Four steps to scriptwriting your creative idea

Become a master of creativity and take your idea on a four-step journey

By Pier Vittorio Mannucci 25 January 2017

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How do screenwriters make their ideas dance on a page? They take their concepts through a rigorous manufacturing process, starting with the raw materials and ending with the master plan. Draw inspiration for your creative ideas from those responsible for creative direction, emotional impact and the films we love to watch: screenwriters.


Step one: Idea generation


“The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas,” said biochemist Linus Pauling. But creating lots of random ideas, “brainstorming”, isn’t quite what idea generation means in this context. It’s more about selecting a single idea that could prove useful with further development. The trick here is to keep your idea vague.


Consider how screenwriters come up with film-worthy concepts. Film ideas can be inspired by books, real-life events, anecdotes or philosophies. Take the classic crime film GoodFellas, directed by Martin Scorsese. The film is an adaptation of the 1986 non-fiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Scorsese. According to Pileggi, Scorsese called the writer and told him, “I've been waiting for this book my entire life”. Pileggi replied, “I've been waiting for this phone call my entire life”. 


Scorsese read Pileggi’s book by chance, highlighting the unpredictability of the idea generation process: it’s unconscious and often serendipitous. At this stage you need to be receptive and open to new ideas from unexpected sources. Be mindful of your knowledge in the field: the more you know, the more likely you’ll stick to what you know. The danger of this is that rigid cognitive pathways can stem the flow of new, valuable knowledge. 


What you need in step one 


Too much information creates more concrete thinking so at this stage cognitive flexibility is essential. Don’t get too emotionally attached to the evolution of the idea – the core concept is enough. Allow space to scope out the idea as the journey continues. To help, ensure you have the right people in the room: if you only seek the viewpoints of people you’re emotionally close to you’ll miss out on truly novel information. Moreover, you’ll spend less time considering different options. The more diverse your network at the outset, the more creative you can be. Keeping an open mind will help you join previously disconnected dots, sparking ingenuity. 


Step two: Idea elaboration


At this stage, your nebulous concept will be shaped into a shareable idea. You’ll ask questions such as: does it solve a real problem? How can the idea reach its fullest potential? What are its limitations? Again, consider what screenwriters do when they’ve chosen a creative route. They write the synopsis. They think about what will capture the attention of backers. They develop the plot, set the scene and, importantly, craft a unique angle to pitch to potential producers.


This phase is critical to creating an idea that speaks for itself. This is your opportunity to build a persuasive narrative and develop an argument to counter those who disagree with the idea. Of course, it’s entirely plausible that you’ll abandon the idea at the elaboration stage, in which case you’ll go back to step one and select another idea. If the elaboration phase is successful, you’ll feel confident that your idea can reach a wider audience and has the potential to infiltrate the so-called “gatekeepers”. 


What you need in step two 


Here you’ll require both hand-holding and truth-telling: you’ll need the balance of emotional support and constructive feedback. First, seek guidance from one person who is emotionally close to you. Renowned director Alfred Hitchcock presented his ideas to his wife Alma Reville before pitching them to producers. She was his closest confidante. The strength of your emotional attachment to the idea will make you vulnerable so you’ll need a trustworthy supporter to buffer the anxiety associated with sharing novel ideas. While your concept might benefit from a dose of honesty, harsh criticism early on can thwart plans to strengthen it. As Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar Animation Studios, put it: a brand new idea is often an “ugly baby” and so you must protect it from criticism. Seek encouragement and feedback that will not undermine the idea.


Step three: Idea championing


Where step two is about floating ideas, step three puts you in more strategic territory. You’ll begin to actively promote your idea and depending on your success you’ll be able to request something in return. Screenwriters, for example, will pitch their idea to film studio executives. If they succeed in articulating a compelling argument they may go on to request money, talent or time. 


Championing novel ideas is a risky business; therefore rejection is creativity’s kryptonite. Prepare to win over those wielding power with your professional competence. You’re more likely to gain approval and support if you’re perceived as a legitimate, credible source of innovation. 


What you need in step three


Ask yourself: “Am I confident about my idea?” “Can I influence people in a position of authority?” Prepare yourself for dealing with criticism and for defending any obstacles with an air of confidence. You’re most likely to receive a green light when decision-makers believe in you. On the one hand, both you and your idea need to be credible. On the other, research suggests influence and legitimacy can be borrowed. Think about who could champion your idea within your network: decision-makers will often attribute your contacts’ valuable qualities to you as well.


Step four: Idea implementation


What happens when the wheels of creativity are set in motion? First, you’ll need to focus on the production element of implementation. You’ll need to start piloting your idea by creating a blueprint that can be rolled out. A screenwriter, for instance, will develop their script in detail. They may include scene numbers, editing transitions, camera angles, scene headings, location and even the time of day. During production, you’ll create a step-by-step plan to turn your idea into the finished article. Just as a screenwriter expects the creative crew to follow their detailed script, you’ll need to hand over your idea to the people executing your idea. 


As well as production, you’ll need to think about impact. How will your innovation be recognised by those in the field? Will it be successfully adopted? The acceptance of ideas is socially shaped: people make judgements about innovations based on where they fit into the wider culture. A film is heralded a success when it’s recognised by critics or when creative peers start to mimic the idea. Will your idea, for example, change industry standards?


What you need in step four


Make no mistake; an idea will mean some kind of change, however small, for those implementing it.  And a shared vision lays the foundation for change. If your blueprint provides a way forward, which in turn generates a common understanding, your odds of success will be greater. 


During production, a shared vision provides several advantages. It encourages commitment, better information-sharing and united behaviour. It also increases the sense of ownership, purpose and responsibility. As for impact, a shared vision will help you meet opposition head-on. People may see the idea as a threat to their power or simply lack the time to adopt it – shared understanding will help to create a common language that guarantees your idea dances on the screen, just as you imagined it on the page.

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