THE SIXTH SENSE: Is Your Idea Good Enough?

THE SIXTH SENSE: Is Your Idea Good Enough?

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 GhostStar 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.

16 Comments

  1. Linda Roberts 2 years ago

    Brilliant article, Jake! Every writer should r
    read this!

  2. Andy Cheng 2 years ago

    How true! Just saw 2 great feature docuementaries which make real perspns’ life story into memorable films. The filmmakers start with own ideas and let the story grow.

  3. Karl 2 years ago

    Great article! I love that movie and it’s a wonderful idea.

    • Jacob Krueger 2 years ago

      Thanks Karl! Glad you liked the article. Tell me a little about your writing…

  4. Roger 2 years ago

    Very good, very timely, thanks!

    • Jacob Krueger 2 years ago

      Thanks Roger! Glad you enjoyed? Are you working on a project right now?

  5. Tim Lane 2 years ago

    A great take on a concept that you really bring home with that last few paragraphs.

    • Jacob Krueger 2 years ago

      Thanks Tim! Glad you enjoyed. What are you working on right now?

  6. My case, I would guess, is unusual. I have NO doubt that my story is good enough. It has been developing for 35 yrs, and now I’m making my way through the treatment. Scriptwriting is an entire other phase, which I won’t try to tackle. I am re-writing and re-writing each scene, each dialogue, each detail, over and over. I have a wacky way of writing, but, it’s just how this is progressing. I am NOT a “screenwriter”, meaning this is not how I will make a living. I have but ONE story to tell, and all my energy is going into it. Thought you would find this somewhat interesting and unique. Best to you all!

    • Jacob Krueger 2 years ago

      Hi Burton,

      Great to hear from you. It’s wonderful that you are working on a project that comes from such a deep place in your heart. I understand that you don’t see yourself as a writer, but you may be surprised at what you can accomplish when you write from a real place like this. And after 35 years, I worry that you’ll be greatly disappointed if you try to turn this story over to another writer, who lacks the personal connection that you have to the story. Even professional producers, with millions of dollars to spend and working with the top writers in the business, struggle to get a script that actually does what they envision for the story. And it’s even harder when you don’t have those kinds of resources. Instead, I’d recommend taking a shot at the script yourself, or perhaps teaming up with a co-writer who shares your passion for the project. You’re much more likely to end up with a final product you connect to. (Not to mention, much more likely to actually sell your story, since it’s extremely hard for emerging writers to sell a movie off a treatment). If you’d like some suggestions for how to do this, I invite you to check out some of the other articles on my blog or to join one of my upcoming classes in NYC or online.

  7. In the extra features on the “Double Indemniy” DVD, I heard Billy Wilder say “two heads are better than one”…and in this case….soooOo verrry true! Your article (s) are wonderful, Jacob. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve typed here!
    Again, BEST to YOU!

  8. J'hon 2 years ago

    I love your inspiring article. One issue regarding your last comment in reference to obtaining a co-writer: I personally have multiple projects in various stages. In my quest for a co-writer to push with me through obstacles either self created or just common in pursuit of creating unique worlds, complex characters and story that would drive said characters through worlds with astonishing revelations. This co-writer, who with the professionalism, focus, desire and freedom to write outside of their own endeavours eludes me. I remain walking, thumb extended along this road to success. Thoughts and ideas appreciated. Regards, J’hon

    • Jacob Krueger 2 years ago

      Hi J’hon,
      Finding the right cowriter is like finding the right husband or wife. No one knows how it’s done– but people still manage to do it every day! I’d recommend starting out by attending some screenwriting classes, and giving this thing a shot on your own. Worst case scenario, you learn a ton about writing that will help you in the development process. Best case scenario, you write something you are proud of. And if nothing else, you give yourself a chance to meet some great people, and some great writers, see how you get along with them, and if there’s anyone you connect to.

      You also might want to consider our Personal Training for Writers program– which would connect you with a one-on-one mentor– a professional screenwriter you meet with every week to discuss your script, keep you on track, and help you tell your story. Might be even better than a co-writer, since they can offer the professional guidance, while you take care of the passion and inspiration, and tell your story exactly the way you want to tell it. Here’s a link if you’re interested:

      • J'hon 2 years ago

        I have met great people in classes and I’m presently working in the Pro-screenwriter’s program #39. I just came back from LA and the Script-A-Wish, as well as the Screenwriters World events, and always meet great people whom have great ideas, just thought it was worth putting out there. Thanks for your thoughts.

  9. A.C. Patterson 2 years ago

    Jacob, I too have to thank you for this article. It put into words beautifully the syndrome I’ve been experiencing for years. You see, I am amazingly adept at coming up with the initial premise and let’s say perhaps 30-40% of the story. I get really pumped up about it, and then as I try to crystallize the story, boom, the syndrome you describe suddenly occurs.

    This would not be that big a deal if it happened once every couple of months. But I come up with good ideas so often—almost every day when I’m “in the zone” (consciously thinking about screenwriting and film)—that it becomes sort of a curse. I’m thankful for my ability to create the initial ideas so easily, but frustrated by what happens then.

    I don’t throw the ideas away, of course; they’re all in a folder, but after coming up with (as a conservative guess) 30 good film ideas, it gets maddening to succumb to the doubts every time. Interestingly, each new idea seems to get a bit better, so perhaps I’m on a road, in a process so to speak. But what I think I really need is a partner who takes that 40% of the story that I can come up with in a flash, and help me sculpt it until it is worthy of sitting down and writing a first draft. I’m a natural “outliner” type… I cannot bring myself to even attempt to start a draft without knowing the story, but I can never seem to get to the point where the story is fully formed.

    If there is anyone out there reading this who has the mirror-opposite problem—great at forging (finishing) stories if they are handed the premise and basic story elements to work with, but aren’t very good at coming up with premises/stories form blank page—we would make formidable partners, because I get great premises all the time. If this sounds like you, please contact me at winecountry@fastmail.fm.

    And thanks again for the inspiration, Jacob.
    - A.C. Patterson

  10. Bruno 10 months ago

    This is a great article! I really enjoyed it. I’m very insecure regarding my writing and I get very frustrated when someone critics or just turns down my screenplays. The thought of giving up on my screenplays and giving up on writing has crossed my mind many times.
    I’m Portuguese so my English is pretty basic.
    But I keep trying to improve my writing.
    I have two short films produced in the U.S. and that makes me to keep going.

    Anyway, I loved the article.

    Thanks,
    Bruno

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