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Finding and Developing Ideas For Your Screenplay

By Rona Edwards & Monika Skerbelis

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How many times have you heard someone say, "I have a great idea for a movie," and then never do anything with it? They don't remember it later or they never actually put words on paper. On top of that, there are many people who think they have a good idea for a movie - and it's really not. It all starts with the idea but there's much more to it. It's not as easy as people think. Most people do not realize the time and effort it takes to flesh out an idea, from the inception of an idea to the visualization of a full-blown motion picture.

For writers, working with source material is one way of finding new ideas. For others, their imagination is enough. But what do you do with those ideas, those inklings, and those notions that are just the tip of the iceberg? How do you start to dig deeper in order to create characters an audience can identify with and a story they can lose themselves in? Learning how to spot potential stories, knowing how to use those stories as a springboard for a bigger, more dramatic story, and then learning how to take dramatic license to develop those ideas into cohesive films for television and motion pictures is a practice.

The good news is there's always a story in everyday life. You can find ideas almost anywhere you look. You just need to know where to look for them and how to create a blueprint for yourself in order to get them on paper, which will lead you to developing a richer, more complex story later on, filled with interesting characters who try to achieve something. Characters that are accessible to the audience, characters they can root for who are placed in situations they might possibly imagine themselves in.

Obviously, a great place to look for stories is in newspapers and magazines. If it's a true-life story, you may need to get the rights but if the article serves only as the basis for a tale you create, then the sky's the limit. Decide what genre it is. Sometimes, the same idea can work in different genres. A good exercise is to take an article and make two different stories from it, changing the genres. For example, one "take" on the story could be as a drama while another could be a comedy or a thriller. Taking the total opposite stance is a good exercise in getting the writer to view ideas at different angles. Some ideas will be more successful at transforming themselves from one genre to another but it's a good way for all of us to flex our story sense a little further than we thought we could go.

However, you will still need the basic blueprint upon which to turn your ideas into full-fledged stories, and that always begins with understanding the 3-Act Structure. Dating back to Aristotle, the 3-Act Structure is the basis of all storytelling. There is a beginning, middle and end. There is an inciting incident, which kicks the story into gear and there are two main turning points at the end of Act One and Act Two, which propel the story either in a slightly surprising direction or towards the climax in Act Three. We have created a simple form as a basis to start your "Idea file." We call it the Idea Form. This form helps you take a germ of an idea and begin organizing it in a concise yet structured story. This format is helpful to see if the story has legs, meaning does it fill up the three acts or is it merely a sketch? Some stories are better left as novels or plays. It's important to know the differences between the three mediums to know if, indeed, they will translate to the screen.

Good stories are usually about someone trying to overcome something. For film, they need to be cinematic. With film, you have the luxury of setting it anywhere (unlike a play which is limited with locations). Filmmakers also have the power to only allow an audience to see what they want them to see - albeit a close up of a face, a reaction, or a city landscape. So in thinking about what translates to the screen, it is important for the creator to have a visual eye.

Once you decide that your idea will make a good movie, you need to ask some questions as you fill out your Idea Form. Questions will always begat more questions as you fill in the blanks of your story as well as create memorable characters. Some of these questions are:
  • What is the story about?
  • What genre or type of story is it?
  • Why would audiences want to see the story?
  • What is it about the story that will attract an audience?
  • Who are the characters?
  • What does the main character want to achieve?
  • What does the main character do to achieve his goal? (the choices they make)
  • What are their obstacles?
  • What or who is standing in their way and why?
  • Will they achieve what they want? Will the ending be triumphant or not?
  • What do the characters learn by the end of the story?
One of the first things we ask students to do is to come up with a logline for their idea - one or two sentences that describe the story. For example, "A middle-aged former super-hero turned insurance adjuster yearns to get back into action." Do you know which movie that is? If you said The Incredibles you are correct. We have a lot of fun in our courses with what we call our loglines quiz. It's always different and it's interesting to see how many students can guess the loglines of older as well as more recent films. It's a practice to write loglines, and there is no wrong or right way to do it with the exception that it should be short, concise and still give a sense of the story.

Coming up with a logline for your idea is only the beginning, however. Your idea may require research and, by writing out what you already know in addition to adding your own creative and imaginative "take" on the project, will kick start the process of creating your script.

About Rona Edwards & Monika Skerbelis

Rona Edwards and Monika Skerbelis are the authors of the critically acclaimed book, "I Liked It, Didn't Love It: Screenplay Development from the Inside Out" and the founders of ESE Film Workshops Online, an online film school helping writers and filmmakers improve their knowledge in 4 to 6 weeks without leaving their home - Just "Click, Type, Download & Read." Edwards, a producer and former production company exec, and Skerbelis, a former studio exec and current programming director of the Big Bear Lake Film Int'l Festival are also partnered in ESEntertainment. For more information on upcoming events contact www.esentertainment.net or email: workshops@esentertainment.net.
Screenwriting Article by Rona Edwards & Monika Skerbelis

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