What are the key elements to a compelling, engaging, and viable story idea — and how can you ensure that the cinematic story you want to tell is strong enough to make an impact on the decision-makers in Hollywood, as well as the general audience?
Acclaimed screenwriter Erik Bork has written a book based on his vast experience on multiple levels and tiers within the film and television industry. He’s the former assistant of screen icon Tom Hanks that parlayed that connection and experience into successful screenwriting jobs as a writer and Emmy and Golden Globe-winning producer on HBO’s acclaimed series From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers.
Erik has also sold series pitches (and written pilots) at NBC and FOX, worked on the writing staff for two primetime dramas, and written feature screenplays on assignment for companies like Universal, HBO, TNT, and Playtone. He teaches screenwriting for UCLA Extension, National University, and The Writers Store, and offers one-on-one consulting to writers.
He’s now written a book entitled The Idea: The 7 Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage, or Fiction.
In the book, he breaks down these seven elements that stories need to be viable to readers, executives, and audiences. These seven essential characteristics begin with the first letter of words that form the acronym PROBLEM, referencing the notion that any story has a central problem that must be solved by the end — a challenge that the protagonist must overcome and is actively engaged with. It consumes their time, energy, attention, and emotion. Which, in turn, does the same for the audience.
The idea for your screenplay is always central to that core problem. And that core problem is part of the logline or synopsis that industry insiders must be engaged by.
Here we list the excerpts from Erik’s book that we’ll focus on as we discus what elements your concepts, ideas, stories, and screenplays need.
Not only does it take the whole story to solve, but the main character spends virtually every scene trying to solve it. But they can’t, because it is so vexing and complicated — and it generally only gets more so as they try to address it. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t take a whole “story” to do it. It defies resolution, and really besieges the main character as they grapple with it.
The Punishing part of the PROBLEM acronym is basically what all scripts require — conflict. Without ongoing and ever-evolving conflict throughout the story, the reader and the audience will be lost.
The main character of a story — and what they’re dealing with, and why it matters — is easy to identify with on a human level. Because of this, we in the audience are able to strongly care that they reach their desired outcome, and want to stay with the story. We even put ourselves in their shoes, such that it feels like their problem is our problem. We stay invested because they do. They remain active, and they keep trying to address whatever it is, despite all the slings and arrows that come at them in the process. If they didn’t, it would feel like things aren’t moving forward in a compelling way, and our interest would slacken.
Ensuring that your story is Relatable is all about empathy.
Read ScreenCraft’s 7 Ways Screenwriters Can Create Better Character Empathy!
It’s difficult to identify with superheroes and unstoppable action hero-type characters. The same could be said for alien or fantasy characters as well. There has to be an underlying human element that audiences can identify with.
Something about the premise of the story and its approach is fresh, brand new, and hasn’t been seen before — even though it also fits within the conventions of good storytelling and genre. There is a spark of uniqueness to the idea, and preferably to the writer’s voice, as well.
Being Original is so important. Writers often make the mistake of thinking that they need to replicate what is currently or has already been a success. Yes, Hollywood and audiences love something that is familiar because that means that there is less risk. However, there has to be an original take on any familiar genre, subgenre, subject matter, or concept.
It’s easy for someone hearing or reading the basic idea to understand and buy into it, even if it requires taking a leap and suspending disbelief, in some clearly defined way. In other words, it all feels real. The characters seem driven by identifiable human wants, needs and behavior. It all sounds like it adds up, makes sense, and doesn’t leave people asking any “why” questions, or being skeptical or confused about anything.
Sure, many scripts and movies don’t fall under the Believable category in many people’s eyes. Superheroes don’t seem that believable. Flying dragons and raging Orcs don’t seem that believable. However, it’s less about such worlds compared to reality and more about presenting characters within those fantastical worlds that are driven by identifiable human wants, needs, and action.
And real world-based stories need to embrace that even more.
The “mission” to rise to the central story challenge is of huge importance to characters the audience has come to care about. If it doesn’t get solved, life will be unthinkably worse for them. Something in their outer life circumstances, on a primal level, is at stake. And if they solve their problem, things will be so much better than they are. All will be right with the world. In addition, the process of going through this challenge may alter them internally, in a hugely important way. But it’s the external stakes that come first.
Life-altering stories are those that offer the key component to any successful script — catharsis.
Read ScreenCraft’s The Single Most Important Element of a Successful Screenplay!
That is what every screenwriter should strive for in their screenplays.
The process of trying to solve the story problem is fun to watch or read, consistent with its genre. Whether it’s comedy, action, suspense, etc., the material creates desired emotional experiences in the audience, of the kind that they came to the project hoping to have. So it becomes like “candy” to them — something they want more and more of, something they really enjoy and would spend time and money on.
Yes, the script has to be Entertaining. Sure, there are some slow burn masterpieces that are hard to watch and don’t necessarily entertain, but if you’re an undiscovered screenwriter looking to break through with a spec script, you need to entertain as well.
The audience comes away feeling that value has been added to their life — that something worthwhile has been explored, which has resonance beyond the time they spent watching/reading it. It was really about something more than just its surface plot — something meaningful to them.
Meaning points to catharsis, much like Life-altering elements do. If you aren’t altering any lives with your script, you at least need to strive to make it meaningful in the end by offering something beyond the surface of the plot.
These are seven elements that every script idea you develop must contain. Breaking through with a spec script is hard work. You’re one of the tens of thousands trying to accomplish the same thing. The screenwriters with the best ideas that embrace Erik Bork’s PROBLEM acronym will have an edge over everyone else.
Click here to read Erik Bork’s The Idea: The 7 Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage, or Fiction Now!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies