Time and time again, people come up to us and pitch ideas for movies and television. Everyone thinks their story needs to be told or that they've got the greatest idea since the invention of the iPhone. But it's not just enough to have an idea. You have to see if it can go the distance. Does it have legs? Is it really a movie? Or is it just a sketch? Is there enough there to keep an audience engaged? Are the characters unique enough yet still accessible enough for audiences to root for? These are just some of the questions you need to ask yourself as you develop your story. It all starts with the idea, but there's much more to it. It's not as easy as people think. Most don't realize the time and effort it takes to flesh out an idea, from its inception to a full-blown motion picture. But there are some blueprints you can use to help get your ideas out of your head and onto the page.
In our 4-week online workshop, Finding & Developing New Ideas, we work with producers, writers, actors, development executives and directors to do just that. We encourage them to find ideas in unusual places and create a 3-act structure using our “Idea Form.” The Idea Form is just the tip of the iceberg, but it gets our students to think in terms of the 3-act structure, the main characters and, what we call, the six essential story elements necessary for good storytelling.
Dating back to Aristotle, the 3-Act Structure is the basis of all stories whether for theatre, film, television or the net. There is a beginning, middle and end. There is an inciting incident, which kicks the story into gear and sets up the premise. This is followed by a main turning point at the end of Act One which sets our Hero on their path (sometimes in a slightly surprising direction) and usually sets up the antagonist. The mid-point is a mini-climax in which our hero might possibly fail. Then, it's two steps forward, one step back on his or her journey. At the end of Act Two is the “all is lost moment” - another vital turning point in which our hero must make the ultimate decision and either go for it, or not. Whatever the decision is for that character, it will lead to the climax – the ultimate confrontation with the antagonist usually resulting in our hero winning or losing. Lastly, there's the denouement; the resolution and the aftermath of the climax in which we see the outcome of the climax and the story resolve itself.
After outlining the bare basics to see if the story can go the distance, from there, you might choose to go to the next step: a more elaborate outline of your film, and eventually you'll be able to turn this idea into a screenplay.
But let's back up a second. How do we find those ideas? Learning how to spot potential stories, knowing how to use those stories as a springboard for a bigger, more dramatic story, and then learning how to take dramatic license to develop those ideas into cohesive films for television and motion pictures is a practice.
Here are just a few places to get you started (some are obvious sources of material, while others may surprise you):
- Newspapers and magazines – sometimes there are rights issues involved but oftentimes, something in an article may only serve as a notion that springboards your story into an original tale and therefore you don't need to get the rights.
- Novels and short stories – for these you will have to option the rights. If it's not a bestselling novel, you might be surprised to find you can actually option them for little to no money if your passion speaks volumes to the author or agent. There are also a lot of public domain books and stories out there that are ripe for the telling.
- Obituaries – yes, you heard right. Start reading them and maybe you'll come up with a character loosely based upon someone's obituary that could possibly be fleshed out into an original story and eventual script.
- Comic books and graphic novels – you might wonder how you can afford to go after the rights of these sometimes hot properties, but there are small presses out there that might appreciate your passion and game plan. You may just be able to option something for little money with the promise of more option money to come upon set up with a studio and/or financier.
- Poetry – have you ever heard a piece of poetry and thought, there's a movie in that? If not, start listening and reading – you may very well find a great piece of poetry that translates onto the screen – of course you will have to dig deep into your creative imagination to pull that story out, but it can be done.
- Dreams – do you remember your dreams? If so, do you write them down? Have you ever noticed that sometimes those dreams are quite cinematic? Do you ever ask yourself if they can be a jumping-off point for a screenplay?
- Photography – like a dream, only a still picture that says a lot with just one shot. Can you make it more than that?
- Sitting in a cafe watching a couple have an argument - Do you ever wonder what the argument is about? Do they make up? Do they break up? What's their story? Let your imagination run wild.
We could go on and on as the possibilities are limitless. All you need to do is look around you and there's a story to be told. It's up to you to create the characters, the objectives and overall arc of your tale. You should never be at a loss for finding good ideas. Some, you may translate to paper on an Idea Form, or whatever you use, and file away for future use; others may have a life of their own - in that you get the bare bones on paper and it still just keeps on ticking – and becomes a more detailed outline and eventual screenplay.
Good stories are usually about someone trying to overcome something. For film, they need to be cinematic. So even though you may collect a bunch of ideas in a file, some may not translate as well as others. The more you have to choose from, the more you'll have at your fingertips when creativity strikes.