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Crafty Screenwriting: Column #2: The Hook

Crafty Screenwriting
By Alex Epstein

Column #2: The Hook

Your screenplay will not get made unless it has a great hook.

What's a hook?

A hook is the concept of the picture in a nutshell. Not just any concept. A hook is a concept that instantly makes everyone interested in reading your script, and then makes the audience want to see your movie. Here are some good hooks:

  • A man is about to commit suicide when an angel shows him what his town would be like if he had never lived. (It's a Wonderful Life)
  • A man discovers he has been replaced by his clone. (The Sixth Day)
  • Two people who hate each other meet anonymously over the Internet and fall in love. (You've Got Mail)
  • A bunch of unemployed Scots decide to put on a striptease act to earn some money. (The Full Monty)
  • Some Jamaicans decide to enter the Olympics as a bobsled team, although there is no snow in Jamaica. (Cool Runnings)
  • A strange genius discovers a number that may be the name of God. (pi)
  • Three filmmakers go into the woods to tape a documentary on a legendary witch. These are the tapes we found after they disappeared. (The Blair Witch Project)
  • A puppeteer finds a secret tunnel into John Malkovich's brain. (Being John Malkovich)
  • A journalist finds a heartwrenching love letter in a bottle. She tracks down the man who wrote it, and falls in love with him. (Message In A Bottle. I didn't say a film with a great hook had to be good. I only said you need a great hook to get your screenplay made.)
Some of these were made into big Hollywood productions, and some were "independent" pictures. ("Independent" is a huge misnomer. "Independent producers" are independent only of money. A better term might be "co-dependent producers.") What all of these concepts share is that you instantly want to see how they're going to turn out. What happened to those kids up in those woods? How do a bunch of un-handsome, inhibited Scottish guys put on a striptease show? You have to read the screenplay, or see the film, to find out.

At this point, you may well be thinking: but most movies don't have great hooks.

I never said any screenplay needs a great hook to get made. I said that your screenplay needs a great hook to get made.

These days, movies are driven by bankable elements. A bankable element is any creative element -- star, director, the book it's based on -- that suggests you can bank on audiences coming to see the picture. (As in, Harrison Ford is starring in my picture, and now I am going to deposit my big fat check in the bank.)

How Hookless Pictures Get Made

Here are some ways hookless pictures get made:

  • Steven Spielberg reads a novel about the Holocaust. (Spielberg's clout is huge -- he could get funding to direct the phone book.)
  • A producer gets the cinematic rights to the hit Broadway shows Evita! "The rise to power of the widow of Argentina's dictator, Juan Pern" is a terrible hook. "Hit musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber" is a bankable element.
  • Kevin Costner talks with a buddy who's got an idea about a Civil War hero sent to a remote outpost, where he meets Indians and slowly goes native. Kevin promises his friend that if he'll write the novel first, Kevin will get the picture made. Kevin Costner is a bankable element.
  • Some guys with a digital camera make a film for $10,000 and it rakes in $80,000,000 in box office. They want to do another film. They are bankable elements, at least until their second picture flops.
  • A producer reads a novel about a retarded Southern man whose life goes through many weird and wonderful twists that tell the story of two decades we all lived through. After the producer hires a screenwriter to adapt it, Tom Hanks decides to do the picture. Tom Hanks is as bankable as they come.
  • John Grisham writes another legal thriller. Most of the people going to see pictures based on John Grisham's books have no clue who he is, or even that the picture is based on a novel. But his pictures make anywhere from a lot of money to a heaping huge pile of money, and that makes his books bankable.
  • Dimension decides to do Children of the Corn 7. The last six Children of the Corn movies made a profit; the series is a "franchise." If you can make the seventh one cheap enough, you'll make money.

A bankable element is anything that makes people with millions of dollars in the bank think people with tens of dollars in their pockets will want to go see the movie. So long as the perceived value of the elements in a picture adds up to the budget, you're off to the races. Jane Campion is a semi-bankable director for art movies; she can't get a picture financed all by herself, but put a few semi-bankable stars in there and you can probably scrape up a ten-million-dollar budget. Jim Carrey is bankable for big budget comedies. (The Hollywood Reporter publishes an annual list of who's bankable and how much they're worth, called the Star Power(tm) rankings. It's never possible to reduce a star's strength to one number; buyers want to know that the star is in the sort of movie he or she has been successful in. But the rankings are quite useful. Producers I know often use the rankings as a starting point.)

It is possible to make a movie based on a script without a great hook, and without bankable elements -- a script so stunningly moving, and brilliantly written, that it draws the passion and dedication of many people to make the film with whatever money they can find and whatever actors they can afford. The odds are hugely against it. When such pictures are made, there are usually other factors at work. Government grants for pictures made in foreign countries account for some of these exceptions. Niche market pictures account for most of the rest: pictures made for a built-in core audience, such as Smoke Signals, a charming drama about Native Americans, or Go Fish, a clever romance about lesbians. A tiny fraction of all films released in the United States are made this way. Many more films made this way are not released at all, which means the people who have maxed out their credit cards to make them are now reading Do Your Own Bankruptcy at the public library. The bottom line, assuming you do not have a bankable element attached, and you're not bankable yourself, is that you need a great hook or your screenplay is not going to get made.

Finding Hooks

I've discussed what a great hook is. How do you think up a great hook?

C'mon, if I had that secret, would I give it away for free?

Sure I would. I want to see good movies.

I have no idea how you think up a great hook. Everyone has their techniques. Brainstorming with friends about the sort of pictures you'd like to see is a good way. A producer I know goes to the video store and tries to figure out how he can steal a plot from one genre (say, a Western) and transpose it to another genre (science fiction, say, or romantic comedy). I like to steal plots from great works of literature and operas and change the time, setting and genre. Everyone has different ways of coming up with hooks.

The key point is to come up with lots of hooks. Don't be too married to any one hook until you've tested a lot of hooks out on the right audience.

Pitch Your Idea

The first step in testing out your idea is to run it past the audience: ordinary people who watch movies.

Tell your story idea to anyone who'll listen. Tell your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your dry cleaner, your waitress, your bartender, your kids, the baby sitter, old people on park benches. Listen closely to their reaction and watch their faces. Are they sparking to your idea? Do they want to go see your movie? Or are they just being nice and friendly?

(Kids, do not try this where professional screenwriters drink their coffee, or where producers schmooze, at least not until you've written the script. People don't usually steal ideas intentionally, but if they overhear you, they might convince themselves they thought of it.) When you tell your story idea to civilians, a few things will happen:

  • You'll find out if anyone's interested. If nobody's interested, same as with query letters, either come up with a better idea, or a better way of phrasing your idea, and try again.
  • You'll hear about the competition: all the books and movies that your query reminds people of. There may be some you haven't heard of. If one of them is recent and very similar, now might not be the time to write yours.
  • If they're interested, they may interrupt with "and he's really in love with her, right?" or "and he's really evil, right?" These reactions may give you good ideas, but even if they're off base, they're telling you the sort of things your audience wants to see. You shouldn't take every suggestion -- that's your call, not theirs -- but you should hear what people are saying.

The most important thing that will happen is that your story will start to build itself. Stories grow in the telling. Everybody has stories they tell that start out mostly true and get a little bit better and a little bit more, uh, imaginative in the telling. Fictional stories will also grow if you let them. Letting them just means telling them to people before you write them down, instead of after.

Telling your story to people is the single most powerful screenwriting tool there is. And it's free. It is, in fact, worth a column all by itself. That's why the next column will be... the pitch.

Next Column: The Pitch.

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