Three Fun Games to Help You Find Better Screenplay Ideas
We all have a seemingly endless plethora of ideas for movies rolling around in our head. We may even have written them down for future development.
What if you need more?
… what if you’re flipping through your ideas file, and nothing is begging to be written?
… what if you have an opportunity to meet with a producer, and you don’t want to be unprepared for the inevitable, “What else do you have?”
… what if you just signed with a new manager and have been asked to pitch him 40 new ideas at your meeting next week? It happened to two separate writer friends of mine, so I’d say it’s not a bad idea to have a few hacks in your back pocket.
If you find yourself in any of these situations — or if you just want to practice generating ideas because it’s good for your screenwriter brain muscle, here are three methods you can use to come up with a bunch of story seeds quickly.
Note: I call them story seeds because what you’re coming up with in this initial step are not yet complete screenplay concepts. I mean, I think that’ll be pretty obvious, but still – I’m all for clarity of mission. The whole point of this brainstorming is to generate sparks, and later you’ll see which of them catch.
Later you will, as Jessica Abel says in her (brilliant) podcast “Out on the Wire”:
Pay attention to your attention. Pay attention to what you feel connected to.
You’ll further tweak and hone those sparks that attract you most. But the first step is to generate those story seeds. Little nuggets of ideas that didn’t exist before. And to do that, I have three exercises — wait, that sounds like work. Let’s call them games. No pressure there. Three new games to play.
Game #1: New Point of View
In this one you start with any existing legend, fairy tale, or public domain IP.
By way of example, I’ll start with Mulan, the legendary Chinese woman warrior who disguised herself as a man in order to join the army.
Then, brainstorm five other points of view on this story’s events.
So, for my example, I’d go with:
- Mulan’s sister (a sibling rivalry could be interesting)
- A fellow soldier (could there be an epic love story?)
- A soldier from an enemy force (suspenseful cat-and-mouse story?)
- Mulan’s great-great-great-great granddaughter (telling parallel stories in two different time periods)
- A royal from the Han Dynasty who enlists Mulan in some kind of twisty espionage-action plot
Each of these points of view can give rise to their own familiar story shapes, tones, and genres. Let your brain go where it wants, and write down as many ideas as you can capture.
Now, I don’t actually know the story of Mulan, so these potential story POVs are all made up. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t use them as a jumping-off point for my own story, however closely or distantly related to the original Mulan tale as I decide I want it to be.
You might come up with an interesting dynamic and then decide you don’t actually want to tell the story of Mulan through other eyes, but you do want to tell a story of female sibling rivalry set in the contemporary world of the U.S. Marines.
Remember, you’re just generating story seeds. You don’t have to use them. They don’t all have to be good. You’re just collecting as many options as you can so that later you can look for something that sparks your interest. Later you can follow that interest to a story you are passionate or curious or excited enough about to spend the next several months writing.
Right now we’re just putting everything into our grocery basket. Later we’ll decide what to cook. Got it? Good. Don’t make me get bossy.
Game #2: ROP + fantasy
Take any life phase, rite of passage, or other universally understood situation, and add a fantasy (or supernatural, or sci-fi) element. Brainstorm “What if?” using both of those elements in as many different ways as you can.
For example, if I chose: high school crush + ghosts
I might come up with:
- What if a teenage girl died and came back to haunt the crush she never had the guts to approach when she was alive?
- What if a teen boy’s high school crush died, and he started seeing her ghost everywhere, slowly driving him insane?
- What if a grown woman was being haunted by her long-dead high school crush?
Sure, these initial seeds might be boring. Maybe even silly. But you can take the seeds you come up with and go in any direction you desire. (Don’t skip to the end just yet, but there’s a list of elements you can tweak to add freshness to your ideas.)
After further development, maybe one of those ideas would have become Over Her Dead Body. Maybe it would have become Ghost.
Game #3: Headliners
Grab a newspaper, magazine, or tabloid headline that sounds interesting to you, and DO NOT read the story. (The Facebook news feed is good for this, but beware that rabbit hole!)
In this game you’ll take just the headline as your inspiration, and twist it to come up with new stories.
Let’s go with, “Garbage Collector Creates Library from Rescued Books.”
Use what you know about common movie types to pull out the different plots this headline suggests.
Maybe I would come up with:
- When a garbage collector learns he only has six months left to live, he embarks on a cross-country road trip to locate the original owners of books that have personal inscriptions written in them.
- A garbage collector gathers discarded books and creates a free library for his struggling community, only to find himself in a David-and-Goliath struggle against the city library system.
- A garbage collector uses his access and unique connections to steal back valuable first editions that were stolen from his father thirty years earlier — and now reside in the private collection of the wealthiest man in America.
Okay, so are these great ideas? Not yet. Brainstorming, remember? Looking for things that interest us. We’re paying attention to our attention.
And the key in this game is to find familiar story shapes that you can combine with the elements of the headline that capture your attention, giving you the beginnings of a fresh and familiar concept.
Once you have all of your story seeds, the next step is to start shaping them into focus sentences to get an idea of what the basic-but-solid story foundation could be.
Then, start tweaking. Check out my fresh + familiar article and then look at each of your new ideas, and see if you can identify:
- What’s “familiar”: Is it a classic heist? Is it an epic romance? A road trip?
- What’s “fresh”: What’s unique about the idea? Does it have a “strange attractor”?
And if your ideas are feeling bland, uninspired, or cliched, you can target your brainstorming to isolated elements. There are a bunch of areas you can look at when you want to tweak an idea to give it a fresh hook.
Try starting with these:
- Perspective — Do we commonly see this type of story from one point of view? What other possible POVs are there?
- Opposite (or unexpected) profession — Instead of a cop hunting the killer, what if it’s another killer? Or an illegal immigrant?
- Opposite (or unexpected) social standing — What if the presidential candidate in your story was a homeless person?
- Unexpected Gender
- Unexpected Age / phase-of-life
- Location — Can you make this either the fresh or familiar element to balance the other aspects of your concept?
- Juxtaposition between character and arena — a more extreme juxtaposition can add interest (and drama or humor)
- Time period
- Fantasy and Science Fiction elements
As you work through all of your brainstorming, the ideas that attract you the most will become obvious. Shape those ideas into complete, viable loglines.
Then, if you’re feeling brave, test your new loglines out on friends, mentors, other writers. See if your favorite ideas grab their attention too.
This post originally appeared on the blog Write + Co. Naomi is a long time script reader and screenplay contest judge, and former development exec-in-training. She's lived and worked in L.A. for about a decade, read thousands of scripts and worked with hundreds of writers. She's also a screenwriter and has been hired to write and rewrite screenplays, treatments, pitch documents, and director’s statements. You can follow her on Twitter HERE.