We sometimes forget how important it is to start out with a great idea for a screenplay. The concept has to grab the reader from the start and keep them turning pages. It has to feel familiar, yet original, and at the same time commercial.
If the idea’s not right, writing the script will be a mere exercise. There’s a lot of pressure to “get it right” in the early stages of storytelling. Let’s look at some of the blocks that come up in these early “story stages;”
1. You can’t come up with a decent idea.
These blocks are easier to deal with than “stuck half-way through the screenplay” blocks. Where do writers go for ideas? Everywhere. Newspapers, magazines, plays, novels, your friend’s lives, an autobiographical incident. True stories, (Argo, 12 Years A Slave, The King’s Speech)
Movie ideas can come from TV shows like Law & Order, or Criminal Minds, real life forensic shows, other movies, graphic novels, comic books. Do a classic play –but do it with teenagers in high school. Get yourself thinking, and writing ideas down.
Try writing exercises, think of an interesting character and write a scene, see if it suggests a story. Start with a friend with a problem, a drug addiction, or a friend going through a break up. Write about how your first love affair went sideways.
Another trick is to create writing challenges based on other movies or source materials. What happens to the Sandra Bullock character after Gravity, before or after the end of Gravity ? What happens to the Casey Affleck character a few years after Manchester by the Sea? What happens if Juliet survives and Romeo doesn’t?
2.You have a ton of ideas, but can’t commit to any of them, and when you try, they peter out.
The good news; many of these ideas might make a short film, a web series, or a TV show. If your story seems to peter out, it might be a sign that it’s not meant to be a movie. Try to outline a couple of ideas, but if they don’t seem to fill 110 pages, put them in the drawer. You’ve just been exercising that part of your brain that works on ideas, and now the pump is primed.
At some point down the line, take the pages out of the drawer. Look at them with fresh eyes, you might feel more confident on a day you’re feeling more confident. Change a character, make the antagonist stronger – raise the stakes, you might just solve your story problems.
3. You’re breaking the story, but you can’t get through this one part of it.
If you find yourself forcing things to work, it’s usually a bad sign. If the story dynamics are great to begin with the second and third acts seem to flow freely. Some movies get written in a week, like Taxi Driver. You might need to rethink the early dynamics and see where they lead.
For comedies, take another look at your scenes — make sure they’re inherently funny, and each character has a funny attitude. Funny lines flow more easily coming from a character with a funny attitude. Then you can almost improvise the script.
Sometimes you need to go back and consider what the protagonist wants, but externally and internally. Let those drives show you where your story lies. Look at your antagonist, too. What are the themes running through your story? Pick a direction that will allow you to expound on the theme.
Another method is to free associate. Just start writing ideas for scenes on index cards. Write some that are obviously wrong, but over-do it –write a lot. Write some scenes that clearly belong in another movie – don’t filter so much for this exercise, just “vomit” the ideas out. Go through the ad see what works.
4. You keep imagining the things people are going to criticize about your work and it’s paralyzing.
You’re picturing rejection letters, or depressing phone calls from your agent. It’s early in the process. You’re inner critic is working overtime. You think, why waste time? Why not start something new? That may actually help. Start another project, then when you get to a natural pause, set that aside. Go back to the original project, after loosening up your thought process.
Another way: If that inner critic is too loud, down it out. That critic will be necessary for the rewrite, but while you’re breaking the story, blast the Stones. Led Zepplin. Mozart. Whatever works. When self-critical self-talk occurs, STOP, and get up and do something else. Make coffee. Stop negative thinking, center yourself, clear your head and write.
Once you’ve decided on a great story, you’re halfway there. Then comes the methodical part, cranking out so many pages a day, day in and day out, and deciding to stay on course with your outline or veer off. Different writers do it differently. It’s easy to get stuck there, too.
Image credit: Creative Commons From the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary 2010 by Double-M is licensed under CC By 2.0