What does writing your novel or screenplay have in common with Furby?
Kevin Young, a principal at design and innovation consultancy Continuum, analyzed the factors behind the success of Christmas crazes and found three:
1. They appeal to emotions.
Being useful is not enough (but it helps people to rationalize their buying decision). Design can be an important component of this, motivating us to buy the product that also has a pleasant look or shape, and then keep updating to the newest version of a product because we’ll feel we’re ahead of the pack (status appeal, whether or not the buyer is conscious of it).
2. They address subconscious desires.
For instance, the Cabbage Patch doll appealed to little girls’ desire to be mothers like their own. All dolls do, but these had a story behind them and even had a birth certificate and were “adopted” by the girls.
3. An unexpected outcome.
This one is the hardest to come up with. Examples are the Furby (for the first time a doll had seemingly independent action), and the Wii (for the first time, you could use your bodily movements to control games, instead of just a joystick or buttons to click).
Applying this to screenplays
I think the same three elements can make your script stand out, and it’s useful to think about them at the start of a project.
In next week’s tip I will go into more detail about making your script appeal to emotions, but for now suffice it to say that people who go to movies hoping to have an emotional experience, whether that’s laughing, crying, being scared, or being amazed.
In terms of unconscious desires, we all want to have the feeling of being a hero without having to do something heroic, and of being a villain without suffering the consequences. Via your movie, the members of the audience can be superheroes or villains or win the lottery or go back in time.
Writing a screenplay that delivers an unexpected experience is more difficult. In the case of films this challenge tends to be addressed by the use of special effects, but these days people expect to be amazed. Here are three other approaches that work :
- A surprising character (as in the film “Precious” or Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean,” or “The Elephant Man” or Dexter in the books and TV series). Feeling an emotional connection to a character to whom you initially don’t relate can be an unexpected outcome.
- A major plot twist, as in “Psycho,” “Sixth Sense” or “Seven.” Having a story take an unexpected turn or make a surprising revelation can also be an unexpected outcome.
- A topic or treatment of characters or a situation that makes people think about and discuss it long after they read the book or saw the film. (The ending of the movie “Gone, Baby, Gone” and the characters in the novel “The Great Gatsby” are examples.)
Unexpected outcomes are not only positive, of course. If people expect the ending of a film to resolve the main mystery of the story, for instance, but it doesn’t, they will feel cheated. This is not uncommon with films that turn out to be mostly a set-up for a sequel.
If you can imbue your screenplay with positive versions of these three elements, you’ll be delivering what producers and audiences are looking for.