It Begins with the Idea
by Abigail Forsythe, Poetry Staff
Since I made the decision to major in film, I’ve been reading up on the best strategies for getting my foot into the door of the industry. Of course, I also had to pick one of the most difficult career paths to be successful in: screenwriting. Now, if you Google search “best books for screenwriting,” there are a plethora of titles to pick from, and I’ll admit that it was overwhelming for me to try and decipher which books would actually be helpful for me. In the end, I took a shot in the dark, but, to any other aspiring screenwriter, look no further for the first book that you should read on the subject.
On a whim, I asked my dad to get me The Idea: The Seven Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage, or Fiction for Christmas. It was written by Erik Bork, a writer and producer who has worked with big names like Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Tom Hanks. His work on the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers earned him two Primetime Emmy Awards (Outstanding Miniseries and Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie, or Dramatic Special) in 2002. While not the most notorious screenwriter in the game, there is still a lot to be learned from his book.
The Idea hammers in the fact that what goes wrong for so many aspiring writers is not that they don’t know the right people, or they can’t get their script read (though these are still issues that many writers face), but that the script was doomed from the beginning because, well, the idea was wrong. Erik Bork describes the idea, the premise of the script or story, to be more important than the writing itself (not that you can get by without being a good writer). So many scripts aren’t even read all the way through because the synopsis, what Bork calls the “logline,” isn’t enough to capture the interest and the attention of the reader.
But how is a writer supposed to boil down hours and hours of work into only a couple of sentences? That’s what Bork sets out to tell us. To start off, he gives five questions (well, six, technically), meant to help the writer boil down their script to its bare essentials. He calls it “a story’s basic DNA,” and what makes it interesting to any reader.
- Whose story is it, and why should we identify with them?
- What do they want, in their life circumstances and relationships?
- What’s in the way of them achieving that?
- What are they doing to try and resolve this? What makes it so hard?
- Why does it matter deeply—to them, and hopefully, to us?
Now when it’s all laid out like that, it seems easy. Just a few questions to answer and you’re off writing the next big hit. That’s certainly what I thought as I started the book, but then he gave a few familiar examples (like Bridesmaids and Schindler’s List) and in reading those short pitches, I knew that I had a lot to learn before I could even get started.
So, Bork breaks it down even more. He takes those five questions and draws them out into the seven elements of a story that people will actually want to engage with. Using PROBLEM as an acronym, he creates an easy way to internalize and remember these elements for future use:
Each successive chapter, then, is devoted to just one of these seven elements. Bork takes his time explaining each concept, interweaving personal experiences and useful advice to help the reader understand how to effectively tackle each aspect of a fruitful story idea. By the end, I felt much more capable in my ability to create something worth the time and effort it takes to be a successful screenwriter. There’s certainly a long way to go still, but this book serves its purpose in being a valuable starting point.
What makes this book so compelling is that it stops the writer from making a mistake before they spend countless hours and expend immense effort on pages that will never be glanced at. We get to the root of the problem before the tree can bear bad fruit, so to speak. And this book, while meant more so for screenwriters than anyone else, still holds value for writers anywhere who dream of crafting the story of their lifetime. The value of a story remains the same no matter what medium is used to tell it, and that’s what this book is about: making your story worth the read or watch.
Even better, anyone can read this book. You don’t even have to be a writer to enjoy it. It’s funny, accessible, and barely over 200 pages. Bork uses familiar examples of movies and TV shows to illustrate the concepts he’s explaining, sprinkling humor throughout. It’s not another dense film theory or story mechanics reading that you buy with good intentions but then let collect dust on a shelf later. I genuinely enjoyed reading this book, which is saying something because I haven’t been able to sit down and read a book all the way through for a very long time. I absolutely recommend it to anyone even vaguely interested in writing or the mechanics of story construction.