How to Turn an Idea into a Good Screenplay3 (deceptively) simple steps to help you get from story to script to screen!
“Isn’t it interesting how the more you write, the more you’re willing to throw away?”
A few months ago, I got an email from someone in my town whom I’d never met.
“I have a story I want to tell,” he wrote. “Can you help me?”
He’d read an essay I’d written, and he said that – since I was a writer who clearly had an idea, and then put it into print – maybe I’d have some advice. I was unsure of what I had to offer, but I agreed to sit down with him. We met at a coffeeshop in town, where he told me about his idea.
“So, what do you think?” He asked.
I told him I thought it sounded interesting, that I knew of at least one local publication for which it probably would be a good fit, and that I thought he should write it. Some silence lingered.
“Well, what should I do, then?” He asked.
“Write it,” I said.
…Like it’s that simple.
I should know better. I’m a writer myself. How many times have I had a good idea that I don’t commit to? Or one that I do commit to, but never actually sit down to develop seriously?
I mean, in one sense, it is that simple. To write something – to turn a concept into a story, using the medium of the written word – all we really need to do is sit down and put it on paper.
But to just say it cavalierly like that… It’s a bit like me saying, “To be healthy, all you need to do is sleep at least eight hours a night, eat a diet that is high in whole grains and plant food with lean protein mixed in, and while you’re at it, make sure you find work that both soothes your soul and affords you the opportunity to provide for your family. And oh! Don’t forget to exercise for at least an hour a day, and make sure 30 minutes of it is cardio.”
Yes, all we have to do is “write it”. But actually doing that is not as obvious as it sounds. Which is why sometimes we need a kick, some inspiration, or even a little direction. Today, we’ll provide a healthy dose of each, motivating you to take your idea and turn it into a full-blown story for the screen.
(Oh, and PS – that guy who asked me what to do next? We talked some more about how he could dig in, and he did. His piece was published! 💃🏻💃🏻💃🏻)
1. Nurture the Spark of Your Idea!
Is there anything better than a fresh, new idea?
It arrives full of energy and possibility… A spark eager to channel through you, get onto the page, and premiere for the masses!
Oftentimes, it’s wise to act on an idea when you first receive that spark. Early on in the creative process, a full-fledged plan of attack isn’t strictly necessary, so you can get started relatively quickly and easily.
Begin by indulging the idea in a looser sense, exploring it in whatever form feels right. That could be a free-wheeling journaling session, a running list of everything interesting and important to you about your idea, or even the beginnings of specific scenes that pop into your head.
Whatever form your idea takes, nurture it! Brainstorm! Don’t cramp your idea with questions of workflow and structure, unless those questions help you develop it. At this point, the goal is to keep up momentum and gain some perspective, bringing your idea into sharper focus.
You Have Arrived
You’ll know you’re ready to start developing your idea more formally when you arrive at a sort of impasse. You have a very clear picture of your idea, and you can either dive in and get to work, or you can be like the rest of us and put off the work by finding something else “you need to do first”.
Let me let you in on a little secret, friend:
There isn’t something else you need to do first! The instinct to keep brainstorming is sometimes procrastination in disguise. If you have a good handle on your idea, then it’s time to move forward.
2. Take Your Idea to the Next Level with the Pre-Writing Process
One question in particular spans the chasm over Development Hell. It acts as a bridge between the brainstorming and more formal planning stages:
“What’s the right medium for this idea?”
Since you’re spending some time with our blog here at Lights Film School, I think it’s safe for me to assume that you have some interest in expressing your idea as a screenplay – and ultimately, a film! Do bear in mind that different ideas manifest in different ways, though. Sometimes, a novel, stage play, video game, etc. may be a better fit for an idea.
Your choice of medium will prescribe some useful conventions and best practices for your next steps. Together, they will help you shepherd your idea across the threshold of “concept” into full-fledged “story”.
Let’s Unlock the Potential of Story Structure in Screenwriting
When you’re writing a film, “story” revolves around “structure”. Structure is what lends shape to your idea.
You probably will want to plan its key components. For example, a protagonist with a goal; an antagonist to oppose the protagonist; a resulting conflict; and – depending on the length of and your vision for the film – a three-act arc with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
We teach our students all of this through our online film school, but our blog is a helpful resource for everyone 🥰:
- How to create a strong protagonist
- How to create a strong antagonist
- 3 rules of screenwriting (and when to break them)
There are a lot of moving parts, here, so you may want to create a detailed outline of your story’s structure before you draft the actual screenplay.
A Couple of Useful Prewriting Tools: The Outline and Story Synopsis
An outline answers important structural questions. What happens in your screenplay? In what order do those events happen? What gets established in Act One? What catapults us into Act Two? What obstacles are overcome throughout Act Two, driving us to the climax and onward into Act Three’s conclusion?
In addition to an outline, a synopsis can be a useful tool! It can help you distill the essence of your story. If you “get lost” at any point in the writing process, you can always come back to the synopsis to remind yourself what it’s about.
Beginning with your brainstorming when you first had the idea – onto the more formal planning stage, turning concept into story with the aid of an outline and synopsis for your screenplay – everything you’ve done up to this point counts as “pre-writing”. It’s everything you do before you actually Write The Thing.
About that… Look, I know it’s hard. I know the feeling you’re getting in your throat.
But remember all of that pre-writing you did? This is where it pays off. You have a clear picture of your idea. You’ve translated it into a story suited to your medium of choice. You know the plot. You know the characters. You are ready. Sit down and write.
hate ideas flow through you!
Okay, you’re not tapping into the dark side of the Force, but the principle is the same. Thanks, Emperor Palpatine! A word of caution, though (and not about the perils of the Dark Side):
3. Please Don’t Be Too Precious…. Write!
When we’re writing, it’s easy to be a bit precious with ourselves and feel that every word we commit to the page needs to be perfect. And that if it isn’t, we’re bad and we suck and we should just stop writing.
Writing a screenplay – or a novel, or a stage play, or a video game, or a school paper or personal essay or news article or recipe, for Pete’s sake! – requires one thing, at least at first: that you write.
Write, write, write.
I was recently talking to a mentor of mine about how the paid, assignment-based writing I’ve been doing is having a positive effect on my other writing. It keeps me “in shape”, so to speak. Even if I’m not working on my novel or a screenplay that day, my mind is still exercising. I’m still expressing my thoughts with words. And he said, “Isn’t it interesting how the more you write, the more you’re willing to throw away?”
He didn’t mean the more I’m willing to pour a bunch of beautiful, brilliant writing down the drain. He meant that the more I write, the more I condition myself to write, the less I’m attached to every single word.
Why You Need to Train Your Creative Muscles
In other words, I’m being less precious with myself.
I’m letting myself explore with words – AKA, I’m letting myself write! – and therefore, I’m letting myself dig through what’s there and extract the really good stuff, while leaving the other stuff behind.
Before, back when I let myself treat writing like it was an event – “I’m going to write today” – back when I did it infrequently, every word was more valuable, because it required more struggle to get down on the page.
Whatever medium you’re creating in, one of the best things you can do is build a routine. This can really help when it comes to taking your idea and turning it into a story, from first word to final cut. Becoming less precious, and more productive.
Because truly, seriously, the only way to do it?
Get started. Be consistent. In the words of author Stephen King:
“When asked, ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘One word at a time,’ and the answer is invariably dismissed. But that is all it is. It sounds too simple to be true, but consider the Great Wall of China, if you will: one stone at a time, man. That’s all. One stone at a time. But I’ve read you can see that motherfucker from space without a telescope.”
So just to recap, here are three steps to follow when you have an idea for a screenplay, that intermediate medium on the way to a film. In fact, in a zoomed-out sense, the steps are deceptively simple:
- Indulge your screenplay idea. Get it down on paper in some form; make it real. Journal, create lists, write scenes, sketch pictures, draw Venn diagrams… Do what you need to do to pounce on the energy of the spark and start bringing your idea into sharper focus!
- If it feels right to you, do some prewriting to help push your screenplay idea from concept to story. Assuming you’re laying the groundwork for a film, keep an eye open for the elements of traditional story structure. Develop “roadmaps” like outlines and synopses to help guide you through the writing process (we’ve linked some resources below to help you with this).
- Write the screenplay. Write, write, write, write, write. Build it into your routine. And also:
- Write! 😉
If this resonates with you; if you have some tips and inspiration of your own to share; or even if you just have questions, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
Lauren McGrail, with
For guidance in getting your idea out of your head and onto the screen, join our online film school, complete with a comprehensive filmmaking course. It’s the training you need to learn how to create professional narrative and documentary films using the equipment you already have, wherever you live, with guidance, community, and resources at a fraction of the cost of traditional film school.
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