Steal This Movie Idea


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

Movie ideas are everywhere. You read an article, hear a story on a podcast, see an intriguing character at the grocery store…

You collect these little nuggets, stashing them away into a folder or a notes app or a journal…

To be revisited when you’re ready to start a new project, or – maybe more likely – when you’re stuck on an existing project and working on anything else sounds easier, more productive, more fun.

Sound familiar?

Let’s look before we leap into writing a new screenplay

If we hop from project to project willy nilly, we’re likely to end up stuck again. Because we probably aren’t vetting and validating the ideas before jumping in.

We start each new screenplay thinking our idea is pure gold – it will practically write itself! But if we haven’t thought through the concept itself, what often happens is we make it through the first 30 – 40 pages and then realize the story isn’t robust enough to sustain a whole feature-length screenplay.

Or, even if we do muscle through and finish a whole first draft, if it’s built on a faulty foundation it’s going to need a complete overhaul to make it actually work as a screenplay, as a movie.

As I’ve said before, no writing is wasted. Whenever you encounter one of these scenarios, you can still learn something valuable even if the script doesn’t end up as you hoped.

But most of us have finite writing time, so we need to invest it wisely. On projects that can help us advance our skills, fill out our portfolios, or attract buyers.

Is there a story there?

Being able to look at the little idea nuggets we tuck away and quickly vet whether there’s actually a story there is a valuable skill. So today we’re going to practice exercising that muscle…

With much inspiration from John August and Craig Mazin’s Scriptnotes podcast. If you’re a fan then you’re familiar with a semi-regular segment where they take a news article or other source of inspiration and answer the question: “How Could This Be A Movie?”

That’s the game we’re playing today. I’ve chosen an article for you to practice on. Since you’re not already invested in this darling, there’s no pressure and you can practice without feeling like you have to get it right.

Here’s the article:

Russian Oligarch’s Ex-Wife Hires Ex-Military Team to Seize His Megayacht

Take a minute to read it and see what sparks your interest.

Where do we start?

So what kinds of questions should was ask ourselves to see if there’s a story here?

A good place to start is by identifying whose story you want to tell. There are several characters involved here: the ex-wife, the Russian oligarch, and the son are all possibilities, and the members of the mercenary team as well.

There isn’t one right answer. You’re creating the story. Yes, you’re working from a source of inspiration, but that doesn’t mean the story is fully formed in that source material.

So evaluate which character might make a strong protagonist. Which one wants something very badly? Which one has a problem to solve, a goal to accomplish? Which one can take action that will effect the outcome?

You’ll probably have a few options available to you. So then you might think about whose story interests you most. Which story do you want to tell? Whose journey speaks to you most, or demonstrates the kind of life lesson or thematic takeaway you’d like to explore?

Choose one and run with it for the rest of the exercise. You can always do the exercise again with another protagonist in mind.

What kind of movie is it?

If you’ve gotten this far into the exercise, you probably have an idea of what kind of movie you want to write. In thinking about whose story it is, you’ve likely envisioned what kind of story it is.

So now, let’s define it. What is the movie? Get a handle on the basic shape of it. The essence of the thing you’re creating. The protagonist and the main thing they’re doing in this movie.

Is it a War of the Roses style dark comedy? An actiony thriller about a megayacht heist? Is it a rom com or straight romance between the ex-wife and the leader of the mercenary group? Is it a contained horror movie aboard the megayacht?

Again – there’s no “right” answer, so think about the story you’ve begun to identify and just try to firm up the essential shape of it.

What or where is the conflict?

If you haven’t already, think about the main conflict the story is built on. Is there an antagonist or other main force of opposition that’s stopping the protagonist from solving their problem or achieving their goal?

If there isn’t… that doesn’t mean the idea is dead in the water. Think about what could stand in the protagonist’s way. Can you create an antagonist, either from the existing characters or by inventing one? Or otherwise create a main conflict that will sustain 100 pages?

Two important aspects of this process are: figuring out which story you want to pull from the source material, and figuring out whether that story is enough to fill out a feature-length script. The thing the protagonist is trying to do has to be hard enough and the forces of opposition have to be strong enough to add up to a movie-worthy ordeal.

And while you’re thinking about conflict, think about what’s at stake. Is there something at stake? If not, what stakes can you build into the story to make this experience urgent and meaningful for the protagonist?

Without stakes – of both the global and story-specific variety – the script will probably feel flat and not very engaging to the audience.

How is your movie idea shaping up?

The more you practice finding the story, the easier it gets and the more able you’ll be to see whether there is a story in your spark of inspiration.

And if the story isn’t there yet, that doesn’t mean you should give up on it. But now you know where the big gaps are and you can begin to fill in the parts you need. Onward into the development phase!


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.