THE SIXTH SENSE: Is Your Idea Good Enough?
By Jacob Krueger
I recently received the following question from a student:
“I’m having trouble making an idea stick. Or should I say I’m having trouble sticking to an idea… Something draws me head over heels into an idea like into a dream, and then — it’s like falling out of love — a critical voice sneaks up and switches out my spectacles and in the blink of an eye the beautiful idea looks tawdry and shopworn, and I start casting about for something new.” — Tony G.
Tony’s question points toward one of the biggest problems faced by young writers—starting one screenplay after another, only to lose faith and abandon them in search of greener pastures. The non-stop pattern of abandoned projects further fuels the vicious cycle of the writer’s self doubt. Soon, every idea you can think of is dismissed as “just not good enough.” And before long, you start to wonder if you’re ever going to come up with an idea worth finishing.
Is your idea good enough?
As writers, we’re all horrifically insecure. We’re afraid of being judged, we’re afraid of not being good enough, and most of all, we’re terrified of putting months or even years of work into a script, only to realize that our idea isn’t sellable, and that all of our work was for nothing. These insecurities are only increased by the paint-by-numbers techniques espoused by so many screenwriting books and gurus, and a Hollywood system that seems to run off of elevator pitches and loglines. All of which seem to suggest that until you have a great idea, you shouldn’t even start. Of course this approach ignores the fact that it’s almost impossible for even the best professional writers to know if an idea is actually good enough… until they write it.
The chances are, there was a time every movie you ever loved was just another messy rough draft that some writer was wondering if he should give up on.
Here’s a great quote on the subject from M. Night Shyamalan, describing how at one point early in his career, he nearly abandoned his screenplay The Sixth Sense for fear that his idea wasn’t good enough:
“I remember, swear to God, I remember I had this Sixth Sense idea years before and I put it away ’cause I heard they were making Casper… Swear to god, I was like, ‘Well there goes that.'”
And the crazy thing is, at that point in the writing process, he may have been right.
M. Night Shyamalan went through ten complete rewrites on The Sixth Sense before he felt he was happy with the script He told his own agents that an early draft was “a terrible mess” and that he “hated every second of it.”
“The first draft was bad, so I threw it out and started again on page one. Second draft, the same thing. I threw it out, page one again. It started out as a movie about a serial killer with Malcolm as a crime photographer. Then I realized it was me doing The Silence of the Lambs. It wasn’t until about the fifth draft that I really began to figure it out. It was then that I realized that at the end he realizes he’s dead. It took me five more drafts to execute it right.”
That’s right. We’re talking about one of the most successful movies in film history, and one of the best trick endings of all time. And the writer didn’t even know that trick was coming was when he started writing. He didn’t even know who is main character was… or that he was dead… until he was five drafts into the process! Had M. Night Shyamalan succeeded in convincing himself that his idea was “just not good enough”, he would never have discovered the powerful ending that ultimately made it good enough. His baby idea would never have grown up. And he never would have truly been able to see its full potential.
All Ideas Start Out Like Babies
You can think of your early drafts like little babies. Full of potential. Easy to love. But nevertheless, a little bit funny looking. Like babies, our infant scripts need lots of nurturing, love, guidance and hard work if they’re going to succeed. You wouldn’t dismiss your baby as “just not good enough” or exchange him for another because he wasn’t born knowing how to walk. Instead, you’d spend time with him appreciating all the things that were great about him. When he was ready, you’d help him take those first steps, celebrate his victories, and keep believing in him when even he fell and bruised his knees. And before long, you’d notice that he wasn’t just walking. He was running. Without any prompting from you at all.
Turning a Good Idea Into A Great One
Here’s what it comes down to: the way you find a truly great idea is not by searching for a great idea. It’s by picking any idea that interests you, and examining it so closely and so specifically (and having so much fun playing with it) that whatever is most compelling about it comes to the surface. Notice, Shyamalan didn’t impose the idea that his character was dead. He didn’t make him dead, or come up with the idea that he was dead. He realized that he was dead, by looking more and more closely at the character, trying new approaches to the story, and allowing himself to discover the answer, and the great idea he needed, in the elements already present in his story.
You turn your good idea into a great one by refusing to give up on it. By trusting yourself and the initial impulses that drew you to it in the first place. By forcing yourself to keep writing and writing until the real story reveals itself to you.
“Good Enough?” Is The Wrong Question.
When you’re thinking about your ideas in terms of “good enough” or “not good enough,” it means you’re looking at your movie from the outside: casting a critical eye on your writing, and holding it up against an impossible external standard of a polished script that’s been through many, many drafts. So, instead of stepping outside and questioning the validity of your premise, I want to encourage you to step inside your scenes, not worrying about how they compare or even if they compare to anything else, but simply having fun with them, getting the most you can out of each one, exploring questions and truths that matter to you, and playing with them until they make YOU happy.
Rather than wondering if your idea is good enough, start asking yourself how you can make it more compelling. Instead of wondering if your idea is too much like other movies, start asking yourself how it could be even more exciting. Instead of wondering if you’re good enough to write it, start asking yourself what you need to learn to take it to the next level. Look for the opportunities that already exist in your ideas, rather than the “perfect” idea that’s going to sell to Hollywood, and you’ll discover the secret that great writers already know:
You Can Turn Any Idea Into a Great Screenplay!
When it really comes down to it, The Sixth Sense is just a new riff on Casper The Friendly Ghost. Star Wars is just a Spaghetti Western in space. And even Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is just an update on the Roman myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. It’s not the ideas that made these screenplays great. It’s the execution of those ideas by writers who pushed them to their extremes, believed in their characters, and didn’t stop when the going got tough.