Possibly the most important aspect of any screenplay is the idea that generated it. Screenplay grammar and formatting can be learned, as can screenplay structure, genre conventions and so on. Yet there’s a popular fallacy which claims that you can’t learn to generate ideas. You’re either born with a talent for it, or not.
I think what’s closer to the truth is that if it doesn’t come naturally, it means you’ve learned to ignore the endless stream of ideas that everyone is subject to during the course of the day. Which is not necessarily a bad thing in many walks of life. Would you want your airline pilot daydreaming on the job?
As a screenwriter though, you need to unlearn that conditioning, open your eyes and ears. Everything around you is potentially the kernel of a story, a scene, a character. Allow yourself to daydream and fantasize about news items, people’s behaviour, locations, anecdotes, music, science, snippets of conversation, children playing, and so on. As I’ve written before in this blog, keep asking What if?
You also need to develop the ability to spot a nugget of gold buried in that mass of mental sludge. Because most of what we think is just white noise. Not Oscar-winning screenplay material.
However, perhaps the most crucial skill to master, is the skill of nurturing an idea you really think is worth exploring further.
In her insightful blog post entitled Idea Killers – 3 Ways To Stifle A Great Idea, M discusses three ways people often nip ideas in the bud. I’ve listed them here with specific reference to writing:
1. Not giving your idea a chance to grow.
This is when you undermine your idea by criticizing it and writing it off before it’s had a chance to ripen and blossom. Before its potential is clear. It’s the inner critic that likes to sabotage your creative mind, just for the fun of it. Don’t heed this voice! It’s good to have an accurate and sharpened critical faculty, but not at the initial ideas stage of the writing.
2. Sharing your undeveloped ideas too soon.
Often a side-effect of the initial enthusiasm and euphoria a writer can feel when an idea initially presents itself, this is when you blurt out a raw idea which to the listener just sounds vague or even silly. That response causes you to doubt too. You need to bite your tongue, keep the idea to yourself until it’s stewed for a while. This is a bit like sending a passionate email: It’s always a good idea to write the draft email, leave it overnight and then decide in the cold light of the next day if that’s what you really wanted to write.
3. Sharing your ideas with the wrong people.
This is a classic! The wrong people can be the kind of wet blankets who, for whatever reasons, always respond negatively to any kind of enthusiasm. The kind of people who can’t stand you feeling so upbeat and inspired. The wrong people can also be what Julia Cameron, in her immensely inspiring book The Artist’s Way calls crazymakers. The kind of larger-than-life, domineering, energy-guzzling busybodies who love to make you feel small, insignificant and untalented. Keep your ideas well away from them!!
In terms of screenwriting, an idea only acquires value in the real world once it germinates into a story. You can’t copyright an idea but you can protect a story, even if it’s just a synopsis. So trick number one is to harvest as many ideas as you can, in the full knowledge that you’ll never use most of them. And trick number two is to contain your enthusiasm when you do discover an inspiring nugget, at least until you’ve written a story concept based on the idea.