Most writers I work with worry about their story ideas – are they any good, have they got enough of them, how do they spot the ideas that have the most potential, are they choosing the right ones to develop?
I want to explore the start of that process and look at ways in which you can improve both the quality and quantity of ideas.
Firstly, when I talk about ideas I’m not talking about a fully-formed concept or story premise. Here I want to talk about the bit of the creative process that comes before even that; the capturing of the fragments that float into your conscious thoughts then as quickly as they arrived, have gone again.
Those random ideas can be a tiny bit of a conversation you’ve overheard that intrigued you, a location that surprised you, a story you read that sparked a ‘what if?’.
Being alive to the tiniest idea and getting it down before it goes is important. If it is strong enough to register, it’s worth capturing. And making a note of even the smallest idea can help you to build up a substantial collection of small pieces that, when combined, can produce a stunning and original story concept. Think of them like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. No single note looks like much on its own but when you put it with other pieces you can begin to build a complete and unique picture.
Chris Chibnall has talked about creating Broadchurch from a collection of unrelated ideas he’d jotted down over the years; a sense of community (which he’d enjoyed writing on Born and Bred) but with a dark and contemporary twist, being inspired by the murder mystery of Twin Peaks, and being captivated by a stunning cliff-top location in Dorset.
All of the professional screenwriters I’ve worked with over the years have had some kind of note-collating system; be it a board with post-it notes, a concertina folder for scraps of paper, a notepad, a Word document or something else. Collecting in one place all of these random external observations might seem a bit pointless when you’re in the middle of an exciting new project for which it’s no use, but it’s an important habit to create.
Capturing and organising your ideas is important for generating those external story elements of any new project but it might not give you the kind of depth you need to turn your story into one with real meaning to you.
The theme of your story, the moral message you want audiences to take away from it, often comes from a more inward-looking and more reflective process. Many writers find that journaling is a really useful tool for digging deeper into their own thoughts and feelings. Spending time reflecting on the questions that are troubling you and exploring issues that are making you angry or sad can prove invaluable as you piece together and create meaning from your random fragments.
It’s also worth looking at your own strengths as a writer and making sure you develop your skills in the areas you are weakest. It’s easy to keep doing the stuff that comes naturally, but to grow as a screenwriter you need to work on the areas that aren’t in your comfort zone.
You might be a plot-driven writer, always spotting events that are note-worthy (a tragic accident, a cruel twist of fate) but not really noticing the people those things happen to. Perhaps you are a character-focused writer, always observing people and wondering about the psychology and motivations behind their behaviours. Or you might be a brilliant story-world builder, always noticing the unique look, feel and atmosphere of a place.
Whatever your strength, keep doing that work but try also to see the world through different eyes, to keep your senses open to things you hadn’t noticed before. And always make a note of it – you never know when it might be the key to unlocking your next brilliant project!