If you’re like me you’ve got dozens of seemingly “great” screenplay ideas floating around in your head.  But how do you narrow your ideas down and figure out which ones are worth investing the time and energy to turn into a complete screenplay?

My writing partner, Nathan Ives, and I are close to finishing a screenplay so we’re starting to kick around some ideas for another spec.  Here are some of the considerations that we’ve been talking about when one of us has an idea for a script.

Keep in mind a lot of my considerations have to do with our own writing process.  This blog post is more about me trying to crystallize our process of choosing an idea to write than it is about trying to tell anyone else how they should do it.  Use your own instincts and come up with your own list of considerations.  I’d be curious to hear how other writers narrow down their ideas.

The character driven story

Nathan and I seem to do our best work when we have a strong interesting character driving the story forward.  If you’re good at coming up with interesting stories I don’t think this needs to be a major focus for you at this stage.  Most Hollywood films are story driven not character driven so while this is probably the main focus for us at this point, it definitely does not have to be for others.  But for us to be at our best the story must revolve around a strong willed, often eccentric character (and an equally strong antagonist).  It seems like we usually come up with a loose idea for a story and then figure out our main character and then start to build our story around our main character.  The scripts that have turned out the best are the ones where we we’re able to create a really strong main character (or antagonist) who drives the story forward with a single minded focus.  While the scripts that we’ve written that have felt flat usually rely more heavily on story.

A strong ending

While this may seem obvious, I can’t tell you the number of “great” ideas I’ve had over the years that simply didn’t lead to a highly compelling dramatic ending.  Without a rush at the end your movie will be forgotten and unremarkable.  I recently saw Hamlet 2.  Overall I didn’t think the movie was very good.  Neither the story nor the characters were novel or interesting.  We’ve seen the good hearted teacher teaching kids who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks before and it was pretty obvious where this movie was going to end up.  Much of the comedy felt forced and stilted.  However, the ending was great.  It was funny.  It paid everything off and it made the predictable ending worth watching.  The ending wasn’t surprising but it was very entertaining.  After the movie was done I felt like I enjoyed it because the ending was so strong.  I’m not saying you can save 80 minutes of drek if the last 20 minutes are fantastic but a strong ending can save an otherwise average movie.  And more importantly a really strong ending can make a good movie great.

Don’t start writing your script until you’ve got a great ending worked out.  If the story idea doesn’t naturally end in a big dramatic climactic moment the idea may not be worth pursuing.

A marketing plan

Unless someone is paying you to write a script you should seriously consider taking a step back from your idea and think a little bit about the marketing of your script/film.  The more scripts I’ve written the more I’ve realized how important this step is – because I’ve overlooked it myself on so many projects.

There is really two parts to this when you’re in the early stages of developing a story idea.  First, figuring out how you’re going to pitch your script.  Second, coming up with an actionable list of ways you’re going to get your script made.

Your logline and pitch are what’s going to get this script read.  If people won’t read your script it doesn’t matter how good it is.  I highly recommend that you write your logline before you start writing your script.  If you can’t come up with a great logline it might mean that your story idea isn’t worth pursuing.  Don’t overlook this step and think “once the script is written I’ll be able to come up with a great logline.”  If you can’t do it now you probably won’t be able to do it when the script is finished either.

I highly encourage you to read and follow the advice that I give in my How to Sell Your Screenplay (in a nutshell) post.  While this is certainly an actionable marketing plan it shouldn’t be your only marketing plan.  In fact, sending out cold query letters to production companies, while it can work, should probably be a last resort.  If you’re new to screenwriting it might be your only option but as you develop as a screenwriter I highly encourage you to try and find other avenues for your material.

As an example, the script that Nathan and I are about to finish will go through three marketing phases.

First, our manager will send it to contacts that he personally has and Nathan and I will send it to contacts that we personally have.  A personal contact is a much stronger submission because they’re already at least some-what familiar with your work and are much more likely to give it a real read.

Second, if we don’t get any traction from any of our (or our manger’s) contacts Nathan and I will do a little bit of producing and see if we can raise some (or all) of the money to shoot the movie ourselves.  While this isn’t an easy proposition it’s a great way to learn more about the business side of writing.

Finally, depending on how much of the money we raise (if any) we will then consider sending out cold query letters as I describe in my How to Sell Your Screenplay (in a nutshell) post.  If we’ve raised a significant portion of the money our cold query letters will probably get a much better response rate.  What can you do to increase the response rate you get from cold query letters?

While this may not be a brilliant marketing plan it does give us at least a few clear actionable items to work on.  Of course while we’re pursuing these options we’ll also be starting on our next screenplay.

In the comments section feel free to offer up your own advice for how you narrow down your story ideas and find one to turn into a full screenplay.

3 thoughts on “Finding an idea for a script”
  1. […] Scream 3, The Skeleton Key, and The Brothers Grimm. In building on my post from last week about how to pick an idea to write into a full screenplay I found this bit from the interview […]

  2. I find this to be great advice. Very useful, but I got the log line done half ways through the script writing process, coz’ that’s what I did. Is it, in your mind still worth pursuing?
    Good luck to everyone in hot pursuit of dreams.

    1. Rick G;

      If you’ve written half your script and are just now thinking about your logline that’s okay. But take the time now to try and hone your logline a bit. And next time you write a script perhaps give it some thought before you start writing. But no, I don’t think you should abandon your script.

Comments are closed.