A blank piece of paper. An empty laptop screen. Can you think of more daunting or fear-inducing images for any screenwriter? Writing any part of any script is a challenge, but many writers struggling with where to even begin. Putting those first few words onto the page can seem impossible, so if you’re stuck for ideas or just not where to start, we’ve compiled a list of ideas that can help kickstart your writing journey or get you past that first mental barrier.
A blank page or an empty screen represents an opportunity, a blank canvas for you to fill with color. Whether you’re at a creative dead-end in the process or simply find yourself with a classic case of “writer’s block,” we’ve put together a list of ideas that can help get you out of your creative rut and inspire you to get the words flowing.
Here are nine ideas that apply to screenwriters of every skill level and can help kickstart the creative juices.
1. Generating Script Ideas
You’re at the starting line, waiting for inspiration to strike. What’s that concept or story or theme that will spur a fountain of other ideas? If you’re still looking for that killer script idea, use some of these techniques to help you find that revelation you’re waiting for.
Real Life Experiences
As the classic adage goes, “write what you know!” Use the experience of yourself and others as inspiration or guidance for the stories, characters, or themes you bring to life.
Does someone you know have an exciting story to tell that you could take inspiration from? You don’t have to use the entire story; perhaps there’s a key snippet or anecdote you would like to expand on or change slightly. As far as the script is concerned, these are your stories, so take liberties in what inspiration you use and how you use or change it.
Of course, if you are seeking out ideas from other people’s personal experiences, make sure to ask them first before you start writing. Don’t want to shock Uncle Bob at the premiere when he finds out the villain is based on him.
As another adage goes, “life imitates art imitates life.” News stories or more prolific, accessible, and relatable then ever before. News is life at its most authentic and unfiltered. Audiences want to find profound meaning in life through film, and news stories can be a great place to start with real people.
Just be mindful and check that there’s a plausible narrative that can carry an audience through an entire script successfully and keep them engaged.
Go and Experience Things for Yourself
Don’t wait around for an idea to come to you, go out and experience the world! Take a walk or a drive, meet up with a friend, people-watch, go to your favorite bar/restaurant/spot, call an old pal. You’ll find that the best ideas often come from the strangest and simplest of places.
2. What If?
The classic question. “What if such and such happens to such and such a person?” This is one of the oldest methods of boiling an entire film down to its high-concept essence. Think Jurassic Park: “What if…dinosaurs could be brought back to life?” Inception: “What if…dreams could be invaded and controlled.”
You can play around with these high-concept ideas all day until you find something really unique or exciting. Force yourself to think outside of the box and in terms of ideas you’ve never seen or heard before.
3. Turn Something on Its Head
We all have our favorite films or TV shows, characters and worlds that we love to watch over and over again and cherish dearly. If you’re looking for a new idea, try taking something you’re already familiar with and flipping it on its head; explore the antagonist’s point of view or hypothesize about what else could’ve happened around that central storyline.
Obviously, it’s crucial you don’t plagiarize characters or storylines or steal any existing intellectual property, but there are abundant opportunities to reinvent the wheel by simply changing or flipping what already exists. By taking the basic story principles and elements, you can come up with something brand new.
4. Pitch, Pitch, Pitch!
Pitch your ideas to your family, friends, as well as fellow writers. Put a short “logline” together to excite them and hear their honest feedback. The more you share, the more you welcome opportunities for feedback and constructive criticism.
If you have an intended audience for the film/TV show, find someone in that age bracket. If you’re writing a children’s animation, for example, you’ll certainly want to understand what kids think of your idea. They’ll probably be the most honest too!
Let’s say you already have that billion-dollar movie idea ready to go but you simply don’t know how to actually put it on paper.
Recommended Reading: How to Write a Movie Script | A Comprehensive Guide
Before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), it’s crucial to understand the fundamentals of screenwriting to ensure you’re putting your best foot forward. Be organized and intentional from the start by following these key tips.
5. Understanding Script Fundamentals
You may have an amazing script idea and have received some great feedback from family, friends, and peers. Before you dive in head-first, though, let’s make sure you’ve defined the core story elements of any script:
· Protagonist’s goal
· Protagonist’s plan to reach that goal.
· What’s at stake?
Don’t start writing until you are 100% certain on these points! They are the foundation of your script that you will influence every part of your story. If they don’t…they should!
You need to know your principal characters inside out. How do they react in different situations? What drives them? What’s their Achilles heel?
Planning a script is a personal process and there is no one-size-fits-all methodology for screenwriters. That said, it is crucial that you take time to plan even a basic outline so you can focus entirely on creativity when writing the script.
One-pagers, beat sheets, treatments, mood boards and scene outlines all have their own purposes in script planning. You need to find what works best for you and what elements allow you to write most effectively.
It is worth bearing in mind that if you do pitch your project later, execs will expect some of these documents to be ready and sent to them, so make sure you are confident in producing all of these things when needed.
6. Hook the Audience
You now have your screenwriting software in front of you. The cursor flashes at you, waiting. Just how do you start off your script?
Remember you need your intended audience to be engaged from scene one. Write something that’s never been seen before and dive straight into the action; run don’t walk. This may be your only chance to engage them!
When introducing your characters for the first time, let their actions do the talking and remember to always “show” rather than “tell.”
7. The First Page
Screenplay formatting is consistent across the board, no matter which script you read or screenwriting software you use. But what exactly is at the beginning of the script? Format and content-wise, what must writers include?
The Scene Heading (or “Slugline”)
As the name suggests, these are the headings of scenes introducing the action. Again, the format is consistent; we state whether we are inside or outside (INT. for internal, EXT. for external), the location of the scene, and then the time of day (usually day or night). For example:
INT. NIGHT CLUB – NIGHT
EXT. PARKING LOT – DAY
These are both relatively simple sluglines, but it gives you a good idea of what they need to include.
This scene heading appears at the very top of page one and is the first thing anyone will read!
These come after the slugline and detail what’s happening visually on the screen. Screenplays do not need a wealth of exposition and description, so keep your script to key details only. You’re not writing poetry here but being visually descriptive about what is happening that is relevant to the characters.
Set yourself clear expectations from the get-go. Every action line you write, every line of dialogue, must be instrumental in driving your story forward. If it doesn’t, it’s got to go. Script real estate is precious!
If you find you prefer to just let your creativity flow, this is something a lot of writers focus on in their rewrites. But if you’re mindful of keeping your writing as concise and economical as possible along the way, keeping action descriptions concise will make your edits so much easier.
Concentrate on the plot rather than the aesthetic detail, unless it’s integral to the plot.
You don’t have to introduce your protagonist on page one, but you need to reveal them as soon as possible. For the audience to relate and empathise with the protagonist, they need to spend as much time with them as possible. So, if you can, introduce them straight away.
Characters must always be introduced with their name in ALL CAPS the first time they appear in the script After that, their name can be written in lower case.
JAMES (late 30s) slams his glass down on the table, beer sloshing over the bar.
To really bring your character introductions to life, establish them with action rather than just describing their features. Consider what sort of character James might be just by his actions as written above.
8. Creative Starters
Of course, you don’t have to start your screenplay with just a scene and ‘FADE IN’. Many writers use other creative techniques to introduce context or intrigue to their scripts. Here are some of our favorites:
“Sound Over Black”
Starting with a blank screen with just sound in the background can pique an audience’s interest. Immediately, they’re trying to work out where they are and what’s happening before they’re even launched into the first scene.
If your idea has taken inspiration from a novel or a quote from a notable figure, you can have this superimposed on the screen at the start of the film. Note that the quote must connect directly to the plot itself and not be there just for the sake of it or because it ‘sounds good.’
Address the Audience
Using superimposed text once more, you could have a brief introduction to the story you’re about to tell and set the mood. This is usually effective for films based on true stories.
9. Set Goals
Writing, let alone writing a screenplay, is not supposed to be an easy process, so it’s important to not be hard on yourself and to relish the process and the challenges that come with it.
You don’t need to write every single day but setting up a schedule for yourself from the starting blocks will help keep you accountable. Find a rhythm that works for you and stick to it. And make sure to take breaks so you feel refreshed every time you sit down to write.
Recommended Reading: 4 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block
Beginning a script is a dual process: the idea and the execution. No idea is unique anymore, unfortunately, but writers and filmmakers are constantly finding new perspectives and fresh takes. They are using their voices to shine a new light on old ideas. It’s all about the execution.
If you can expertly execute a great screen idea, the possibilities are endless. That’s why it’s even more important not to wait for inspiration to strike, but to go out there and search for it.