John's GET STARTED SERIES BONUS: "How to Develop Ideas"
Updated: Mar 22
OK. You have an idea, and you want to write a script around it that you can produce yourself.
But now what? How do you take that idea and develop it into a short film, a webisode, a web series, or something else along those lines?
There are probably as many different answers to this question as there are writers. So here are several options for next steps in developing your idea into a screenplay (BTW these are not necessarily in order of when you need or want to do them):
Tell your story in one or two sentences. This is not easy. But the effort can tell you whether or not you have a good story idea. There are a ton of good guides online about how to write a logline. Here is one.
2. 3 SENTENCES, 3 PARAGRAPHS, 3 PAGES
Like the logline approach but spread out over 3 progressively longer stages. Write your idea out in these three stages, and you’ll see if it can stand as a script. Courtesy of Kira Snyder (@sugarjonze on Twitter).
An outline can look like many different things. What it boils down to is a skeletal sketch of the main events of your story. This is how the story starts, this is the middle, this is how it ends. This happens, then this happens, then this happens.
You can use bullet points, or you can use one of many templates that you can find online such as the Dan Harmon Story Circle.
Maybe your outline will include act breaks, maybe you’ll write your outline on 3x5 index cards so you can rearrange story beats physically.
You may start coming up with other things will you write your outline. Things like snippets of dialogue, jokes, or character arcs. If you want, go ahead and include them in your outline. There are no rules.
4. SHORT STORY
Some people like to spin a yarn prose-style before they translate it into screenplay form.
5. CHARACTER SKETCHES
You could develop your story idea by developing your characters. Write a short backstory for each. Maybe you get literal here because you feel like it and you draw actual sketches of your characters. That’s cool.
Maybe you need to do research (because your story idea revolves around electrical engineering and you don’t know much about that?) or you don’t (because you’re an electrical engineer?).
In either case, research could help you make your story believable or help inspire you and reveal to you new possibilities for telling it.
7. BLAB TO YOUR FRIENDS
Tell your story idea to anyone who will listen. Then you do the listening. If you’re lucky, they’ll ask questions that will help you hone your idea. This comes from Shonda Rhimes, who has had some pretty decent success developing ideas into scripts that work.
8. LIST YOUR ASSETS
You could make a list of all the things you have access to that you could build your story around. Do you have a crazy huge garage? Maybe your neighborhood has a nature preserve you could use. Got a friend who can breakdance?
The Duplass Brothers based the idea for their first feature on the fact that they had access to two identical LA-Z-Boy recliners. I may be mis-remembering that particular fact, but Mark Duplass stars in it, his girlfriend at the time, Katie Aselton, is a co-star, and they made it a road-trip film and used his van. This also allowed them to use locations in Maine they had access to through Katie’s father.
They call this “available material” approach to filmmaking. I support this approach.
Whichever of these methods you take to developing your story idea, at the end of developing you’re going to want to be able to answer THESE QUESTIONS:
What is the story about?
What does the main character want to achieve?
What does the main character do to achieve his goal? (the choices they make)
What or who is standing in their way and why?
Will they achieve what they want? Will the ending be triumphant or not?
How does your main character change by the end?
Hey, guess what!? It’s time to start writing! And we all know writing is rewriting. A lot of your idea development will happen when you revise your script. But we can talk more about that later.
What do you think about these methods for developing your ideas into scripts? Do you have any approaches you love and want to share? Let us know in the comments below: