“All you need for a screenplay is an original idea.

It doesn’t have to be your original idea.”

So you wanna write a screenplay? As discussed in the last blog post, an original idea is key. If you can’t sum up the key idea at the heart of screenplay in a sentence or two, then you likely don’t have a commercial screenplay idea on your hands. Of course, some screenplays which don’t meet this requirement get made for other reasons: because they have stars and/or spectacle, because the writer or director is in the Green Awning stage of their career and can get anything made, or – just occasionally – because the story really does have something going for it that can’t be summed up in a handful of pithy words. The Shawshank Redemption is a good example, but notice that it didn’t do great box office on its first release – it found its audience through word-of-mouth and on video and DVD.

But you aren’t Frank Darabont (unless you are, in which case – hi!) who had ten years and a dozen screen credits to his name when he got his Shawshank made. You want to give yourself every opportunity to stand out from the crowd, and that means you don’t start writing, you don’t even start outlining until you have a killer idea which paints pictures of wonderful scenes in the minds of all who hear it.

Just how do you come by these things? Here are a couple of approaches.

Start with something which interests you. Could be a relationship, could be a profession, could be an emotion. Now explore that terrain, looking for the drama. Try making some arbitrary choices and see how those associations affect the story.

Let’s say you’re interested in grief. Who grieves most when someone dies? A lover? A parent for their child? The two ideas go in very different directions. The parent grieving for their child is about loss of potential. So, increase the strength of that choice by making the lost child a baby or a toddler, and the parent much older. Make it a mother and take away the father to isolate her even more (the marriage failed after the death of the child). Now break the routine. What happens today, years later, which confronts her with this loss?

She discovers that the doctor screwed up and that her child could have lived? She meets a young man who resembles her child and fantasizes that he *is* her child? She is haunted by her child’s ghost? She steals a baby?

Once you have a strong idea like that, the other arbitrary choices you make colour the story. Is she a rich lawyer, or on benefits? Either would work, but it’s a different story. Is this a present day story, or a historical drama? Either would work, but it’s a different story.

Maybe you hate all of these as story ideas, but hopefully you can see the process at work here.

Other writers take a totally different approach. When John Cleese began writing A Fish Called Wanda, he and Charlie Crichton each volunteered ideas for comic set pieces which they wanted to see. Cleese wanted to see a scene in which a man with a stammer tried to communicate important information to someone else, whose agitation only made the stammer worse. Crichton wanted to see a scene in which a man was squashed flat by a steamroller. Essentially the rest of the film was built to lead up to and provide a context for those scenes, as well as to find parts for Cleese, Palin, Kline and Curtis.

Cleese notes that many people imagine that Michael Palin killing the dogs must have been one of the scenes they started with, but actually it was one of the last things they added, and it was needed to solve a problem. At the beginning of the film, Curtis and Kline commit the robbery, in the middle of the film they double-cross each other, and at the end of the film, Curtis escapes with Cleese. At the beginning of the film, Cleese discovers the plot, in the middle of the film, he is seduced by Curtis and attacked by Kline, at the end of the film, he escapes with Curtis. So far so good. Now comes Michael Palin. At the beginning of the film, Palin commits the robbery with Curtis and Kline. At the end of the film, Palin teams up with Cleese. What does Palin do in the middle of the film? The rest of the structure doesn’t provide a role for him. Cleese’s logic was that if a robbery has been committed, one potential complication is that there was a witness. The obvious solution is to bump her off. It’s funnier if she’s a a querulous old lady, and funnier still if with each attempt to kill her, vegetarian Ken knocks off one of her dogs instead. Eventually, as the third and final dog is eliminated, the old lady keels over due to a heart attack.

This brings us on to my final suggestion. Begin with a star – but not a top rank star. Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise still get sent pretty much every script out there. But writer/director Rod Lurie got his first movie made by writing a part for Joan Allen. Lurie was (and no doubt is) a smart cookie. A film journalist for Empire magazine, he managed to persuade his editor to let him write a screenplay on company time, on the basis that his failure to get it made would make for an entertainingly bathetic series of articles (imagine that – your boss paying for you to write your screenplay!). Happily for Lurie, his Joan Allen gambit worked. Allen, who’d had great roles in movies like Tucker and Peggy Sue Got Married in the 80s was entering the mom phase of her career, but Lurie hoped that a star part would attract her, and with her attached he could get the screenplay made. He did, and he got to direct it. It’s called The Contender.

Finally, almost too obvious to be worth mentioning, but keep a notebook, or iPhone or something handy to record story ideas as they occur to you. I read recently about a sysadmin who refused to give his boss the passwords to the company computers and was eventually jailed by a judge who held him in contempt of court. That’s an awfully long way away from a 110 page screenplay, but it’s a little nugget of an idea that might continue to grow. I’m attracted by the undermining of the power relationship, and the totally different world views at work. Essentially, the sysadmin doesn’t want his boss or anyone else going anywhere near the system he’s set up, which is now running so sweetly.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.