Jeff Arch wrote the original story that became the movie Sleepless in Seattle. The film was released in 1993 starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and is included on many lists of Best Romantic Comedies. Oddly enough, the film is successful not because it follows a tried-and-true structure, but in spite of the fact that it breaks the basic rules of romantic comedy structure. Rather than the conventional boy-meets-girl set-up, the central couple never actually meets until the film’s final scene. This goes against every basic truism of romantic comedy structure, and by doing so, creates one of the quintessential romantic comedies.
Fortunately, Jeff Arch never doubted his idea, and trusted his writing. Here is an excerpt of an interview with Jeff Arch that can be found here:
This is going to sound arrogant, or something like arrogant if not exactly that—but the night I got the idea, the story sort of all dropped down into place piece by piece. And then, the minute I thought of the title, I knew it. I remember thinking to myself, if I pull this off it’s going to be a monster. I just had this really strong sense that the right people were going to come along and steer it, and that also the wrong people were going to show up too, but the thing would be strong enough to shake them off. And that if any negative elements remained, they’d be like barnacles on a ship—a hassle, and something that needs to be dealt with, but nothing that can stop the momentum.
Reading that quote, you can’t help but imagine that Arch had never been disappointed in his work or had a failure before he wrote Sleepless in Seattle. Only someone new to writing could have such faith that things would come together.
But that’s not true at all. Arch had been through plenty of failure and disappointment before the night he began writing Sleepless. He had been so disappointed by previous failures he had given up writing for years. He once said in an interview that before writing his breakout screenplay, “I’d already failed in every way possible.”
Is this a formula for success? Lots of failure followed by an idea that defies all the rules of its genre? Not necessarily. But what propelled Jeff Arch to success wasn’t what happened before he had the idea for Sleepless in Seattle, but what happened after he had the idea.
Lots of people have great ideas. Lots of great ideas never become anything more than ideas. Here is what set Arch’s Sleepless idea apart:
He trusted his idea. Despite its rule-breaking structure—or maybe because of it—he had faith in the story’s power.
He did the work. He took his idea and he gave it life on the page. He tested it, and proved it could work. He didn’t sell a concept; he sold a script.
He followed through. When Arch wrote Sleepless in Seattle, he was far from a “Hollywood insider.” He was an English teacher in Virginia. He put in the work required to get his story into the right hands.
There are lots of good ideas. In that same interview, Arch says the night he had the idea for Sleepless, he looked up through his skylight and told himself, “for every star in the sky there’s a good idea.”
Don’t get me wrong—I value good ideas! To a writer, a good idea can be life-changing. But not because of the idea alone. Because of the idea and everything that comes after it.
I’d love to know your thoughts—Do you think a strong, original idea guarantees a successful story, or do you think the execution of the idea is the most important part? Is it a combination? Please share your thoughts in the comments!