Generating Bankable Story Ideas for Film and Television/ 2019-07-06
So, you’ve finally decided to try your hand at screenwriting. You’ve read Syd Field’s Screenplay cover to cover. You’ve bought the latest version of Final Draft. You’ve set aside time each night to write three pages knowing that in a month you’ll have a first draft of your 90-page opus. You’re pumped! There’s just one small problem. You have no idea what to write. I mean, you know what topics you’re passionate about, but that doesn’t necessarily make for a sellable screenplay… does it? Where and how does one generate those great story ideas that make it from script to screen? The good news is there’s no magic formula, no hidden secret, no play-by-play instruction book. However, there are a few practical methods that working screenwriters will tell you have often produced results.
Look at What’s Hot
Critics often pan Tinseltown for its plethora of derivative works. But there’s a very simple reason why the same kinds of movies and TV shows get made over and over: they work. If audiences keep tuning in, why stop? Look at the type of content that’s doing well with audiences right now and how long it’s been that way. If it’s been a few years with no signs of abating, there’s a good chance producers want more of it. Figure out what hot content you enjoy and then come up with your unique spin on it.
Consult an Expert
Experts are everywhere. Producers, script consultants, distribution execs, sales agents. And while they may not have a crystal ball, their position in the industry means they likely see what’s selling and what’s making money. Moreover, they’re often desperate for writers willing to eschew personal passions in favor of writing what’s marketable. So, where do you find these experts? Attend networking events, film markets and festivals, join a professional writers’ group, or ask friends who have connections.
Open a Newspaper
Some of the best ideas hide in plain sight. Newspapers, magazines, and blogs are rife with human interest stories and current events that might make for strong movies or TV shows. How do you know which ones? First, look at how popular the story is. Have you seen it in numerous publications? Is it a front-pager? Has it been getting tons of hits? And second, is real drama there? Real adversity? Something that’s almost too amazing to believe? If readers are responding, audiences probably will, too.
It Really Is Who You Know
Movie-goers love true stories. And while newspapers are filled with them, it may be challenging for a frosh screenwriter to secure a subject’s life rights without significant money involved. (A true story is essentially worthless to a screenwriter without a life rights option in place.) Instead, look at people you know who have highly peculiar, unique, or exceptional life stories. They may just be the hidden gem you’ve been searching for, and they’re more likely to option their life rights to you for cheap.
Adapt Preexisting Material
The Academy doesn’t offer a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for nothing. Preexisting material is fertile ground for new story ideas. And it doesn’t have to be some book on the New York Times bestseller list either. In fact, it doesn’t have to be a book at all. Novellas, short stories, poems, comic books, graphic novels, blogs, even advice columns have all found second lives as movies or TV shows. Consider whether the material is topical and relevant to today’s audience, and you may just have a winner on your hands.
Producers who are having trouble finding specific types of material may be willing to partner with you if you write on spec. Both sides put in sweat equity – you write the material, and they guide the process, develop the material, and eventually shop it. If it gets sold, everyone gets paid. If the producers can at least offer basic story direction or lay out their investor’s parameters, you can start by brainstorming dozens of loglines (one-sentence story concepts) and see which, if any, sparks their interest.