Four Easy Ways to Brainstorm Screenplay Ideas


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by Naomi Write + Co. in pre-writing, screenwriting

While screenwriters often have files full of screenplay ideas, there are times when you need to generate new concepts on demand. Like when…

…you’re ready to start a new screenplay so you’re flipping through your ideas file, and nothing is begging to be written.

…you have an opportunity to meet with a producer, and you don’t want to be unprepared for the inevitable, “What else do you have?”

…you just signed with a new manager, and at your meeting next week he’s asked you to pitch him 40 new ideas.

If you find yourself in any of these situations (or if you just want to practice generating ideas because it’s good for your screenwriter brain muscle), here are four methods you can use to come up with a bunch of new story concepts anytime you need them.

Game #1: New Point of View

In this one you start with any existing legend, fairytale, or public domain IP.

By way of example, I’ll start with Mulan, the legendary Chinese woman warrior who disguised herself as a man in order to join the army.

Then, brainstorm five other points of view on this story’s events.

So, for my example, I’d go with:

    • Mulan’s sister (a sibling rivalry could be interesting)
    • A fellow soldier (could there be an epic love story?)
    • A soldier from an enemy force (suspenseful cat-and-mouse story?)
    • Mulan’s great-great-great-great granddaughter (telling parallel stories in two different time periods)
    • A royal from the Han Dynasty who enlists Mulan in some kind of twisty espionage-action plot

Each of these points of view can give rise to their own familiar story shapes, tones, and genres. Let your brain go where it wants, and write down as many ideas as you can capture.

Now, I don’t actually know the story of Mulan, so these potential story POVs are all made up. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t use them as a jumping-off point for my own story, however closely or distantly related to the original Mulan tale as I decide I want it to be.

You might come up with an interesting dynamic and then decide you don’t actually want to tell the story of Mulan through other eyes…

But you do want to tell a story of female sibling rivalry set in the contemporary world of the U.S. Marines. That’s cool.

Remember, you’re just generating new possibilities so that later you can choose something that sparks your interest to develop a bit more. Later you can follow that interest to a story you are passionate or curious or excited enough about to spend the next several months writing.

Right now we’re just putting everything into our grocery basket. Later we’ll decide what to cook.

Game #2: ROP + fantasy

Take any life phase, rite of passage, or other universally understood situation, and add a fantasy (or supernatural, or sci fi) element.

Brainstorm “What if?” using both of those elements in as many different ways as you can.

For example, if I chose: high school crush + ghosts

I might come up with:

    • What if a teenage girl died and came back to haunt the crush she never had the guts to approach when she was alive?
    • What if a teen boy’s high school crush died, and he started seeing her ghost everywhere, slowly driving him insane?
    • What if a grown woman was being haunted by her long-dead high school crush?

You can play with genre and tone for additional possibilities. After further development, maybe one of those ideas would have become Over Her Dead Body. Maybe it would have become Ghost.

Game #3: Headliners

Grab a newspaper, magazine, or tabloid headline that sounds interesting to you, and DO NOT read the story. (The Facebook news feed is good for this, but beware that rabbit hole!)

In this game you’ll take just the headline as your inspiration, and twist it to come up with new stories.

Let’s go with, “Garbage Collector Creates Library from Rescued Books.”

Use what you know about common movie types to pull out the different plots this headline suggests.

Maybe I would come up with:

    • When a garbage collector learns he only has six months left to live, he embarks on a cross-country road trip to locate the original owners of books that have personal inscriptions written in them.
    • A garbage collector gathers discarded books and creates a free library for his struggling community, only to find himself in a David-and-Goliath struggle against the city library system.
    • A garbage collector uses his access and unique connections to steal back valuable first editions that were stolen from his father thirty years earlier – and now reside in the private collection of the wealthiest man in America.

The key in this game is to overlay your headline elements onto familiar story shapes. That’s how you’ll generate many new ideas quickly. You can then continue to tweak the ideas to make sure they’re fresh.

Game #4: Emotions

When was the last time you felt something emotional in your life? Veteran TV writer and producer Ross Brown uses his own emotions as a jumping off point for story ideas, and you can, too! SoCreate details this exercise to generate a story idea, and you can find the complete details as well as examples over on their blog, “How to Come Up With New Ideas For Your Screenplay.”

    1. Name an emotion that you felt today.
    2. Describe the events leading up to that emotion.
    3. Who or what was involved in this scenario?
    4. What is the opposite feeling of this emotion?
    5. When was the last time you felt that opposite emotion?
    6. Using those opposite charges, write a scene that takes us from one emotion to the next.

Use that scene to discover stories that pique your interest. Maybe you came up with a character you’d like to follow further. Or perhaps there’s something thematically interesting about this scene that you’d like to explore in a larger story.

You have a bunch of half-baked concepts. Now what?

Look at each of your new ideas and see if you can identify:

    • What’s “familiar”: Is it a classic heist? Is it an epic romance? A road trip?
    • What’s “fresh”: What’s unique about the idea? Does it have a “strange attractor”?

And if your ideas are feeling bland, uninspired, or cliched, you can target your brainstorming to isolated elements to find a fresh hook.

Try starting with these:

    • Perspective – Do we commonly see this type of story from one point of view? What other possible POVs are there?
    • Opposite (or unexpected) profession – Instead of a cop hunting the killer, what if it’s another killer? Or an obsessed podcaster?
    • Opposite (or unexpected) social standing – What if the presidential candidate in your story was a homeless person?
    • Unexpected Gender
    • Unexpected Age / phase-of-life
    • Location – Can you make this either the fresh or familiar element to balance the other aspects of your concept?
    • Juxtaposition between character and arena – a more extreme juxtaposition can add interest (and drama or humor)
    • Time period
    • Stakes
    • Fantasy and Science Fiction elements

As you work through all of your brainstorming, the ideas that attract you the most will become obvious. Begin to experiment with loglining those concepts and soon your next screenplay idea will be burning a hole in your pocket.

And if you want another set of eyes and a quick opinion on what’s fresh + familiar about your concept, email me. I’d be happy to give you my two cents.

  1. Adam Skelter says:

    Another fantastic article!Loaded with great brainstorming ideas.

    1. Naomi says:

      Thanks, Adam! Always glad to hear it’s helpful. 🙂

  2. Robert says:

    Awesome resource and
    provides inspiration.

    1. Naomi says:

      Thanks, Robert. Stay tuned! There’s more where that came from 😉

  3. Ace Writers says:

    After reading your post on screencraft about “Three Fun Games to Help You Find Better Screenplay Ideas”, I decided to read your blog. Naomi you doing amazing work! Thanks!

  4. Jimmy Tyler says:

    Woooow! What an interesting article!
    Great job Naomi.

    1. Naomi says:

      Thanks, Jimmy! Glad it’s useful and I can’t wait to see what you come up with!

  5. Lynn Taylor says:

    Really fresh and original way to come up with new concepts!

    1. Naomi says:

      Thanks, Lynn!

  6. EmmieCG says:

    Hi Naomi! So I’m starting my first screenplay, and I’ve followed all the articles you’ve written up until this one and I just want to say thank you! My experience has been made much easier with your help.

  7. Naomi says:

    Hi! Thank you so much for letting me know — I’m glad to hear you’ve found the articles useful! Good luck with writing that draft and please let me know how it goes!
    — Naomi

  8. Comfort chris says:

    Amazing ,thanks it was helpful

    1. Naomi says:

      Awesome – glad you found it useful!

  9. rachel frampton says:

    My brother Zach would like to start writing a screenplay for a mini-series, which is why he’s thinking of consulting with a screenplay coverage service. Well, I agree with you that it would be best if he’ll add a fantasy element to it. May you’re also right that it would help if he’ll obtain information from a magazine or tabloid.

  10. Isaiah Requejo says:

    Thank you, Naomi! This worked well with my project in school becoming a critical factor in making a movie poster!

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Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.