All stories start with an idea. An idea’s the seed out of which all else grows. However, sometimes it’s difficult to even find a seed in the first place. There’s no greater frustration than banging your head for new ideas and coming up blank. Today, I’m going to guide you through my favorite ways to generate great screenwriting ideas so that you can get back in the saddle and churn out those pages once again.
A while ago a writer friend suggested that I should always carry a notebook with me wherever I go. His logic was that most ideas come to us when we’re not at the desk. Having a notebook means that when you have a screenwriting idea, you can immediately write it down without having to worry about remembering it. This was interesting, but why not just use the notes app on a phone?
There are a few reasons. The first is that having a notebook on you at all times is a subtle reminder to keep thinking when you’re out and about. Secondly, handwriting an idea requires more time to think it through which can turn a fragment of an idea into something more solid. Thirdly, a notebook is more appealing to review than scattered ideas in a notes app. I took his advice and haven’t looked back since.
This is a concept I created. Simply put, instead of discarding your screenwriting ideas, put them in a document dubbed “The Idea Graveyard”. This is where you put all those ideas that never worked out, you couldn’t figure out, or were just plain bad, alongside any peripheral work/research you did for each. Pile the entries up and soon you’ll have a veritable field of idea tombstones.
Here’s why it works. Truth is, sometimes we come up with ideas before we’re ready to write them. Sometimes we just don’t have the know have the insight or the experience to properly tackle the idea. However, returning to The Idea Graveyard after some time can allow you to unearth ideas you’d previously buried that are now ready to see the light of day.
Stephen King once said that he gets all his ideas by combining two disparate notions into a single story. In my experience, I’ve found this to hold true. Sometimes you have an idea but it isn’t a story all on its own. Maybe it doesn’t have the legs to support a second act or it just plain isn’t interesting enough.
However, if you get one screenwriting idea and try mixing it with other ideas you’ve had, the resulting concoctions can be incredibly inspiring or just downright brilliant. All my best scripts are those that started by combining disparate ideas into a cohesive whole.
Our brains need stimulation. Without it, we’d undoubtedly go mad. Having new things to consider and interact with sparks our neurons and helps put our minds into overdrive. How do you expect to come up with new screenwriting ideas when you’re in the same old room, in the same old chair, staring at the same old computer?
This is (I believe) one of the reasons why writers love coffee shops. They’re familiar spaces but they’re just different enough that it feels like a change of scenery. That feeling plus a hefty dose of caffeine can get those fingers typing in no time.
Writers need to be sponges. You should look at life with curiosity and openness, delighting in something new and interesting. You should always be learning and absorbing the world around you. Closing yourself off to the world is an easy way to lose inspiration. Try and take a genuine interest in the news, in your friend’s boring anecdotes, and in the important science article that’s rolled across your feed.
Being a sponge is like firing sparks into a barrel of gunpowder. Sure, one spark might not be enough to create an explosion of ideas, but the more sparks you allow to fly eventually one will strike and a new brilliant idea will form. Sticking to your comfort zone is the safest way to make sure that barrel never explodes.
Believe me, I’m hardly one for exercise myself, but I’ve come to realize just how useful it is as a tool to get the brain churning. Usually, when I sit at home all day and do nothing at all I can feel like a fog has settled over my mind, making it dusty and inactive. However, starting the day off with vigorous exercise gets the mind active and churning. I rarely feel sharper than after a particularly grueling workout.
Here is your excuse to bunk off and watch some of your favorite media. Truth is, sometimes it takes enjoying other’s art to get ideas to spark. That’s totally okay. In fact, engaging with TV/Movies is a great way of figuring out what kind of stories you’re interested in. If you watch a good movie, ask yourself what exactly it was that engaged you. If it’s bad, figure out what you would improve to make the story better. Then you can apply the very same lessons to your own ideas!
Please don’t stay just in this one field. Like I mentioned before, we crave stimulation, and just ingesting one type of art is a surefire way for that dust to settle in our brains. Listen to some crazy music, play the new video game that everyone’s raving about, visit a museum or an art gallery, watch a play, read a book, read a non-fiction book. Whatever works, do it. Sometimes our greatest inspirations can come from outside the medium.
For me, this is the hardest to do. Sometimes, all you can do is wait and let ideas percolate in your head. You can force ideas to a certain extent, but after a while you just need to let your subconscious do the necessary work. Forcing an idea can just make you feel frustrated when it inevitably doesn’t work out. This is a good time to take a break, or work on another project that’s already fully realized.
Being a sponge is about absorbing new knowledge, but on a different level simply experiencing life can provide the necessary wisdom required to find a compelling idea. Going through the process of life, both the good and the bad, can help you find those universal moments of being human. I guarantee if you feel it, someone else has, too. Those universal moments are perfect fodder for a screenwriting idea. However, you can’t force those moments. They’ll happen organically.