Where do you get your ideas? It’s a question asked frequently of writers. Personally, I don’t find it hard to come up with ideas. I see movie ideas everywhere because I’m looking for them. If my job were to design airplanes, I would probably get ideas for airplanes all the time. But I don’t because I’m not thinking about that.
Once you’re an established screenwriter you will probably spend most of your time working on ideas that you didn’t originate. You’ll be adapting material or rewriting other people's scripts. That’s what most of the paid work in Hollywood is. But when you’re starting out, you’ll have to write original scripts to get people’s attention. And many working writers like to continue writing original scripts on spec whenever they have the time. So the bottom line is you will need to have some good ideas for movie stories.
If you’re having trouble coming up with story ideas, my first recommendation is to carry around a notebook. You probably have more ideas than you realize, you just don’t remember them. Whenever you read or hear something interesting, meet an interesting person, or hear an unusual bit of dialogue, jot it down in the notebook. Soon you will train yourself to be on the lookout for great ideas for stories, characters, scenes and dialogue.
There’s an old saying – write what you know. Your own life and experiences can be a good source of stories. But you don’t have to develop stories that way. I believe “write what you know” actually means you should write characters with identifiable human emotions, emotions that you yourself have felt. That’s true regardless of whether your character lives a life much like yours, whether they live in the distant past in a far away country, or whether they live in a fantastical, imaginary world.
What you should really be asking yourself is what you’re interested in. For example, I’m interested in SCUBA diving and Antarctica. I combined those two interests to write one of my best scripts – an action adventure about cold-water divers in Antarctica.
Now I’ve never actually done cold-water diving in Antarctica, and I’ve certainly never had to fight terrorists as my characters did. So it was then up to me to find the aspects of the characters’ experience I could relate to. That became the emotional heart of the story. For all the rest, there’s research.
After I have an initial idea, next comes creative development. I’ll add other ideas to the core idea, possibly doing some brainstorming or research. This can take weeks or years. I collect all the little bits of information in a file. Sometimes I’ll end up combining two ideas that I didn’t immediately put together. Eventually, a story will start to coalesce in my mind. I’ll know the main character, their dilemma, and how it will resolve. I’ll also have some good ideas for cool scenes and events.
However not every idea is going to be worthy of turning into a screenplay. There are three major criteria I use to judge whether an idea is worth that level of effort.
The first is whether I really, truly love the idea. And I won’t know the answer to that right away. Just like in romance, some ideas you fall in love with and some are just infatuations. You need to pick the ones you love, because you will be working on them for several months, and often several years. I don’t commit to any idea until I’ve "dated" it for at least several weeks to make sure the initial interest doesn’t wear off. By the same token, if I find myself continually thinking about an idea I had a year ago, it probably merits attention.
The second criterion is does the idea fit with the brand I’m trying to build as a screenwriter. You want to have an identity in the business, and a voice as an artist. Every once in a while I’ll get an idea for, say, a courtroom drama. It might be a very good idea for a courtroom drama, but that’s not the kind of movie I really want to make. So it probably isn’t in my long-term interest to pursue it. I have plenty of ideas; I can find one that better fits my brand.
Finally, the idea has to be commercially viable. Why would I spend half a year on something I know won’t sell? This means it has to be the kind of movie somebody out there is actually making. I might have a fantastic idea for a western, and I might want to make that part of my brand, but the only westerns that have been produced in the last decade came from A-list filmmakers. This business is hard… why make it harder?
At any given time I will probably have a few ideas that match all three criteria slowly simmering in my mind. I’ll gradually develop them as treatments or outlines. But before I move on to writing the first draft, I need to make sure the idea is fully baked. This can be harder than it sounds. Next week I’ll discuss what makes an idea ready for the first draft.
In other news, Ken Aguado and I will be doing a lecture on the art of the two-minute pitch at The Great American Pitchfest on June 21st. If you’re interested in attending, I will be tweeting a discount code on Saturday, May 24th, between 4 and 5 pm that's good for 10% off. You can follow me on Twitter at @dougeboch (if you don’t already), or if you don’t use Twitter, you can check the feed on the home page of my website.