Screenwriters - Here's How You Decide On What Story Ideas You Should Pursue!

By Arun Fulara. Posted on October 09, 2015

Another of those really useful answers on Quora that all the screenwriters out there should take note of. Answered by one of the usual suspects, Ken Miyamoto, this is one of the most recurring questions that we receive. What ideas should a screenwriter focus on? How do you choose from amongst the plethora of story ideas that you keep getting. Of course he's answered the question with Hollywood in mind, but the answer is applicable for screenwriters everywhere.

This is the question, he was asked.

How do you choose which one of your ideas is going to be next when writing a screenplay or a book?

And here's what he answered...

You must choose... but choose wisely.

To obtain the best odds of a successful run at becoming a represented, working, and someday hopefully a produced screenwriter you need to stack your deck before you send any queries out to anyone because the first question you'll get IF you beat the odds and get into a room (literally or metaphorically) with a development executive, producer, agent, or manager is "What else do you have?"

I'll offer a personal anecdote in that regard...

In 2005, after honing my skills as a screenwriter thanks in due part to the education I achieved as a script reader for Sony Pictures, I went off and wrote my first marquee script, Doomsday Order.

A submarine crew launches their nuclear arsenal at the brink of World War III and must deal with the psychological aftermath of destroying the civilized world as they knew it, leading to mutiny, chaos, and the struggle to survive. 

Crimson Tide meets Lord of the Flies.

I choose this script because it was high concept and engaging.  I choose it because the first couple of screenplays I wrote were the rookie mistakes of writing self serving scripts written primarily for me... when I should have been developing scripts for the people that I'd be pitching too.  Something I learned during my studio development days.

This script was taken out utilizing some creative networking and eventually fell into the hands of Paramount.  This lead to referral to my then manager, which lead to the script going out wide and nabbing me meetings with Sony, Warner Brothers, Universal, Dreamworks, and Disney.  And with each of those meetings, the first question that was asked after initial discussions on the script that got me in there was, "So what else do you have?"

Point(s) being?  First, once I started writing for them and not solely for me, I had success.   And second, because I didn't have a stacked deck of solid scripts, the momentum I had was stalled the moment that question was asked and it took me another year to get back into the "room" with my followup script that nabbed me a deal with Lionsgate.

So you MUST choose wisely with each and every script you write and you MUST stop writing solely for yourself.  You have to write for them.

What does that mean?

First off, let me tell you that no, this doesn't mean that you don't write what you enjoy to write.  This means that you create a hybrid of what they want and what you enjoy.  If there is a secret to success (there's not), it would start right there.

So how do you find what they want?  Here's a few bullet points to start with...

  • They want something new, but...
  • They want something that has already been successful, but...
  • They want a different angle on something that has already been successful, but...
  • They want something contained (few locations, no high budget), but...
  • They want something that is going to compete with big studio films (because why bother with anything else?), but...
  • They want something castable (one or two key characters that would offer meaty roles for A-listers), but...
  • They want a high concept because in Hollywood, concept is everything, but...
  • They want a compelling and engaging story to go along with all of that.

So that's pretty much it.  Oh, and they don't want Westerns or Fantasies. If you can hit some of those major bullet points, and do it well, your odds of success increase ten fold.

So what screenwriters NEED to do in order to evolve is to understand that you're no longer writing the stories you solely want or need to write... you're writing what will attract the powers that be to make your career aspirations and dreams hopefully come true one day.  That's the hard truth.  Anything else you hear is utter BS from people that have read too many screenwriting books and haven't really had the necessary film industry access and experience.

Don't even trust the interviews by the A-List top one percenters of screenwriters out there that tell you to write what YOU solely want to write because, friends, hindsight is 20/20 and it's very easy to say such things when you're living the dream.

So now is the time to decide, right?

Well, it's time to really brainstorm and come up with some great core concepts.  How do you know what they want in that respect?

  • Look what's trending.  Now, keep in mind that trends currently in the market are usually already two years old (due to development, production, etc.) and may only have a shelf life of another two years or so in the market.  Vampire flicks got old.  Zombie flicks got old.  The old timer killer hero doing all he can to save or avenge X (Liam Nesson's Taken movies as an example) got old... (Pierce Brosnan, Kevin Costner, and Sean Penn tried to jump on that train too late). BUT, you can take those aging trends and put a new spin on them by adding new elements and make them new again (See John Wick as an example).  So check out the new trends and see how you can update them.
  • Combine two hot core concepts to make a new one.    A bad (or brilliant) example would be "It's John Wick meets Fast and Furious." Development execs and producers LOVE that because it's easy to pitch. Agents and managers love it because it's easier to sell.  Combine the two and make it your own beyond that.
  • Take what you love and combine it with what they love. If you love quirky comedy, inject that into a high concept comedy or thriller.  If you love drama, combine that into a character driven action flick (Die Hard featured a lead character with marital problems and someone that cried and felt true pain... something unusual during the days of Arnold and Stallone).

That's how you decide.

Beyond that...

  • Ask those "What if...?" questions to find high concepts. My "what if" for Doomsday Order was "What if a nuclear submarine was given the order to launch their full nuclear arsenal and they actually did!" This is the easiest way to find high concepts because audiences identify with that approach and you the screenwriter can answer that for them.
  • Explore fears. The fear of spiders (Arachnophobia). The fear of water (Jaws). The fear of demons (The Exorcist). Fear can be explored through the genres of science fiction, thrillers, suspense thrillers, action, crime, adventure, comedy, and even drama.

You need to give yourself the best odds.  You have to have the best stacked deck/hand that you can offer to create that impression that you're ready for the film industry.

And lastly, know that it's more likely that whatever you choose and whatever hits will more so act as a calling card for assignments rather than lead to outright sales.

Such is the life and business of a screenwriter...


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