Wherein we differentiate a killer concept from its lesser forms.
Welcome to the first installment of this analysis of “Side Effects,” the currently-playing film by Steven Soderbergh. Look for it as a Best Original Screenplay nominee next year… I’m calling that one now.
The context of these posts will be to create learning by using the film to illustrate the core principles of storytelling excellence – the Six Core Competencies, and the Six Realms of Story Physics that empower them. I haven’t interviewed the screenwriter (Scott Z. Burns) or the director (Soderbergh), so I can’t speak for them regarding the process of developing the story, including how and where where they started.
But that doesn’t matter here. For all I know (though I doubt it), they backed into this brilliant premise after years of hit and miss. What matters is what this story teaches us about how to wield tools – such as Concept – to reach a compelling end result, without years of hit and miss.
The Importance of Concept to This Story
And to YOUR story.
The notion of “concept” has been kicked around on this site over the past two weeks, as well as in over 200 Storyfix posts (for the several folks who answered my recent call for topics with “could you explain more about Concept, please?”… use the search bar to find them, listed in reverse chronological order). The precise definition of a “story concept” remains imprecise, as does the minds of many on what it means to a story in development.
The mission of a concept, however, it crystal clear.
In my opinion, it means everything. In general, and to “Side Effects.”
A properly rendered Concept identifies your CORE STORY, without actually exploring. It is the end-game of the narrative strategy you are about to put into play. And thus, it fuels every scene with CONTEXT. When you watch the film a second time (or after this series), you’ll see that context, often sub-textual, in each story beat, even those that appear before Channing Tatum’s body hits the floor.
That’s the first take away, from this or any other story that works: the narrative unfolds IN CONTEXT TO THE CONCEPT from page 1. (And yes, I know I’m repeating this… and I will again… this point alone can literally cut decades off your learning curve.)
So what IS the concept of “Side Effects”?
Let’s play a little game with that, starting with what this concept isn’t.
The point is to recognize when – and how – a statement of story concept comes up short, when it’s not good enough, deep enough, or compelling enough… even though it’s not technically off-topic, per se. For example: you say The Davinci Code, novel and film, is “about paintings by Leonardo Davinci.” That’s your tale on the concept. Are you wrong? In the context of a writer trying to identify the core conceptual story and USE that as a story development too… that’s absolutely a wrong answer.
I see this ALL THE TIME in the stories sent to me. Which is why I’m pounding on it here. Concepts that, a) aren’t really concepts at all, and b) seem to be a discarded and wasted tool, a placeholder, because the core story that follows turns out to be something else entirely.
Usually, that’s dramatic suicide.
The following statements of concept all pertain to “Side Effects.”
I’ve categorized them as either:
- NOT so good.
- Okay, but without a compelling story emerging.
- Sufficient, you can sniff a story here, but it could be better.
- Nails it.
That last one is the killer concept. The one they made the movie from. The one YOU should shoot for AS SOON AS POSSIBLE in your process (ahead of time if you plan, or if you’re a pantser, as quickly in the drafting sequence as possible, so you can start over on a new draft that will be written from this higher/better context).
Because – and feel free to tattoo this to your forehead – this, when you find it, is WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT!!!!!
Let’s be clear, the core story in “Side Effects” is NOT, at its core, a look at the dark side effects of prescription drugs. That’s a by-product of what IS the dramatic concept, which, as it turns out, is a murder mystery. That false start is purposeful and strategic. Be very clear on this: it’s not there because the writer started down one road and took a dramatic turn elsewhere.
One more thing before we begin.
Let’s review the mission, the purpose, of a killer story concept. It is much more specific and dramatic than defining a topic, a subject, an arena, a setting or a theme. It is more specific than “the adventures of” the protagonist (the most common shortcoming of too many non-fucntional concepts).
Concept is, rather, a compelling proposition, a question that demands an answer (even if not stated as a question, it implies one). It brings something inherently interesting and urgent to the story arena. It is inherently interesting and fresh.
It promises, even by implication, drama through tension and conflict. It is about something happening.
It is not necessarily focused on the hero, but rather, about the forthcoming implication of a hero’s quest… something the hero must do or achieve. A problem or a goal.
It doesn’t go anywhere near trying to answer to the question it poses. That’s not part of the concept’s job. That’s YOUR job, via the narrative sequence.
And, it does it all in one sentence, or one efficiently stated question. It’s always a matter of depth and degree… you get to decide on that count. But the goal is ALWAYS the identification of the CORE DRAMATIC STORY, rather than just the arena or theme or character.
“A story about a blind orphan” is not a concept. Yet. “A story set in Ireland in the 1300s, about a ghost and a descendant” is not a concept.
A compelling question leads to a itch for an answer, which becomes the story itself. You’ll notice that not all of the preliminary “Side Effects” concepts below have such a question… for the simple reason that the insufficient ones don’t really lead to one, other than… “So what? What the hell happens?”
So let us begin.
Here is the evolutionary thread for the concept for “Side Effects,” beginning with a few story ideas, technically relevant, that DON’T PROVIDE SUFFICIENTLY ROBUST CONTEXT for a dramatic story.
NOT SO GOOD
A story about the dangerous side effects of depression drugs.
A wife kills her husband with the help of her lover.
A story about a shrink and his depressed patient.
A story about a stock market scam.
A story about a broken legal system.
All of these are ideas. Fodder. None of them imply conflict, and all could be a documentary on PBS. None of these are STORIES yet.
OKAY, BUT NOT COMPELLING ENOUGH
“What if a woman on prescription antidepressant drugs kills her husband and blames the side effects of her prescription?”
“What if two lovers conspire to murder the husband of one of them and get rich in the process?”
Why aren’t these good enough, even when combined? Because a story told from either of these context’s could easily be episodic. It needs more drama, more layering, the promise of a twist and an emerging hero.
SUFFICIENT, BUT WITHOUT A COMPELLING STORY EMERGING
A story about a wife who kills her husband and tries to cover it up with a profitable market scam involving prescription drugs, diverting the blame to her shrink. (Which can be framed as a question…)
“What if a woman fakes dire side effects to the antidepressants she’s been prescribed, claiming the side effects caused her to blackout and murder her husband while sleep-walking?”
Notice how this covers it, the whole story is in there, conceptually, even while leaving some plot threads out. That while this is good, but not great.
“What if a wife and her lover conspire to create the illusion that her use of prescription depression drugs is responsible for the death (at her hand ) of her ex-con husband, for the twofold agenda of eliminating him while making millions in the market from the resultant scandal, all the while diverting blame on the shrink who gave her the drug in the first place?”
Each story point, each twist and shift, that you saw in the movie is birthed FROM this highest hierarchical level of concept.
Why is each succeeding iteration of this concept more effective than the one before it? Why is the last one the best one?
Easy. The answer is the point of all of this, so please get it: because these are aspects, nuances and focuses the WRITER MUST UNDERSTAND FROM PAGE ONE of the story being written, in the draft that will ultimately work best. And, it has taken on a compelling essence that was missing, in specificity and degree, from the earlier iterations.
This is the CORE story. Not the thematic message about antidepressants. Not a depressed woman driven to desperation. This is a MURDER MYSTERY, with THRILLER elements driving it. The fun of seeing this film is in believing you are experiencing one core story, itself compelling, when it fact it’s something else entirely, and has been since the opening credits. You were fooled… not by trickery, but by masterful storytelling that immerses the audience in the dramatic experience in a visceral way.
Each scene in the Part 1 SETUP is in context to THIS concept. The movie even flashes back to show you that context, which remained almost completely cloaked in stealth until… the MID-POINT.
Right on schedule, I might add.
Imagine trying to write this story without knowing, a) the drug thing was all a scam, a setup, from the very beginning; b) that there were two women behind it; c) that the killer’s real doctor (not her lover-doctor) had a sketchy background that might implicate him, and d) that doctor (Jude Law) will set out to correct it, with is own character arc at stake.
That, in fact, JUDE LAW is the hero and protagonist of this story. Try to wrap your head around not knowing that, as the writer. Imagine trying to PANTS this thing.
You couldn’t You could use the organic pantsing as a MEANS OF STORY DISCOVERY, but from that point on you AREN’T making it up as you go along. Because its all now IN CONTEXT TO SOMETHING.
And that something is the CONCEPT.
You must, at some point, come to KNOW what your CORE STORY is… what your story is REALLY ABOUT in a DRAMATIC context. Your own original “idea” just might sabotage you if you don’t.
You can’t manipulate your reader to optimize story physics, you can’t execute that narrative strategy, without KNOWING.
And how to you know? Your CONCEPT tells you.
So DON’T SETTLE on this, the most empowering element of your story development. “The adventures of…” won’t be good enough. The arena won’t be enough. The theme won’t be enough.
DRAMATIC TENSION, emerging from your CONCEPT… is what you need. It is, in fact, the very thing that will EMPOWER your theme and setting, perhaps where your passion for the story began. Without this concept, “Side Effects” would have been a linear character profile of a depressed woman, more suited to PBS than a mass audience.
You need to fully understand what your CORE story is ultimately ABOUT,… dramatically (versus thematically)… both internally and externally (to the hero)…. beyond its theme. Beyond its character arcs and internal struggle. Beyond it’s plot points.
The concept and the core story it tells are what FACILITATES all of those important things. The theme and the character arc EMERGE from the core story, they AREN’T the core story.
Which is also to say: you need to know how your story will END before you can write a draft worthy of having FINAL on the cover page.
Your statement of concept may not tell you that, but it will tell you what road to take – the most compelling and rewarding road – to get there.
Click HERE to read Part 2 in this series.
NEXT in this series: evolving the concept into a narrative sequence… what decisions are involved, and where to put those story points, using “Side Effects” as an example. And… it may not be what you think it is, thus illustrating a very advanced and brilliant storytelling strategy… one YOU can emulate in your own work.
Also, I’ll provide a scene log (sequential scene summary) of the entire film, with major story milestones identified.