Concept Building | Script Revolution


Concept Building

Let’s rewind back to the beginning, not the start of our stories, not the plot, not the structure, not even the format, let’s go right back to what we believe about life. A bit of a heavy start, right? Maybe, but here’s the thing, stories are tales about how life works – they are life affirming. Storytelling is the art of making things up to communicate a deeper truth. Even if we aren’t aware of it, deep down in our stories there will be a theme that teaches the audience an important lesson, perhaps subtly, maybe via the protagonist’s arc or through their actions. Our theme is what we’re really saying to the world with our story, it is our crisp and undiluted voice between the pages. The hard bit can be identifying our theme and building on it in a life affirming way.

“It’s theatre. It’s an interpretation of life. It can be truer than life itself.” – Valentine, Clouds of Sils Maria.

Now, considering moral affections is one thing, being able to build on that is another. If only mankind had been expressing easily digestible yet profound statements related to moral affections we could just reference at any time… you know?… Like proverbs?… And if only someone had listed a big bunch of moral affections categorised with inspiring proverbs to help writers hammer home their theme all out of the kindness of his little black heart… like I’ve done, right here.

Example: In Contact (1997), the film revolves around the scientist Eleanor Arroway trying to communicate with aliens by securing funding and fighting to become the first human to be transported by a mysterious machine built from plans sent from the Vega star system. However, the story is really about the battle we all have between science and faith, particularly in the context of losing loved ones.

Hit the Flaw

By identifying the message behind the theme, we establish the lesson shown, and thus we can easily pinpoint the flaw our protagonist needs to overcome to win; the antithesis of our lesson. We learn from their arc which starts with them having a misconception about how life works.

Here’s a list of 147 vices I’ve put together for you.

Example: In Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), while searching for redemption, Furiousa believes the answer is to travel to “the Green Place” from her childhood but comes to learn it has become a toxic wasteland. Initially choosing to keep heading into the endless salt flats, she has to come to terms with the fact she’s been deluding herself to the point of madness and her redemption must come from fixing problems at home.

Get Plotting, You Little Devil You

Hopefully, assuming you glanced through that list of moral affections, your imagination is already starting to dream up new ideas, but hold your horses, we need to establish some sort of premise and plot. Again, we don’t have to face a blank canvas here, there are sources out there to help us. For me, the one that works is The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations the full text of which is available here. By using one or more of these situations we can easily piece together the mechanics of anything from a short story to a tv series.

Example: Both Thelma & Louise (1991) and Smokey & the Bandit (1997) are stories about pursuit based around escapism with the latter being via a fault of love and the former via struggling against a power.

Can I Get a Happy Ending?

Given that it’s our theme that needs to resound from our story, we don’t necessarily need our protagonist to win to get the lesson across. There’s something a little sappy about neatly tied up happy endings, something that strikes us as disingenuous and not life affirming at all. It could be said that winning, well, it’s kinda for losers.

There are four kinds of ending:

Happy – The protagonist wins and their flaw is overcome.
Bittersweet – The protagonist overcomes their flaw but loses.
Cautionary – The protagonist wins but fails to overcome their flaw.
Tragic – The protagonist fails to overcome their flaw and also loses.


Each is just as effective at communicating theme but do so in different ways. The protagonist winning is irrelevant because their actions have proven a lesson we believe to be true. There is no wrong choice but our ending should match our intended tone and have some bearing on the stakes at hand.

Our chosen ending also defines the protagonist’s character-arc, they either go from flawed to enlightened or from flawed to further in the dark.

Personally, I like to come up with a rough version of each ending type for every story I write and then choose the one which I feel works best for the script. This is good practice should you ever have a producer/executive feel your ending is too sappy or too much of a downer and you need to come up with an alternative.

Example: Continuing from the example above, the bitter-sweet ending of Thelma & Louise (1991) works as a satisfying conclusion because it fits the narrative that those who find themselves trapped and incriminated by their situation often have to accept they have no way out other than suicide. An arguably more tragic ending would have been for the characters to turn themselves in thinking their side of events would be believed only to face a lifetime of incarceration.

Lock n’ Load Your Logline

There’s a good chance with just a little research and thinking about the above we’ve got enough to rough out our logline. Generally speaking, it seems the earlier we do this the better. Loglines are pretty much impossible to write when we don’t have a grasp of our premise, but they’re a veritable delight when we’ve got things in order. By writing one down at this stage we can come back to it now and then to make sure we’re staying on track.

My tip for writing loglines is just open up a blank document and try to summarise the premise in around twenty five words. I like to copy and paste my attempt over and over while making little tweaks. Too much stress is put on the intricacies of wording loglines when what really matters is the concept behind them. It’s also important to remember we don’t need to summarise our entire story with character flaw, theme, and ending into our logline, we only need our premise and sometimes the stakes. It’s also fine to give away any unexpected twist if it’s core to the story.

Feel the Love

Now, you’re probably going to want some sort of love story within all this, and there’s nothing really more entertaining and goal setting than that. It’s a good idea to think about where you want to go and what sort of love story fits. In many cases, the love story itself highlights the theme.

Think there’s only one kind. Think again! Here’s 23 love story types I’ve put together like some hormonal teenager.

Example: In Die Hard (1998), John McClane’s marriage with his wife Holly is breaking down at the start of the story. When confiding in private with his closest ally Sgt Al Powell, the theme of past regrets comes up between them and McClane, believing he’s not going to make it, asks Powell to contact Holly when its all over and pass on that he loves her, something he needs her to know as he regrets ending their last interaction as an argument.