Ideas are the port where this voyage starts. Buy your ticket. Get on board. We’re sailing into uncharted waters.
Whenever I have taught screenwriting, one of the most often asked questions is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Tell you the truth, I buy mine 6 for $10.00 out of a place in Schenectady, New York. No, I am not going to tell you where.
Seriously, ideas are sources by which we as writers move from the state of nature, or reality, to a state of unreality, or fiction. The thing that changes that state is our imagination. Our imagination uses whatever means it has at its disposal to change that state; experiences, dreams, desires, and so forth. In the imagination is where the magic takes place.
While magic is the art and craft of creating illusions of seemingly impossible or supernatural feats by using purely natural means, screenwriting is the art and craft of writing scripts for movies, television, or video games using natural means. In other words, instead of using cards or other techniques, the screenwriter uses the typewriter, or computer if you like, to create illusions.
Like magic, screenwriting uses a three act structure. In the case of magic, the three acts are called the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. In screenwriting, these three acts are called the set-up, the mid-point, and the climax. Like a good magician is always thinking about how a new act fits into his structure, we as writers need to be thinking of how our idea fits into the three act structure
Because of the self-contained nature of movies, ideas for movies or television should have the following attributes: they should be short; they should be high concept; and they should be intriguing. You are asking yourself how short is short? Intriguing, how? And, what is high concept? The answers to these questions are that high concept is the ability to present a simple and captivating story idea in one sentence. The bottom line here is that if you ever have an opportunity to pitch your idea you may get all of two minutes. The ability to encapsulate story concepts into a single pithy sentence comes with practice.
I hear you saying, “That’s dishonest. MOBY DICK is a complex story of man’s conflict with man and nature. How can you reduce it to one line?” Easy. A tortured 19th Century Ship’s Captain seeks the Great White Whale that destroyed his body and took his ship. Short. Intriguing. High Concept. In addition, there is an implied three act structure.
Cute, but how do I go from the ephemeral to the physical? In other words, what are some processes one might use that take from an idle concept to a one-line idea on paper? There are three processes that might help:
Mind mapping is the process where one takes the various transient ideas and puts them around a central theme. Where do you get the central theme? You’re the writer. Make it up. If it does not work, try another. You gotta start someplace. The mind map serves two purposes. First, it allows you to move quickly around the story accepting or disregarding elements as you plug them in. Second, the mind map allows you then to see the story and come up with the simple, intriguing, high concept description.
In the example shown below, I picked the theme of revenge. Then, I assigned characters, characteristics, plot, and motivations. You can make it as complex or as simple as you want. Again, the purpose here is not to outline the whole story; which you could do if you wished, but develop the description. Remember this – writing story descriptions, characterizations, act descriptions, how act breaks work, etc. are all great exercises but doing all those things is not writing. Get the idea on paper and start writing.
Thanks to Heather Hale
Another idea method is the actor method. Pick an actor - John Wayne (Ahh, he was an actor from about 1929 to 1977. Made a lot of movies. THE QUIET MAN. DONOVAN’S REEF. THE SEARCHERS. Okay then, Johnny Depp). What would be your dream fantasy for Johnny Depp? I mean here what would you write in a story about Depp. Here are four ways of looking at the actor method of idea development.
Dream fantasy. What would you have them say in the role you have created?
Low hanging fruit. What other actors you have seen and admired. What would they say or act like in your vision.
Knowledge of stars. You have to have a good working knowledge of an actor’s acting skills-not just her bra size.
Current actors. While the actor may no longer be alive, you have to write the story for contemporary readers.
Writer’s Attribute - Objectivity
Good writers know the quality of their writing relative to industry standards. They know when they've come up with a clever plot twist, a good character entrance, an effective opening sequence. They can tell good work regardless of whether or not they're the ones who came up with that work. Go buy a copy of a good script, put it side by side with yours, and see how your script compares?
Why are you reading this? Go write!
John still practices screenwriting in King County, WA along with a small rat dog, a mortgage, and a great view of the valley.