Writers Boot Camp uses the term “conceit” to describe a specific approach to the content of your movie, television show or web series that distinguishes it from others, especially in the case of material or subject matter that may be similar. More advanced than a component or story decision, a conceit addresses and describes the audience experience of your story. It’s a writing tool and also a tool for collaboration with the team of developers and filmmakers.
A conceit is an approach to a story component, or combination of components, rather than the component itself. In its broadest expression, it’s a phrase or notion that points to a unique layer of material in the project. In more practical terms, a conceit is a statement, a single-sentence description of that unique approach that includes words and phrases to express the combination of components and ingredients that form the DNA of the project. A conceit statement is in effect a title of a list of setpieces that illustrates the script’s entertainment concept, which in turn represents the primary layer of material that will ultimately attract an audience.
Character Conceit Versus Story Conceit
There are two major kinds of conceits: Character Conceit and Story Conceit. If you don’t like the word conceit, then replace it with the word unique. Character Conceit describes an elevating approach to a character. Beyond misbehavior, which enhances development by activating character and connecting theme to story, a Character Conceit combines a handful of traits (usually, at least five or six) to portray a character we’ve never seen before. Character Conceit is about unique personality, not what a character does but how they appear and engage others uniquely. While some characteristics will imply action, the conceit statement is created by listing a package of traits, including misbehavior, accents, appearance, modes of dress, disabilities, special skills, etc.
A Story Conceit, on the other hand, is based on a source of unique action, often found in a detail of action not seen before. A Story Conceit is about what a character does, who they do it with and the nature of related encounters throughout the story. A Story Conceit can be a different spin on a situation or adventure, a fresh take on a story paradigm, the special nature of the dynamic relationship or rivalry with the opponent, a look behind the scenes of an arena or social strata or, in rare cases, a twist or surprise ending. In most cases, storytelling method is not a Story Conceit in that arranging story is simply accessing elements of the medium and not compelling enough on its own to be the primary driver of an audience experience.
Often, the challenge of creating and defining conceits is like splitting the atom. Many conceits may overlap at first glance. For example, it may be difficult to separate behavior from action. That’s a good problem to have. In fact, so few A-list writers create entirely fresh characters and therefore a new writer can inspire a sense in the script reader that they are a more skilled and intentional writer through a Character Conceit due to the energy evoked on the page whenever that character appears.
Whether you can nail the words in the Conceit Statement, the setpieces on the page are more important than the exercise. Still, the goal is to use the conceit to empower your development process. The more you work toward stronger descriptions, like our process of compacting and enhancing Premise Lines, the more effectively you will also pay off the approach by consciously integrating the project DNA into lines of scene direction and line of dialogue, which is where concept and scene work intersect.
Your Conceit Goals
If you have only one conceit, then the silver lining in a difficult industry is that your project can be justified by having at least one unique source of entertainment. Few projects require more than two conceits. In fact, depending on the inspiration for your script and the particular circumstances of your story, one Character Conceit and one Story Conceit could represent plenty of source material. The distinction lies between sources of material and fresh sources. The story components are each important sources of scene ideas, but conceits are the fresh sources of material that make or break your project.
Be economical in your description of each conceit, as you would in your Premise Line. If you find that you have multiple conceits, test each one to find if it really belongs as a sub-category of another. Combine them when possible to discover a more particular way of phrasing it, like a flashlight in the dark, or better, a particular food aisle in a grocery store.
Again, some story ideas carry more energy due to a quirkier nature of their origin. This isn’t an exact science. In general, story is content is component. Style is approach is conceit. What happens is content, how it happens is conceit. Imagine watching a sporting event with only one announcer doing play-by-play. If the camera is anywhere near the action, then the announcer is redundant to what can be seen. It’s the color commentator that elevates the significance of the detail being pointed out and brings an overlay to the experience.
Even when you feel that you’ve defined your conceits, think again. It’s easy to fall into a trap of complacency. While all of these tools are designed to help you decide how your story works, conceit as we use the term, is also requiring that the approach has not been seen before. For example, you may know that the main character is trying to cross the country to get home. That would represent priority scene source and a high percentage of the journey of the story (screen time). That would say a lot about how the script works and empower you to write it. But it might not yet represent a conceit, a fresh version of a cross country trek (road trip).
Once you clarify the story components, the next step is to question the way you tell your story. What do you personally bring to the story? What is your particular treatment of the subject? How is your idea entertaining? How do the other elements of the medium interplay? What is the source of your inspiration? In other words, what is your vision?
Misbehavior is a huge step above ordinary action, action without thematic significance. In addition to its role as a defining building block, it empowers a writer to activate each scene. When characters interact with each other based on their individual misbehavior’s the story moves forward more organically.
In the hierarchy of conceits character is supreme because we remember great characters. Even soft scripts that never make it to market may stand out through character conceits.
A Character Conceit is developed from the integration and awareness of all of the qualities of that person, a package of traits. This package or persona includes windows, misbehaviors, affectations, accents and disabilities. These things are mostly what we can see.
While it’s true that what someone does determines who he is–action conveys intention, integrity, spirituality–character activity is not always enough to overcome the challenge of creating entertaining and fresh material. Action without thematic consequences or metaphorical relevance is often the equivalent of simple plot which, unless heightened with high production value, rarely elevates to significant dramatic levels.
Acting is a license to misbehave. The range of detailed character disposition and emotion is what connects the star to a role and the role to the audience. But action and its evolved descendant misbehavior pale to the task of creating a unique persona. Character Conceit, your approach to a role rather than the content of it, is about developing a unique persona and a potential franchise character. Again, a memorable character whose way of interacting and engaging an audience, therefore engaging our attention, is truly attracting to name actors and their handlers.
See your work of creating unique characters as Special Affects, an obvious take-off on the traditionally technological term special effects. While a conceit may be as simple as a device setting it apart from other stories, your ability to connect the person in the story to the action will elevate your material from the norm. The moments may stem from the length of the character’s journey, or a ticking clock, or the material associated with the arena of the story. It can be the way you inform, or tease, or purposefully engage the audience. This process is often one of making decisions by degrees.
Understanding conceits is the key to proving your concepts and developing better scripts. Once you establish your project’s conceits, the main task of development is to populate the structure of the story with special moments. A setpiece is simply a window that carries the special intention of your conceit and then testing that the actions of the characters are organic to who they are and the details of the story.
Remember that it is redundant to call a conceit fresh. A conceit is an approach you take to a project, or a component of a project, that provides many setpieces (entertaining moments) that haven’t been done quite that way before. A character conceit, though perhaps owing to an archetype in the legacy of dramatic material, is an individual whose persona is particularly engaging.
It’s NOT a requirement that your project have a character conceit, though a memorable character may personalize your writing and create casting possibilities in the minds of those who could determine the fate of your script. If you have a Character Conceit as well as a Story Conceit, then you’re in an upper percentile of creative people in the business.
Misbehavior is a term used to get close to the essence of what makes movie and TV characters accessible. A descendant and enhancement of the industry term character arc–character change over the session of a story–misbehavior is a tool for activating characters and connecting action to the ground wire of thematic resonance.
We refer to Misbehavior applied to the Main Character, who represents the spine of the story, as Building Block Misbehavior because it operates as the cornerstone from which all thematic material is sourced. While a very unique, proprietary Writers Boot Camp invention and term, misbehavior will not only activate your characters but also help you fully develop them in relation to the context of the story.
Based on an expedient first-draft process, including emphasis on developing tools like the Unity Page, the 3-6-3, the Horizontal and brainstorming of setpieces, Writers Boot Camp estimates that a feature-length script can be readable by industry standards within six months, working at a part-time pace of ten hours per week.*
The ratio of tools work versus writing during the first-draft stage would be 80% tools and 20% writing. Once the tools have been established, then the subsequent rewriting stages would flip that ratio to 20% tools, primarily updating and brainstorming for particular issues, and 80% emphasis on writing pages. Of session, the rewriting stages are the primary portion of a Six-Month Full Development process, even with earnest tools development and preparation.
One of the evolving ideas here is a departure from the old view of writing. Screenwriting is challenging because, of session, we’re in a visual medium. We have to show rather than tell. And in making the jump from the ideas that are in your head or in your heart and trying to get that on the page, it’s crucial that you realize that you have to translate those ideas to a form that other people–readers, gatekeepers (the assistants to whom the executives delegate your scripts), the crew who are going to have to interpret (and hopefully not interpret too much) and eventually produce that material–can understand.
Screenwriting is a very conceptual process. The mentality of I’m-a-hard-working-person-and-can-write-120-pages doesn’t quite work, because all content is derivative. Every story has been done before, at least in some way and to some degree. Even BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, an admirably original project, is based on the paradigm of switching bodies. There’s just no such thing as a story that’s totally unique. So, the approach that you take has to mitigate that problem. And in screenwriting that approach proves itself on the page through entertaining moments. Since the story moves through moments of interaction between people, your characters will ideally come across as people and not just props with feet. Hopefully, they’re human beings at a significant stage of their lives, and that stage of life–that experience, that adventure–is going to change them forever.