A great source of advice on generating ideas for movies is the Getting Ideas section of Linda Aronson’s book Screenwriting Updated. She sets out a systematic approach to generating ideas, based on Edward de Bono’s distinction between lateral and vertical thinking. Without going into detail here (buy the book, it’s well worth it!), her method entails deliberately choosing triggers, such as aspects of a genre, on which to brainstorm as many ideas as possible. She essentially advocates quantity above quality when brainstorming.
Aronson advises jotting down ideas in a single sentence. Not in the form of a cleverly constructed logline, but a quick and dirty, general notion of what a story could be about. Critical review of the viability of your ideas is a subsequent stage of the process, So is honing the one or two ideas that survive critical review, into workable set-ups for a screenplay.
But her most important advice, at least in my view, concerning the brainstorming stage of generating ideas, is this:
Keep to one sentence because if you start to plot a whole story you will commit to it, thereby shutting out a whole range of other potential stories.
This is such a difficult lesson to learn, but it’s true. However interesting an idea might seem at first glance, you’ve got to be prepared to interrogate yourself about the idea before you commit to writing it. I know I’m not the only screenwriter who’s had to learn this the hard way. I.e., by spending a lot of time and energy fleshing out a story only to discover too late that it isn’t actually a good cinematic idea after all.
It’s all part of growing up and becoming professional, I guess. You need to get the notion that there’s an endless supply of ideas out there in the cosmos, and that it makes good business sense to reject a thousand silly ideas in order to get to one or two really good ones… And to do that, you first have to generate lots of unusable ideas.
So my synopsis for a lo-budget thriller has now been moved to the pile of “good idea but wrong time,” and I’ve moved on to other stories which have cinematic potential.
How to judge which ideas are usable? More on that next time.