Jun 11, 2010

Rule Of Thumb: Summing It Up

Jun 11, 2010
When Mutt and I first started out as writers... we were idiots. I don't just mean your regular breed of idiots, I mean the kind of idiots who storyboard an entire script then don't write any of the dialogue or action down. Imagine our surprise when we rediscovered it only months later and had no idea what the heck was going on.

While that appears an obvious oversight now, the real ones we have to watch out for are the errors in judgement you can justify.

A while back Mutt and I would have said that true art has nothing to do with marketability. More than that, we believed they were at odds. Let the soulless money-grabbers worry about over-simplifying our work, let the artists create art, right? Well, if there's one thing an embarrassing meeting with someone taught us it's that we were being idiots all over again.

Eager to convey the sheer quantity of quality concepts we had up our sleeves, one day we decided to wow them by breaking down one of our ideas.

What followed was perhaps the most long-winded, unoriginal-sounding pitch containing a heck of a lot of "but done really well" and "it's better than it sounds". It was excruciating. We knew it was awesome, but we couldn't even sell it to someone who was already on our side.

During a seemingly eternal tram ride back to the train station we went over it again and again and had a horrible epiphany. It doesn't matter how brilliant an idea is if it isn't pitchable.

We always thought summing things up in a mere sentence was about dumbing down perfectly good concepts to maximize marketability, but we missed the point entirely. From what we've gathered, there are two key reasons why it is essential.
1) It helps to focus an idea and makes it stronger.
Slapping the word 'art' on a mess doesn't stop it being a mess. Concepts need structure and purpose, and a log line really forces the writer to find the spine of the story and keep it under control.

Think about the simplicity beneath of surface of movies like A New Hope, Toy Story, even The Seven Samurai. It extremely clear what each is really about and the fact that you could produce a remarkably succinct log line for any of them only calls attention to their genius.

Think about The Great Escape: When the Nazi Military puts all the greatest escape artist P.O.W.s in the same camp, they join forces to enact one of the most daring and ambitious escape plans in history.

Sounds great, right? Well, the movie was great too and it certainly wasn't lacking in any loving detail.
2) The easier a concept is to comprehend, the easier people can get into it.
This one is the real clincher. We love our ideas. We want other people to love our ideas. Why would we make it hard for people to love our ideas??

Let's face it, this is the real world we're talking about. No one is handing us our big chance on a silver platter, so we don't really have the luxury, or the inhumanly eccentric genius to play hard to get.

Now, if you'll excuse me Mutt and I have to run off and continue our idiocy in new and exciting ways.

"For further reading on the topic, this article gives some history."


  1. Luke knows I've found this lesson just as important as him.

    Making a story too complex and 'mish-mash' (which of course in rare cases can be done well) is in my experience one of the easiest and most common problems us young writers encounter.

    It's also very hard to see except from the outside.

    It's pretty easy to recognise the movies that have been stripped-down and stream-lined as to be easily summed up. They're usually the ideas people describe as 'hard to screw up' after watching the trailer.

    Although even these can be misleading when the marketing team understands the movie's hook better than the writers or directors.

    *cough* Be Kind Rewind, Paul Blart *cough*

  2. I usually don't have this problem, as I hate all things complicated. But that generally prevents me from writing stories in the first place.

  3. Great post. I tried to pitch something to simon and I relised my idea was too complicated to pitch. "Im sure it's good jen" he said, because that's the husband thing to say. a quick question: When you guys write a story do you have the main points already set out from start to end and then fill in sub plots and character development. Or do you intricatley write it from start to end? HELP me please..

  4. When I was younger I used to fly by the seat of my pants. I'd just write whatever came to me and see where it went. While I still believe that method to be very useful when working through problems, I now place a much greater importance on really fleshing out the big stuff.

    While a concept can stem from anything, it doesn't really solidify for me until I get the big picture. What is the story, what can we learn from it?

    Before really knuckling down I also need to fully understand the characters and their motivations, their arcs and how the themes work within and around them. Otherwise I can't really invest in what I'm writing.

    Once I know the big story and the characters within it then, honestly, the small stuff writes itself. It's like Mutt's previous post. The characters really come alive and scenes start hijacking themselves and doing whatever they want. You kinda degenerate into a mere conduit.

    So yeah, first the spark of an idea, then the big details, then getting to know the characters, then the rest.

    Of course, other ideas come here and there, but you just build those up for use later.


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