story? If there are, can you find solutions to get rid of them? We hate cliches in others' films, but we somehow do not mind them in ours! Please check and re-check.
  • Do you understand the world your story is set in? If no, can you shift it to the world you know? Or, are you willing to understand the world inside out? This can be taken as an opportunity to learn and experience new worlds. But it will require a lot of effort.
  • Do you know the characters well? If no, can you take inspiration from characters you know in real life and fuse them to create the characters of your story? Characters around us are amazing. Start with yourself!
  • Are you sure your characters are not stereotypical? What can you do to make them 'original' and interesting? Instead of creating characters as seen in films, try to create characters as seen in life.
  • Does the idea have the merit to suit the running time of your intended film? The story of the clever crow managing to quench its thirst is good for a two-minute animation, not for a two-hour live-action film.
  • Are you sure that in your story, you are not relying too much on chance events? If no, can you change them to character-driven events? We cringe as audience when too much is dictated by chance. Even in our favourite movies, such moments are the least favourite!
  • Are you sure that you are not relying on evoking the sympathy and pity of the audience for the characters? If no, can you find ways to make the audience empathise with and admire your characters rather than pitying them? No one wants to see a cry baby on screen!
  • Do you have a theme to guide you through whenever you need it? Is the core philosophy of the story something you believe in? The theme need not be something as profound as the Aatman-Brahman Theory. It can be something as simple as - Life is Beautiful! Whatever it is, it's important that you believe in it. Otherwise, you won't be true to yourself as a writer.
  • Do you see the film as a conflicted journey of the protagonist(s) that causes some significant change by the end? If there were no conflicts, 'Lagaan' would have been a 30-minute short film that everyone would have hated. If there were no change, most stories would appear sterile and ineffective. Conflicts and change are the body and soul of your idea. 
  • Do you have the courage to fail and the conviction to succeed before starting on this journey? If this is the only question you have answered in affirmative, go ahead even if the rest fourteen have been negative. If the answer to this question is 'No', even fourteen positives will not help! This last question is also the disclaimer for my post: You may choose to ignore the entire post if you don't believe in it. But in any case, believe in yourself! I would be most happy to read a good script that is born out of an idea that did not conform with most of the questions above.

1 comment:

  1. A students of mine asked this question after reading this post:
    "What do you mean by Chance events? and Character-Driven events?"

    My reply:
    If you have watched DDLJ:
    When Raj reaches Simran's house in Punjab, Simran's Mom asks them to elope. But Raj says - no. I will not run away with her. I will take her with me when her Dad will give her to me. And then starts his fight to 'earn' Simran.
    This is character driven. This is drama.
    Later, their photo reaches her Dad, floating around the room, and then all come to know about their past. This is chance-driven. This is melodrama.

    We always cringe when we see chance-driven moments, because then suddenly the writer or the film-maker appears before the audience and says - "This is how I want things to be." The spell breaks.
    As writers we should always make our characters strong to take decisions. When they do so, a hero becomes a better hero, a villain becomes a worse villain, and the illusion of cinema is sustained.
    The audience applauds/roots for the hero, without feeling manipulated.