Do You Want to be a Screenwriter?

We’re back in the Alien Dream studio for the second part of our interview with Brian Bird, a highly successful Hollywood writer/producer with an impressive list of film credits that include Saving Sarah Cain, The Last Sin Eater and Jake’s Run. If you’re joining us for the first time, be sure to check out yesterday’s post.

Today, among other things, Brian is going to discuss that ever-tricky plot hook called “high concept,” something that’s important in both movies and novels.

MERRIE: Brian, in your opinion, what is the main difference between writing a novel and writing a screenplay?

BRIAN: The biggest difference in screenplays is that the audience cannot take an omniscient point of view. Unless you have an omniscient narrator whose voice-overs become your tour guide through a film (and this is incredibly difficult to do well), screenwriters have to rely on dialogue and action to carry the story forward. Novels are often very “internal” because the author has the ability to read the minds and hearts of all his characters from God’s point of view without the characters actually having to say anything. In film, the audience has to rely on dialogue and action and “backstory” as revealed creatively through conversations and planted “oracles” in a story. For instance, one character reading a newspaper account of another character and learning something revealing about his/her past. Films, and by extension, screenplays have to be a visual medium. We have to “show” the audience the story rather “tell” it. Screenwriters can also not “cheat” in a screenplay as novelists can do in a novel. A novelist can describe a character as a “lying, cussing, brute of a man,” and not actually have to write any cursing in the dialogue. How is a screenwriter supposed to accomplish that same thing? We have to show it, not just describe it.

MERRIE: Great answer! You just demonstrated several ways screenplays are different from novels. Now, here's a question I struggle with on a daily basis. What is "high concept" and why is it so important in the movie industry?

BRIAN: The term “high concept” refers to a simple, but provocative plot hook which drives a story. High concept films are stories which revolve around big plot devices that are easily described in a sentence. For instance, Indiana Jones can easily be boiled down to: “Treasure hunter races Nazis to find the Holy of Holies.” Die Hard could be described as “The Alamo in a big-city skyscraper.” Under Siege could be described as “Die Hard on a battleship.” Jaws is “Moby Dick with a great-white shark.” Alien is “Jaws in outer space.” The Matrix is “Plato’s Cave with computers.” But high concept stories are not just for Hollywood filmmakers. Many high-concept films come from high-concept novels. For instance, Jurassic Park, from Michael Crichton, a.k.a. “ Disneyland with real dinosaurs.”

MERRIE: What advice would you give to someone who would like to option their novel as a movie? Should they adapt it to a screenplay first?

BRIAN: For authors with a large fan-base—such as Beverly Lewis, Janette Oke and Francine Rivers with whom we’ve been privileged to work—I think the best bet is to reach out to writer-producers in Hollywood who have a track record of making like-minded films. Because of that built-in audience, it’s much easier for those producers to find the money and distribution to get those films made. For authors with smaller audiences, or perhaps loyal niche audiences, it might be advisable to adapt their novels into screenplays themselves. The upside of this is that the screenplay becomes a brand new pieces of creative “real estate” if it works creatively. The downside is the time spent doing that adaptation and the self-training one must do in order to do it effectively. But one warning to novelists who adapt their own books for the screen: a film is not a novel. It’s a completely different creative work. You have to be willing to be brutal on yourself in order to boil down a 300-page “internal” novel into a 120-page “show and tell” screenplay. The challenge is not in knowing what to keep in the screenplay from the novel. The challenge is in knowing what to leave out, and novelists have a very hard time “killing their children.”

MERRIE: Brian, thank you again for visiting Alien Dream and for answering some of the questions I know I've struggled with as a writer. I hope our readers are getting as much out of this as I am.

There is one more point I'd like to make. Brian is one of the many speakers who will attend the upcoming OCCWF writer's conference in Orange County, California. If you've ever wanted the opportunity to speak to a screenwriter, face-to-face, this is the perfect opportunity.

And fortunately, there are still openings available to attend the conference. Visit the OCCWF website at http://www.occwf.org/ for more information.



Mark Goodyear said...

What he says about "High Concept" reminds me a lot of conversations I had at Mt. Hermon--and a book I got there called Story, which won the International Moving Image Book Award.

Merrie Destefano said...

I need to get that book. Right now I'm totally confused about the plot of my next book. That's usually a good time for me to read a book about the nuts and bolts of writing.

And congrats on the whole agent thing.

Now, what odd job to write about? Especially when they were all odd jobs . . .

Thanks for stopping by, Mark!

L.L. Barkat said...

High concept. Sounds like another term for "good pitch." (Yeah, I just came from a writer's conference.)

Merrie Destefano said...

Hi, Laura!
Yeah, high concept and a good pitch are really similar.

I think the bottom line is: if you start with a great idea, your chances of publication (or selling a screenplay) are much higher.

But then, I'm still waiting to get my novel published so I could be making all this up. (without even knowing it!!)

Blessings on your blog,

Mark Goodyear said...

Now, Merrie. As exciting as interest is from several agents of varying caliber, I'm only treating it as encouragement to keep writing at this point. : )

Merrie Destefano said...

Yes, finish that book! And the next one.

The market seems to be opening up for the type of writing that we like.

Edgy. Speculative. Sci fi. Fantasy. With or without a label, I believe that good writing will find a good home.