Writing the High ROI Screenplay (Part 1)

This week we kick off the first in a twelve part series of JT Velikovsky’s doctoral thesis: “Understanding And Exploring The Relationship Between: Creativity; Theories Of Narratology; Screenwriting; And Narrative Fiction Feature Film-Making Practices.”

By JT Velikovsky

Firstly – my thanks to Karel, and to all the gang at The Story Department, for inviting me to blog a series of Guest Posts, relating to my doctoral research on feature film screenwriting / filmmaking. I hope you find all those guest-blogs interesting, informative, and enjoyable to read. Here we go:

So, this famous painting below by Raphael from the 1500’s shows many of the most famous ancient Greek philosophers. That’s actually Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) in the middle there. Pontificating – or – philosophizing. Hard to tell. Maybe they’re pitching ideas for screenplays at each other.


The School of Athens–by Raphael (circa 1510)

They do appear to be holding manuscripts in their hands… And – when we zoom in, you can make out – they ARE actually screenplays:


Plato and Aristotle pitch their screenplay ideas at each other

And –so – there are also, of course, many philosophies on Screenwriting. Mainly as – there are so many different types of story, and therefore film, and therefore screenplay

i.e. Culture evolves.

– Exactly the same way that Biology evolves, right?


That is – as with biological evolution –any `creative system’(e.g. the film industry) functions by:meme (as opposed to gene) selection, variation and transmission.

Both on a macro scale– by `The Field’ (i.e. Film Audiences), and on a micro scale– by individual Writers/Filmmakers.


The Feature Film Industry as a system
(derivedfrom Csikszentmihalyi’s `Systems Model of Creativity’)

So – this model (below)shows how Biology evolves, with: gene selection, variation and transmission

Model of Biological Evolution Source: (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Wolfe 2000: 83)

Model of Biological Evolution
Source: (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Wolfe 2000: 83)

And – Professor MihalyiCsikszentmihalyi (one of the world’s leading experts on: the empirical and scientific study of  Creativity) states – that:

`Creativity is the engine that drives cultural evolution.’

(M. Csikszentmihalyi and Wolfe 2000: 84)

i.e. Creativity – and Cultural Evolution – `work’ the same way, because they essentially are parts of the same system:

Biological Evolution uses genes(digital information, stored on our DNA) – and Cultural Evolution uses memes (i.e. “units of culture” / ideas / concepts) stored in our Culture (in: films, and books, and on weblogs – just like this one you’re reading right now).


Creativity and Cultural Evolution
Figure 2: The Systems Model of Creativity
Source: (M. Csikszentmihalyi and Wolfe 2000: 84)

i.e. As a screenwriter – every single time you have a new idea for a screenplay, you just `selected’that idea from `the meme pool’ right?


The Meme Pool – all the `ideas’ that we are all constantly `swimming’ in, via:Culture
(i.e. ideas – in movies, books, TV shows, songs, paintings, poems, jokes, stories, etc)

From: all the ideas that you know – or have ever seen/thought/heard of, or – can imagine.

e.g. So –let’s examine a film idea:

`Boy meets girl’.

(Not exactly a very `original’ one, right…? And yet – it seems to always be pretty popular for some reason.What’s up with that-? Do our genes mean that: we all find something `timeless’ about certain themes/memes…? That’s a whole separate philosophical discussion, for another time.)


Boy Meets Girl

And so – then – you will inevitably combine it – with another idea.

(Mainly as – the above idea for a film isn’t very exciting/interesting/original/`fresh’ yet… In the same way that say, an ovum and a sperm, aren’t very `promising’ for Creativity – without `each other’…)

e.g. So – combining it with another random concept, then:

`Boy meets girl – in space.’

And then you will likely also vary the idea…

(Mainly as – if it isn’t different/`fresh’/`new’, then – it’s cliché, right?)

Ok so, maybe the idea has now evolved into:

“Boy meets girl in space – during a war.”

(See the movies:Star Wars. John Carter of Mars.Avatar.etc. etc. etc.)

So – as screenwriters, we choose (select) ideas, and vary them (by adding other ideas) and transmit them – into your screenplay.

And – this meme selection, variation and transmissionprocess keeps right on happening, until:

You finally have your story, and: a feature film screenplay on your hands.

And if you’re fortunate – that screenplay becomes a film, and then – the ideas (the memes) in your screenplay get transmitted – into the culture. And the cycle continues.A recursive and iterative loop.

And – if the film (which is a meme) spreads fast through the culture, it’s sort of like: a virus in biology. Like a really contagious flu.


Andso – new film genres, styles and story tropes are `invented’/createdlike this – every single day.

So – by combining two other viral memes, we can end up with a thing that Charles Darwin called hybrid vigor.


Interestingly, Charles Darwin’s great grandson, Matthew Chapman, is a Hollywood screenwriter/filmmaker.

His feature film The Ledge is fascinating.

But I digress.

Anyway, so – perhaps oddly – some new film story genres, styles and tropes`catch on’- and they spread like wildfire, in the Culture.

i.e. Word-of-mouth means: People see a (great) movie, and then say to their friends “OMG – You have gottago see this film..!”

Want more tropes? Go here.

And, yet… other ideas/concepts/stories/films (i.e. memes!) fade away before we even hear about them…

Good article today, on exactly this topic, on i09.com by Charlie Jane Anders about“”: 10 Decent Movies That Were Doomed by Unfair Memes.

(Though – I don’t personally agree with every point. But as that great philosopher Steven Wright once said, `You can’t have everything; where would you put it?’)

Anyway those are a few thoughts from my thesis. (It may be stuff you already know.)

Next month’s post:


– JT Velikovsky


image020JT Velikovsky is a million-selling transmedia writer and consultant (films, games, TV, comix, novels) and produced feature film writer.

His doctoral thesis research on Film/Story/Screenplays of The Top 20 ROI Films can be found here.

Photo Credits: Stock XChng, JT Velikovsky


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