I ended up on a somewhat depressing note about what lies at the base of a good conceit: 'obvious' works best. And obvious to the point of rank stupidity *still* works. Alas. An obvious conceit's not the only thing that works. We don't all have to write Bratz or Home Alone III. An obvious conceit will get viewers into a theater. But conceit alone won't make them happy.
What gets you to watch a movie again and again?
A&E showed The Godfather twice in a row last night. I am a huge fan of the movie, and one of the reasons I love it so much is that it never fails to offer something new that I missed before. Last night when Michael (Al Pacino) shoots Sollozo and the crooked cop, I saw something I never saw before. A look in Michael's eyes that said, "Oh, that's what shooting someone in the head looks like." You see him become a killer. You see him learning what his father and his associates have always known.
It's brilliant acting, of course. So why bring it up in a screenwriting blog? Because good screenwriting and good acting come from the same place.
The technical term here is 'character intention'. The meaning behind it is being in the moment. When a person walks into a room, they aren't thinking about the drama. When a character walks into a room, they aren't thinking about the drama. They're thinking about their stomach, or impressing a girl, or the gum stuck to the bottom of their shoe. It's what makes the drama real.
I've read many a script that was carefully put together, with a neat symmetry, flawless action descriptions, and absolutely no dramatic energy. Thirty pages in, you're bored stiff. It's a very good script, but there's no oomph. Somehow the characters just aren't there. They doesn't feel individual, concrete, real. I know what's going to happen, because I know the rules the writer is following.
Ths cure for this is more particularity in character intention. It's your free variable. You concentrate on it. You try to bring it into the scene. But you humbly submit when it tells you something you didn't know. It's letting your characters fail when you planned on them succeeding. It's letting them get distracted while the real plot import happens around them. It's letting them REALLY struggle with all the obstacles that populate a good plot.
It's eating what's in the fridge. After a long day, it's almost inevitably easier to eat out. I live in a neighborhood full of amazing, cheap, delightfully varied restaurants. And, inevitably, it feels like there's nothing in the fridge.
But usually there's something in the fridge. And, while it feels easier to head out for food, it also feels better to create something. You find some leeks. you find some bacon. Ah, potatoes. Some tortellini. Before you know it, you've made a tremendous soup, a beautiful and simple salad, and finally cracked open the cheese that goes perfectly with the bread that somehow perfectly fits with the wine you forgot you had on the shelf. All while watching The Godfather. You don't know where it came from, but suddenly you have energy again. Where did it come from?
It came from being where you really are, rather than where you think you want to be.