“I’ve come up with a great idea for a movie”

…sometimes a worrying phrase. In a USC podcast, Jane Espenson talks about the difference between compelling ideas and compelling characters. She’s using the example of sci-fi, but this also applies to stories where writers and producers are campaigning, or have some sort of message they want to give:

The reason why a lot of people think that they don’t like sci-fi is because they are remembering the heavy-handed Star Trek episodes like the one with the character with a black and white face. There’s no characters in this show, there’s just an idea: “racism is bad.” That doesn’t suggest two characters having a really interesting revelation about each other. It could, but it doesn’t necessarily. I think that the new Battlestar Galactica is a show that’s about people and that Firefly was too. I think that’s much more interesting…

She went on to say that shows like The Twilight Zone were about nifty little ideas – less so about character interactions.

Listen to the rest of the podcast to hear how finding the right character to explore an interesting situation makes the story much more rewarding.

She also talks about writing scenes where you are constantly change allegiance between two people in a scene. You find yourself feeling sympathy or even agreeing with the antagonist. She got her job exec producing Battlestar Galactica by telling the creator that she liked the show because there was no moral ‘cheat sheet’ for the audience: From show to show or from scene to scene it is hard to say who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. That’s compelling for audiences.

Visit her blog for a lot more on screenwriting.

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