Coming up with script ideas can be a huge challenge, but hopefully these tips will get those creative juices flowing.
Being stuck as a screenwriter is one of the most frustrating parts of the creative process. Whether it be writer’s block or a lack of inspiration, as writers we all have points where we don’t know what direction to go in next.
Fear not. We’ve got a solution (or ten) to help you with that. Inspiration is truly at your fingertips. You just need to know where to look for it to create that one-of-a-kind premise, fascinating character, or exceptional plot point for your screenplay.
Bookmark this page for when you need creative inspiration while writing your next feature film, pilot, or spec script. These are ten sources of unique plot, character, and premise inspiration to help you generate unparalleled script ideas.
Change One Thing About A Film or Show That You Love
You may have heard that execs look for something they’re familiar with but that’s also different to offer audiences something fresh they’ve not seen before. This is a way to generate an idea like that.
A key point is to write from inspiration from a movie or a series that you love. Your passion and joy for the premise, characters, or genre will come through. We’ll use Supernatural, one of my favorite shows, as an example. Here are some aspects to consider altering to make your script idea fresh and new:
- CHANGE THE SETTING (Example: Supernatural in space.)
- CHANGE THE TIME PERIOD (Example: Supernatural in the Victorian era.)
- CHANGE THE GENRE (Example: Supernatural as a western.)
- DIVERSIFY THE CAST (Example: Supernatural with women of color as the leads. Some more diversity ideas here.)
- TELL THE STORY FROM ANOTHER CHARACTER’S PERSPECTIVE (Example: Supernatural from the demons’ point of view.)
Truth is truly stranger than fiction, which is why the news of the day can provide some of the best fodder for plot and character inspiration. An example of a successful show inspired by current events is Apple’s hit series The Morning Show, which explores the #MeToo movement amid world events.
Create an archive of news articles so that you have a pool of ideas to draw from for inspiration. If you’re on an iPhone with the News app, you can bookmark and save articles that you find interesting. Use a Google Doc to copy/paste URLs and make notes of what intrigues you about each news story. Just in case articles are deleted later, screenshot them and save them to a folder on your computer or phone.
Ah, the trusty ole writing prompt. Even if you don’t write a script directly from a prompt, they’re effective in getting your creative juices flowing when you allow yourself to write freely with no judgment. Check out these links to spark your creative mind with a writing prompt:
- WEBSITES: Try some random writing prompt generators like this one from The Narrative Arc, or check out ScreenCraft’s story prompt lists.
- INSTAGRAM: @writing.prompt.s and @writing.prompts.re are great if you want to peruse daily writing prompts on Instagram.
- TWITTER – Want daily and hourly writing prompts? Then follow @howboutyouwrite and @magicrealismbot on Twitter.
A Memory That You’ll Never Forget
Your life experience is a rich field to harvest ideas from for your screenplay. Using a memory as inspiration for a premise or scene is an effective way to infuse feeling and depth in your script. You’re able to craft the experiences of the character(s) in a way like no other writer because you have felt what they’ve been through.
Midnight Mass is a great example of how this is successfully done. The limited series is very personal to writer/director Mike Flanagan because it speaks to his personal experience of religion and alcoholism.
Oftentimes, writing from your memories and personal experience will feel extremely vulnerable. You’re baring your soul, and it is that vulnerability that helps you craft the details of a story, dialogue, character development, and subtext of a scene because you’re offering the experience from having lived it. That makes for an unprecedented script idea.
Document Your Dreams
Dreams are singular to each person, which is what makes them such incredible inspiration for an original story. Ever heard of a director named James Cameron? The ideas he receives from his dreams inspired him to create blockbusters such as Terminator and Avatar.
Use your dreams as screenplay inspiration. Keep a log of your dreams in a journal or put them in a Google Doc to be able to access and search any time you think one of your dreams could fit into a script you’re working on. If you’re an artist like Cameron is, sketch or paint memorable visuals of your dreamscapes to inspire you.
Channel Your Passion
Tuning into what you’re passionate about is how you can craft a script that’s personal to you that only you can tell. There are no two people that are passionate about the exact same things in every respect.
What is something that makes you light up when you talk about it or that you could talk about for a long time? You can ask a good friend or your partner if you’re not sure. It could be space exploration, scuba diving, or chess. Another way to hone in on what you’re passionate about is to look at what makes you angry in the world today. Anger is where your passion lies. It highlights what you care deeply about. There is a fire in anger that you can use to fuel your creativity.
The first step is identifying what you’re passionate about, which will give you a topic to focus on for a script. The second step is identifying your opinions and perspective on that topic, which is the message and theme for your script’s premise.
A Family Story
Every family has a history, and that means every family has stories to tell. Funny, heartbreaking, embarrassing, dramatic. There are innumerable experiences you, someone in your family, or all of you have experienced together that can be the seed to grow your next script from.
It could be the way your parents met. How your family immigrated to another country. How your family business started. How your family coped with a tragedy. Discovering something unexpected about a family member. How everyone has kept a family secret. These are all personal experiences to you and/or your family, which is what makes them unique – and you supremely qualified to write about it.
Some examples to inspire you: The Big Sick is based on Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon’s real-life courtship before they married. The Farewell is based on the way that filmmaker Lulu Wang’s family coped with her grandmother having a short time left to live.
Your Current Struggles
Syd Field said it best: “All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no action; without action, you have no character; without character, you have no story; and without story, you have no screenplay.”
What you struggle with in your everyday life is conflict, and there is a story in there. Although your everyday struggles might seem like nothing of importance to you, it might foster empathy in others to see a side of life they don’t know or help someone feel not alone in seeing a story about struggles similar to their own. What do you personally struggle with in your life? Was there a time in your life when you had to overcome a certain situation or condition? Use it as inspiration for a script.
As an example, Maid is based on a true story. It offers a raw perspective into a single mother’s life as she struggles to create a safe home and life for herself and her daughter while coming to terms with domestic abuse. There are no big explosions, superhero action sequences, or anything flashy. Its focus on the everyday struggles of a single mother and the gritty, heartbreaking details of it are what make it unique.
What Do You Love To Watch?
What’s your favorite movie? Series? Genre? Write something YOU want to watch. Don’t worry if it’s just like your favorite film or TV show. Give yourself the freedom to allow it to start that way, then rewrite. It can start as a fanfic and then evolve into something all its own. Chances are if you wish there was more of a certain kind of story out there, there is someone else that does, too, and they’re your audience.
Your personal tastes are one of a kind. Start with what makes your heart sing. Too often writers get concerned with what others want to see rather than tuning into their own hearts. Writing a script based on what brings you joy will help keep you from getting burnt out. As writers, we’re creators. If you want to see a particular kind of film or show, you have the power to create it.
No, really. Hear me out on this one. Although Twitter is often the go-to time waster for screenwriters avoiding the blank page, there is a goldmine of inspiration to be found there. Scroll tweets with a purpose! Find threads that tell a story to inspire you. You may even find one that’s so fully fleshed out, the story is outlined perfectly. Feature crime drama Zola was created from a viral Twitter thread. Character and plot inspiration are abundant on Twitter.
The way people write tweets and articulate their views can help you develop a character. Looking to craft a more well-rounded character than the one-dimensional real estate agent you’ve created? Click on realtor hashtags and find an actual realtor on Twitter. A peek at their “likes” will give you insight into their personality, which you can use as inspo. A great account to follow is @censusamericans. It tweets the backstory of a real American every hour. You can also use the description of each person as a writing prompt.
Hopefully the above will give you plenty of sources of inspiration that you can draw upon and come back to as you write. These can provide solid script ideas for you to use in your screenplays, and they can also be valuable creative exercises that lead you to where you need to go. Screenwriting is not linear, and sometimes all you need is to distract your intellect to allow your creative mind to flow.
Joanna Ke is an award-winning, half Taiwanese actor, writer, producer, and trained sword fighter. Her foundation as a creative producer and screenwriter is built on nearly a decade of experience as a professional script reader in development and acquisitions. She studied screenwriting with the late, great Syd Field, and as an actor, has had the honor of working with director Cameron Crowe. Her films have won BEST ACTION and BEST FANTASY awards, and her acting has won BEST PERFORMANCE and BEST VILLAIN accolades.
Wielding her broadsword is a favorite, both on and off camera.