This is the best and the worst part of screenwriting as far as I’m concerned: You have an idea, say for a scene, a character or even a story premise and then it happens. The dam bursts and your mind suddenly fills with images, snippets of dialogue, music, sound effects, ideas for the trailer, the poster, people you must remember to thank when you hold that little golden statue, and so on.
It’s a rush, a physical sense of excitement as in an instant you realize the potential of what you’re imagining. But you’re also in a panic. It’s too much to be able to capture on paper and elements have already begun evaporating and disappearing even as you desperately rush to note them down. It’s like waking up and writing down a dream which is fast being pushed out of your mind by the responsibilities of the day ahead.
Of course one of the basic facts of writing films is that it’s the idea that counts. So the main priority in an emergency imagination situation is to do the opposite of the instinctive response I just described. Instead of scrambling to hold on to whatever details you can salvage, stand back and scrutinize the flood of information as it careens past. Until, that is, The Idea becomes visible. Aha! It’s about … and that’s what you grab. Because the idea is the key to the place where all that imagination (and more) came from. Once you have articulated the idea, however rudimentarily, you will be able to return at will to the river of imagination whence you fished it up.
The idea might be a neat premise, a general theme, a situation, or a character with a goal, whatever. The important thing is that you remember what this story idea is about in a way that makes sense to you. It’s no good demanding of yourself from the get-go that you formulate a dazzling 30-second pitch, ready to spring on Spielberg if you happen to get stuck in an elevator with him. It’s enough to hold on to an image, a sentence, a character description, or any other nugget which typifies the idea for you. That will tame the torrent and give you the power to go back to it when you have the time and inclination. Now isn’t that comforting?