Screenwriting: is your story novel?

One more question that helps you figure out if you’re onto a “monster” idea instead of just a goodish one is, “Is it novel?” That’s what Stefan Mumaw says in his book, “Chasing the Monster Idea.”

Of course nothing is totally new. Even the Bible says there’s nothing new under the sun, and that was quite a while ago.

Generally creativity means the combination of existing elements to produce something different from either of them (and, ideally, more useful or interesting than either of them alone).

Coming up with a new story for a film is especially challenging, given how many films and TV shows and plays there have been.

The good news is that you don’t need to come up with something hugely different–to a degree, people like seeing the same kind of story but they do want some kind of twist. Here are some options:

Gender switch — prime example is “Alien” in which the Sigourney Weaver’s part was written for a man. It made her one of the first female “tough guys.” That switch has been done a lot since, but maybe you can think of an interesting way to have a male in a traditionally female role.

Unusual location – this worked for “Witness,” which took place in an Amish community.

Different time – detective story set in Rome, for instance or in medieval times (“Name of the Rose”)

Different genre or format – “Who Killed Roger Rabbit” mixed comedy with a hard-boiled detective plot and added in the mix of live action and animation for good measure.

What switch might make your story stand out?

(You’ll find Jurgen Wolff’s screenwriting tips here every Tuesday and also on his site, Also get his book, “Your Writing Coach,” published by Nicholas Brealey.)

Screenwriting: what experience do you want the audience to have?

According to Stefan Mumaw’s book, “Chasing the Monster Idea,” one of the key questions to ask if you want to find out whether your idea is a “monster” rather than just good (or bad) is, “Does it create an experience?”

Which movies you’ve seen would you call an experience?

I’d say “Alien,” which made me jump out of my seat when that thing exploded out of poor John Hurt’s chest…the ending of “Sixth Sense” which I didn’t see coming and was a topic of conversation for a while…and to be more general, any movies that make me wish they would just keep going for a few more hours (like “Sideways”) or movies that keep me thinking about them for days afterward (“Gone, Baby, Gone”), or ones (the “Bourne” films) that are a good thrill ride while they last even though they may be forgotten pretty quickly afterward.

There are a lot of ways to make your movie an experience but I think it helps to have one in mind as you’re writing. On the one I’m writing at the moment, my goal is to make people think about what they want to leave behind when they die, and maybe to feel a little nervous about the prospect.

If you haven’t thought about it already, consider what experience you want people to have. One way to focus on this is to write the review quotes you’d like to see when your film has been released–“A thrill ride that keeps you on the edge of your seat,” or “A hilarious look at parenthood that also makes you think,” for instance. Then, as you write or rewrite, make sure you deserve those quotes.

(For more screenwriting tips, come back for a new post from Jurgen Wolff every Tuesday and also see his blog, Also check out his book, “Your Writing Coach”).


How to give your screenplay emotional intelligence

“Chasing the Monster Idea” is a book by Stefan Mumaw in which he identifies seven questions that will help you determine whether you have a “monster” idea rather than just a good one (or a bad one).

These questions also can help you figure out whether your movie idea is a monster.

The first one: Does it evoke an emotional response?

People go to movies not just to see something, but to feel something. Horror fans want to feel fear, thriller fans want to feel suspense, comedy fans want to feel amusement, and so on. It’s obvious, but not every movie or every script makes that happen. There are three main reasons some fail:

1) We don’t identify with the protagonist. Especially in horror, thriller and drama we experience the feelings vicariously via the protagonist. She’s scared and we’re scared. The more your script has done to help us understand and identify with her, the stronger our feelings.

2) We don’t believe the situation.Sometimes we feel these things because we know more than the protagonist–we know the killer is hiding in the closet, she doesn’t. In comedies we are just as likely to be laughing at the protagonist as with him. But if the situation you have set up obviously is fake, then we may not buy into it and we don’t feel what you want us to feel.

3) We feel used up. If there’s not enough emotional variation–for instance, in a horror film if the horror is unrelenting–we may feel emotional fatigue and stop responding. That’s why the films of Hitchcock, for instance, are so good: he gives us moment of suspense interspersed with moments of comic relief, high drama mixed with low drama (a guy named Shakespeare understood this, too).

If your screenplay allows for these factors, it will have the emotional intelligence to give viewers the experience they crave.

Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of television, the mini-series “Midnight Man,” starring Rob Lowe, the feature film “The Real Howard Spitz,” starring Kelsey Grammer, and as been a script doctor on projects starring Eddie Murphy, Michale Caine, Kim Catrall and others. His books include “Your Writing Coach” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) and “Creativity Now!” (Pearson Publishing). For more tips from Jurgen Wolff, also see