Weekend Writing Inspiration: 7 Ways to Come Up With New Screenplay Ideas
November 23, 2018
“How can I come up with story ideas, especially if I’m feeling burnt out?”
Coming up with new ideas is part of the work of being a screenwriter. While many writers feel like they’re “not writing” if they’re not putting new words on the page, you’ll want to think of story development work — including coming up with new ideas — as a critical element of the job… because it is. Ideas are a writer’s lifeblood after all.
But what do you do when the idea well seems to have run dry, you’re feeling burnt out, and no new ideas are coming your way? You might even feel worried that no new ideas will ever come.
The worst part of this is that fear (and worry) will shut down your creativity. Our brains have to be in a relaxed and wondering state in order to get to a place of curiosity and openness. That’s when the ideas start flowing. So you’ll want to deliberately cultivate an aura of relaxation around yourself and your writing.
Here are five ways you can get started coming up with new ideas.
1. (Re)fill your creative well
Sometimes you have to start with yourself. If you’re burnt out, exhausted, and run dry, you’ll need to give yourself some recovery time and refill your creative well before you can come up with your next great high-concept.
Refilling your creative well can mean many things, starting with some good sleep, downtime, and self-care, followed by feeding your mind with creative and inspiring “inputs.”
For example (once you’re rested), take yourself out to the movies, read great books (and anything else you can get your hands on), and see other art happening in the world. I’m a fan of live music, book signings, bookstores, art stores, and museums to my creative energy ramped up again.
Spending time in nature is another great way to replenish and relax.
2. Follow your curiosity
In her creativity book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert recounts how she came to find the kernel of the idea for her novel, The Signature of All Things. Without any semblance of an idea for a new book, she trusted herself enough to follow her newfound interest in gardening. She had no idea where it would lead, but was willing to surrender to her own curiosity and see where it led her — ultimately to writing her next novel.
So when you’re looking for story ideas, get curious about your own interests. What are you drawn to reading about? What interests you in the world? What kinds of situations or relationships do you find intriguing? What would you like to change about the world? What pisses you off?
Pay attention to where your attention goes, and see what story ideas might emerge there. For example, I have particular interests in climate change and voting rights — both of which are on my radar for future story concepts.
3. Get out into the world
One of the challenges for writers is that many of us tend to be on the more introverted side (though not always) and can easily be caught up in our own internal worlds. But some of the best story ideas come from being out in the world, seeing things happening, changing our perspectives, and even just simply traveling.
I had the recent joy of reading a magazine while traveling and coming up with a new concept that has lit a fire inside me — I can’t wait to write it. It wasn’t a result of the travel — there wasn’t anything I saw on the trip that inspired the idea, but it was the act of relaxing while traveling. I was in that delicious space between home and destination — a passenger in the car with no responsibilities other than fielding periodic disputes and tending to snack needs for the kiddos riding in the back seat — and my mind could just wander. I read, looked out at the rolling California hills, and daydreamed. The ideas came fast and furious. Luckily I had paper with me to get them down.
4. Catalogue your history
In her book Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See recommends cataloguing the ten most important people in your life and the six people who “creep you out” as the basis for the characters, heroes, and villains of your stories. She says, “I’m going to suggest that these ten — or sixteen — people on your list are your ‘characters’ for life.” She adds, to counter the “write what you know” adage we’ve all heard, that “the real rule, at some level, looks to be don’t write what you know; write about what you care about.”
And while you’re cataloguing the people in your life, you can do the same with your own stories and the situations you’ve been in. What stands out? What were some of the most meaningful and painful experiences in your life? Is there a kernel of a story there? Remember that you don’t have to be literal or accurate in how you spin these into stories — you can use your personal experiences as a launching point to get started.
5. Experiment with flips and mash-ups
While you’re working on coming up with ideas, something I learned from Hal Croasmun of ScreenwritingU in his Master Screenwriting Certificate program, is to experiment with flipping ideas on their heads and combining ideas you might otherwise not put together, to see what you end up with.
For example, what would happen if you took a “regular” story idea you’ve had and turned your characters into animals or aliens? Or if you set a mystery or romance in a sci-fi or fantasy genre? Or if you flipped the gender of your main character? Or set it in an unusual world or setting?
Experimenting with flipping norms and mashing up expectations can give you something new and creative to explore.
Sometimes the simple act of putting words on the page is enough to jump start the flow of creativity. Jeff Lyons, author of The Anatomy of a Premise Line, believes that writer’s block is actually a case of having too many ideas struggling to get out all at the same time. It’s entirely possible that you’re stuck for new ideas because they’re all competing for attention.
Start with journaling or morning page writing to get the flow of words and creative thought going again, and see where that takes you.
7. Generate many more concepts than you need
Once you’ve gotten the ideas flowing again, keep this in mind too: You’ll want to generate many more concepts than you “need” before you land on the few shining stars that rise to the top.
It’s easy to get attached to our ideas and think we have to write every single one. But once you generate enough concepts, you’ll see see that only one in ten or even twenty or more is truly worth developing. This helps calm the inner voice that puts so much pressure on us to come up with the “best” ideas immediately. It teaches us to relax and trust that more ideas will come, if we keep working.
Your Weekend Writer’s Assignment
This weekend, get out a notebook or open a file and jot down your interests, your most important and creepy people, and your meaningful and painful situations. Are there story ideas there? While you’re at it, take a look at past undeveloped ideas and see — are there ways you might tweak them to take them in a new direction? Have fun, and happy writing!
Got Questions You Want Answered?
After working with hundreds of writers over the last seven years, writing coach and Called to Write Founder Jenna Avery has answers for you about how to balance your life and your screenwriting, trust yourself more as writer, fulfill your call to write, and more. Submit your most pressing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or via Jenna’s online form at https://calledtowrite.com/final-draft and she may choose your question to answer anonymously in a future article.
Written by: Jenna AveryJenna Avery is a screenwriter who specializes in sci-fi action and space fantasy, and her most recent project is a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story for a Canadian producer-director. Jenna is also a writing coach and the founder of Called to Write, where she has helped hundreds of writers overcome procrastination, perfectionism, and resistance so they can get their writing onto the page and into the world where it belongs. Jenna writes about writing and fulfilling your creative calling at calledtowrite.com, writes for ScriptMag and Final Draft, and teaches at Script University. Download Jenna’s free guidebooks for writers, including “How to Choose Your Next Book (or Script!)” when you join her mailing list at https://www.calledtowrite.com/mailing-list