Kathryn from Devon, England asks:


I’m not known for being subtle so…………how the hell do you go about getting an idea for a story. I’ve been walking around with a note pad and pen for the last week or so and turned out with a few threads that have no link with each other. These threads are ‘life lessons’ I’ve picked up over the years.

This is perhaps the most personal of all screenwriting questions. I suggest each writer finds his or her own answer.

For me, creating ideas is a matter of training. I am always thinking about writing and always have my antennae up for an idea. Ideas come from anything I am exposed to – a news item, a fictional story I didn’t like (which often leads me to think of how the story should have been done, which then leads me to a different idea built on that idea), a comment from a friend, a billboard, and… random thoughts that pop into my head for no known reason.

I keep a running list of ideas going; I’ve done so for years. Currently, it has about eighty or so entries on it. Some of them are useless. Others are very exciting to me and I look forward to developing them. I keep it in a database and review the whole thing regularly, adding new thoughts to old ideas as they occur to me.

The kernel of an idea that initially gets jotted down is not much to go on. There is usually not enough there to know whether it could make a successful story or not. From that kernel, I play with it and develop it. Only after some effort and development do I have an idea of whether the idea is worth pursuing.

When under the gun, I have brainstormed for ideas. My writing partner and I have gone through hundreds of ideas before finding one that excites us. It has sometimes taken months of difficult and frustrating work. I do not like to develop ideas that way. I prefer to work from inspiration.

Here is a prior post on what, to me, makes a good idea. Here is another column, this one from Wordplayer.

In short, for me, I am always training myself to create good ideas, always looking, listening and thinking about the world. I do not mind jotting down many lesser ideas to find those few diamonds in the rough.

4 thoughts on “ROUGH DIAMONDS”

  1. Hey man, I seem to have the opposite problem……..I can’t seem to stop the ideas from coming long enough to concentrate on one thing. So what I’ve done is write the “readers digest” version down for myself time after time. If you ever find yourself running short of ideas, feel free to contact me…………I found this place by accident, so will bookmark it, and return occasionally to see if you respond. I would leave my email, but not sure if that is allowed or not. Keep up the dream. RS Stone

  2. well, i’ll throw in my two cents. i get ideas while doing mundane stuff – dishes, jogging, whatever. the other night i was jogging and i got the entire outline for a horror story – the whole thing, in like twenty minutes. when i got home i recorded the idea on my voice recorder – one note about 6 minutes long.

    that’s going to be good when i get around to it. i keep ideas in a sketch book and write them as i get to them. right now i probably have 2 very solid ideas for short stories and maybe 3 scripts in various stages. the point being i record the ideas over a period of time – so i have a collection.

    the only idea i ‘forced’ or thought up on purpose was for my first ‘good’ script (it was my second one but the first one was so bad – i threw it out). i wanted a script that would have marketability so i went with the vampire genre – every year there’s a couple vampire pictures. then i decided on a cop sub-genre. after tinkering with it i came up with ‘cop chases vampire responsible for killings’ type plot. i wasn’t really comfortable with the process. i’d much rather just let the idea come to me rather than assembling the plot elements to fit a genre i have decided to write in. it worked, though. the script is pretty good. that was the last time i used that approach, though. it’s just too mechanical.

    i’d rather just let them come to me. i got an idea for a weird sort of literary fiction piece while cutting a cantalope in half. the idea is a bit gross so i won’t go into details. but, the piece is nice (and it’s not genre horror, but literary or experimental, so i’m happy with that)

    i don’t know what to tell you. there isn’t a method for creating something out of nothing. it just happens.

    i guess i get notions from other sources. today i was watching ‘butch cassidy and the sundance kid’ and i thought that i should write a western. why not? all i need is a crumb of a plot to start with.

    i guess if i had to offer advice it would be to relax. trying to force an idea is pretty unnatural. there’s this zen concept – effortless effort. it means applying your mind to something but allowing a natural flow of energy. that is, don’t force things or grapple with the problem. just ‘point’ your mind in the right direction and don’t stray. concentrate, but only in a free way. i’d have to say that’s what i do when i’m working a problem. otherwise, i do nothing and, occasionally, an idea pops into my head from nowhere – then i jot down a note and file it for later.

  3. Goldman writes a pretty neat explanation on how he gets some ideas in his second book WHICH LIE DID I TELL in which in takes a real life event (Jon benet) with another (columbine, I think) and turns it into a uniqe story that works –

    Pretty interesting, he also does something else with ideas from newspaper articles – pretty cool and helpful

  4. Each of us is different… and that makes the variety out there very exciting (and daunting). Some aspiring scribes (like me!) have thoughts coming to them out of thin air. My personal ‘gift’ is an always churning, over-active imagination; I’d like to take a moment of silence in remembrance of all the teachers who tried valiantly to keep my focus on class work and out of my ‘fantasy time” daydreaming – SORRY.

    My problem isn’t a shortage of ideas to develop… it is with developing them into viable stories, filling 90-to-120 blank pages. Sometimes, an idea alone is enough for me to play with; letting the story basically write itself (elements and scenes that work are retained, while anything that doesn’t jive is flushed). This process is repeated, following the tried-and-true writing structure (in most cases… although there are brilliant examples of writing which tosses rules out the window).

    My first spec was like this. The idea for it hit me back in 1996; I did NOTHING substantial with it for a decade. When I finally did, it wrote itself… my first draft was finished in a matter of weeks (of sporadic typing). It was the final revision(s)/polishing which took me over a year. What I’m left with is something I take pride in – it has been repeatedly called “original”, and a “page-turner”, by friends and select readers. If nothing ever comes of it… if I never have it optioned or produced, I can still live with the fact that I did it! I wrote a screenplay.

    The money would be nice though… I can’t lie. It’s always been a dream of mine to be involved in the movie business. We’ll see what happens…

    Best Regards,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *