As humans, we live on earth deal with reality every day. So how can we tell if the stories we make up for a living bend that reality too far?
When you're brainstorming ideas you have so many things to take into account. What characters inhabit the world, what are the stakes, who gets what emotional payoff, etc.
Sometimes you get so swept out in planning these kinds of details that you forget to ask if your movie or TV idea is too unrealistic? Is it grounded in a world that feels relatable, even if it takes place on or in a world different from our own?
Also, can a movie or TV idea be too unrealistic? I mean, we're making stuff up for a living! I was scrolling through screenwriting Reddit and saw this topic pop up. It made me sit and think for a long while. So I wanted to spend today's column addressing the idea of realism, unrealistic ideas or expectations, and how all this helps you become a better filmmaker or creator.
Let's get down to business.
Is My Screenplay Idea Too Unrealistic?
You can have ideas that are hard to make, ideas that have niche audiences, and ideas that are bad, but the word I bump into the word "unrealistic." In Hollywood, we get to make things up for a living. It's the greatest job on earth. The reason we perceive some stories being better than others is that they connect with us on a deeper emotional level.
While movies that take place closer to our "real world" may have a leg up in connecting with an audience, don't forget that Star Wars takes place in a galaxy far, far away. And people love it. I love it. Everyone I know loves it.
But does that world feel "realistic?"
I think a lot of emphases is put on realism in film because it makes people take things more serious.
The Nolan Batman movies are serious and grounded because they take place in "our world." But are they more entertaining than the Adam West TV show or movie?
So what can be unrealistic?
Sometimes our expectations are unrealistic. I just wrote a giant Atlantis movie I'm taking out this week. If I demanded people allow me to direct this $100+ million dollar behemoth, that would be unrealistic. My only directing experience is with tiny shorts.
But the idea in and of itself is not unrealistic. It's hard to get made, will need a star, and an A-list producer (email me at Jason@NoFilmSchool.com to read!), but there is nothing unrealistic about it.
The same goes for a movie like Brave Little Toaster or Jupiter Ascending.
You know a movie about a toaster will have to be animated and have a niche audience. And you know a space opera that costs more than $100 million about an alien race that might not be super applicable to life here may also have a small window. So you need to tailor your expectations for how they'll be made and seen, but there's no reason to write them as "realistic." Because the ton may not call for that.
What should I be asking?
I was working on a big adventure movie with my friend, Gil, and he told me this little secret about writing: Everything you want to write boils down to two things:
Ask yourself which genre your project falls into and what are the genre expectations and tropes. Then ask yourself about the tone you want. Dr. Strangelove is a war movie but its tone is a farce.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is an adventure movie with a comical tone. The Lost City of Z is an adventure movie with a more serious tone.
None of these movies would be unrealistic ideas, because they were written with an adept hand that understands the tone of the world they're trying to sell.
The satire in Scream would never work in Don't Breathe.
So if you're sitting down to write, don't ask about what is unrealistic, ask what the world of your story wants and needs. And decide whether or not to pursue from there.
What's next? 20 Ways to come up with Story Ideas!
Coming up with movie ideas is not easy. Whether you're battling writer's block or just need to start a new screenplay, the journey to inspiration is treacherous. So we came up with twenty ways to get your mind moving!
Click for more!