Growing the Idea

So you want to write a screenplay. Where to begin?

One of the most common questions asked of writers is, “Where do you get your

When I hear that, my first impulse is to flippantly respond, “If you don’t have any ideas, why do you want to write?!” Eventually, reason regains control, I take a deep breath, and I try to smile.

Those who ask this question must understand that the “ideas” they see onscreen in a movie theater, or read in the pages of a novel or magazine are not simply free-floating little clumps of idea-stuff magically pulled from the aether and tacked upon the page of a book or screenplay. By the time you view a finished work, it has been through many iterations, and evolved into something greater than its original core thought. An idea, then, is an organic construct of the human mind, which when properly nurtured, will grow into a form greater than its beginnings, and even take on new and unexpected features.

That said, let me attempt to briefly lead you through the life-cycle of an idea.

Cultivating Fertility

Ideas are not separate entities from their creators. Even if you believe in the concept of a muse, or that you are the vehicle for ideas that are somehow channeled through you, you need to recognize that the ideas you produce (or channel!) are unique to you. Nobody else will see life in quite the way that you do. Your ideas, for the purposes of this discussion, are generated from the sum of your experiences, emotions, interests, and personality.

Part of learning how to find ideas, is knowing how to recognize one when it manifests. To do this, you must learn to hardwire your daydream circuit into your critical circuit. In children, these circuits have not yet separated–what they imagine is as important and immediate as what they see in front of them in the “real” world. Adults have the tendency to separate the practical from the fanciful, so that they can fulfill mundane but responsible tasks such as paying the bills and quashing the bright dreams of their youth. As a writer, you must learn to turn that critical switch on and off at will, so that you can access and interpret your daydreams without self-censorship. Because for any artist, the fanciful is the practical. Generation of an idea involves an active imagination (the fanciful) coupled with the ability to discern whether a particular imagining will pan out into a worthwhile notion (the practical).


When I come up with ideas, a driving force for me is that they concern the things in which I am most interested. You know what you like, right? Always begin there, because you will have a built-in motivation to see it through, an existing understanding of the subject, and an excitement about the material that only a devotee could have. If you like water-skiing, fruit bats, and female knife-throwers, simply trying to justify a connection between such seemingly unrelated subjects will spark your imagination, and give you countless ideas–which will often lead to a story you didn’t expect that may have nothing to do with your original notion. Research or deep understanding of your subject is important, because when you delve deeply into a topic, you will always find information that will become fuel for story ideas.

The Egg

Often an idea is simply the utilization of an artist’s greatest asset, the ability to ask, “What if…?”

I would argue that the ability to ask this simple little question is the basis of all human evolution, consciousness, culture, science, art, and language. Humans can conceive of things that do not yet, or that could never, exist. This power of imagination can lead us to anything; what we can conceive, we can create.

To use “What if…?” often leads to the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated elements between which you have now created an imaginary link. And if you’ve begun with elements in which you have an existing fascination, you’ll be sure to come up with fusions that excite you. Let me just throw out a few examples:

  • What if people could breathe underwater? Or could lift 100 times their own weight?
  • What if a priest fell in love with a hooker?
  • What if the President of the United States was really an alien in disguise?
  • What if Elvis Presley was really the reincarnation of Christ?
  • What if an assassin became a pacifist?
  • What if a scientist discovered a formula for immortality?
  • What if a garbageman was secretly a gifted pianist?
  • What if a ten year-old girl suddenly developed the ability to communicate with bees?

Now take any one of my hastily-generated thoughts and begin to think about it, and really examine its premise. What consequences or stories does it suggest to you? My first suggestions regard enhanced human abilities (water-breathing and strength), and are basically science-fiction premises. While they suggest contexts, they may not immediately suggest potential stories. The others, however, offer a selection of characters in unusual situations, and are thus a better model for how to frame your ideas in terms of story. They may spark your imagination into revealing whole storytelling vistas, because they suggest a storyline and complications, and even suggest resolutions.

Let’s examine one, and see where it leads.

The Caterpillar

What if a priest fell in love with a hooker?

This opens an enormous can of worms. Already, you have a story about a man torn between faith and sin, religion and lust, the needs of the church (the general) versus the needs of a man (the specific).

Depending on your interests, you can explore the story many different ways. Ask yourself: was the priest seduced? Does he try to convert the hooker to the faith, or convince her to quit her job? Does she resent his interference, or is she receptive? Does the hooker succeed in showing the priest her world and reasons for her life-choices? Do they consummate their relationship? Do the priest’s superiors find out? Is there a resulting scandal, or is he quietly dismissed? Is your story tragic or comic? A good story typically centers around one central complication (often the plot) which can both create smaller repercussions or be enhanced by further smaller complications (and often these are large enough to be explored via subplots).

In this stage of your idea, just like a caterpillar who fattens itself before it builds a cocoon to begin its transformation, you need to flesh out your initial premise by simply writing down everything that comes to mind. Don’t attempt to analyze whether or not a particular thought has any relevance to your story, because to do so is to cut the flow of ideas with the knife of cold reason. Ideas are hindered by editing. Don’t critique what you create until later. The intent at this beginning stage is bulk.

The Cocoon

The next question you should ask yourself is: What do I want to say?

In the case of the priest, would you try to show that his love for the hooker was wrong because of his beliefs? Or would you suggest that any sacrifice is worth true love? What are your ideas about human behavior or your comments upon the human condition that you’d like to communicate to the world?

When you now examine your page filled with notes and ideas that are related to your initial premise, you will find that many of the thoughts posses a natural affinity, and will function as interlocking pieces of larger ideas, themes, or plotlines. Cultivate these groupings, and also try to imagine connections between seemingly disparate groupings. Just as when you try to connect two unrelated ideas you will come up with creative solutions that will suggest new ideas, if you try to imagine bridges between seemingly unrelated groupings, you will invent creative bridges that may deeply enhance your story. In addition, you should let your own feelings and personality dictate how these bridges are built.

For example, perhaps you have made two groupings of related ideas (an actual list should be much longer than this!):

Group 1 Group 2
Priest Prostitute
Christ-like? drug-user (w/AIDS?)
(crucifixion) brother has cancer
church=family pimp is vicious murderer
mother is very religious was a Catholic school girl

If you compare them, you might see immediate surface connections such as the fact that the Prostitute attended Catholic school. This already suggests some connection or commonality between the characters. If you look at each item in Group 1, and try to relate it to each item in Group 2, you may come up with additional connections. When I think of the idea of the priest as a Christ figure, I immediately come up with the parallel for the prostitute, which that she is like Mary Magdalene. Perhaps the story could be a modern update of the Christ/Magdalene relationship, but with a new twist.

Much of how your story plays out will depend upon the kind of characters you create. If you envision a specific outcome for your story, then you need to cultivate the kind of characters who will give you that outcome.

The Butterfly

In order for your ideas to truly reach full fruition, it is essential that you explore them from every angle. It is exactly through these kind of explorations that plots and subplots are developed. A storyline, in a strict sense, is about the examination of a specific idea or premise, and all of its subsequent ramifications as they are developed via a specific set of characters. The premise asks, “What if…?”, and the story answers. The ancient model for this is found in Aristotle’s “Poetics.” He very eloquently and stated that thesis plus antithesis equals synthesis. In other words, a premise confronted with its opposite fuse to produce a mixture or compromise of the two by the story’s end. In classical structure, thesis is represented by the the philosophy of the hero/protagonist, antithesis is represented by the countering philosophy of the villain/antagonist, and the synthesis is the resulting outcome of their conflict. This model also ties to classical three-act structure. In Act 1, the hero’s world and ideals are presented–the thesis. In Act 2, the antagonist’s views or needs shatter the calm order of the hero’s world, and present a radically different view that challenges the hero’s own. These two views now struggle for dominance. In Act 3, the final argument or battle ensues, and one or the other wins out. Yet the victor’s philosophy has now been changed and partially fused with the philosophy of the defeated opponent.

In our story example, the priest and his philosophy could represent thesis, and the prostitute and her views antithesis (which could just as easily be the other way around). The following synopsis is an example of one possible way that this story and its themes could be fleshed out.

Act 1: Our protagonist is a priest whose worldview is clear, safe, and uncontested. His life’s path is dictated by the doctrine and morality of the church. His routine involves teaching in a local Catholic school, where he imparts the church philosophy to children; on the weekends, he serves food at a local soup kitchen where a group of nuns sings inspirational hymns to the homeless. He receives a new assignment from his superior; missionary work in the red light district. It is there that the priest meets a pretty, sassy prostitute. The priest, being a good Christian and a nice guy, engages her in conversation, and naturally tries to encourage her from what he sees as a path of sin and degradation. In response, she tells him that he has no idea what he’s talking about, and walks away.

Act 2: The priest, fascinated by the prostitute, tracks her down, and asks her to let him in on her way of life, so that he can learn to help her and others like her. She agrees, because she would like nothing better than to give him a gutter education, and scare the hell out of him (as a former Catholic, she has aggressive feelings towards the church, and initially wants to take them out on him). Over time, their relationship develops. Suddenly, the priest’s previously secure and comfortable views are challenged. Everything about the prostitute stands in stark opposite to his ideals–her career, her opinions, her lack of faith, her street-smart cynicism, her raw sexuality, and in-your-face personality. The priest not only begins to value her opinion and brutal frankness, but starts to fall for this resourceful and attractive woman. She, in turn, begins to value his counsel and good heart (which is in great contrast to most people she knows). One night, after an especially soul-bearing discussion, she impulsively kisses him, showing her affection in a way she understands. He leaves, embarrassed. Over the next few days, he agonizes over his feelings for her. He is truly in love–a feeling he has only previously had for God. Yet this new love is also sexual, and overwhelming. He confesses to a senior priest, and is harshly reprimanded, and is told never to associate with the woman again. Distraught and depressed, he contemplates leaving the priesthood. In emotional torment, he visits the prostitute. He bares all to her. Again, she shows her feelings in the only way she understands, and they make love.

Act 3: This opens with the priest now terribly guilt-ridden. He throws his collar in the gutter and enters a bar. He drinks himself into a stupor, and passes out in the pews of the local church. His superior finds him, confronts him, and the priest drunkenly confesses all. His superior fires him, and arranges for his excommunication. The priest is so distraught that he is near-suicidal. He returns to the prostitute’s apartment and begs her for help, but she can do nothing. He is so overwrought, that she becomes exasperated with him, and declares that he was so anxious to see the painful underside of life, and now he’s got it first hand. She sneers at him, “Where’s your God now?” The priest’s world is now shattered. He staggers blindly out of the prostitute’s apartment and into the hellish squalor of the red-light district. Winos, drug-dealers, rent-boys, and gang-bangers pass him by like a parade of the damned, reminding him of life’s pain. Through angry tears, he rails at them that their lives are hollow, meaningless, and without feeling. At first, the street crowd ignores him as another lunatic. Finally, he strikes a nerve, and several of them jump him, beating him viciously. He awakes in an alley, a bruised, defeated man. He stands, vomits, then staggers down the street. Passers-by avoid him as they would a derelict. Softly, in the distance, he hears reedy voices singing. As he moves closer, he hears the hymns of the nuns inside the homeless shelter. He opens the door, and the music fills the room with sweet song. Suddenly, the music stops. All eyes are on him, a bedraggled mess. With determination he slowly walks behind the counter of the food line, and takes the soup ladle from another priest’s hands. He fills the bowl of a homeless man. The singing begins again.

If you look at your premise as an argument, what would be all of the arguments against that view? Think as if you were a lawyer, first for the plaintiff, now for the defendant. The stronger your arguments on both sides of the dispute, the better and more complete your conflict. For every advantage one side has, think of a counter-advantage for the other side. Victory, for conflict to be exciting, must always be in doubt for both sides.

If your dramatic conflict is truly examined from all angles, your story will ring true, complete, and satisfying for those who experience it. It is essential that you leave no stone unturned, so that the reader/viewer has no unanswered questions at the end.

If you allow your ideas to flow unimpeded from your own thoughts, desires, and dreams, then you will not only satisfy yourself, but you will please audiences who are seeking honest revelations and original ideas. If you either write only to please, or derive ideas from others, then you will not only fail to make audiences happy, but you will fail yourself. Worse, you will cheat yourself from experiencing the wonder and pleasure of discovering the universe of stories that lives inside of you.

Introduction Screenwriting Essentials The Basic Outline