I used to agonise over not getting round to starting a new script. Maybe you’re the same. Or maybe (and I’ve done this too) you start writing and then find the idea fades and dies and the script disappoints. After weeks, maybe months or years of wasted time, you file the script under Never Should Have Started It In The First Place.

Now I realise that not getting round to starting is often a strong sign that I haven’t got the core idea fixed yet. On the other hand, if I get the idea right, it becomes so compelling I can’t bear not to be writing it!

Four Steps

People often ask how to get ideas. Of course ideas are all around. What they mean is where do you find ideas you know will work. Ideas that will stay alive and grow.

Nothing is certain, but I’ve found these four steps will ignite my blue touch-paper.

1. Image

All my best ideas started with a picture in my mind. And not just mine – I’m always reading great writers talking about their work. Screenwriters, playwrights, novelists all say the same thing. It started with a picture.

A woman running down a road in India, an old white man staring at his black grandson, a poverty-stricken peasant walking through a dangerous forest at night… An image that makes the writer want to know more. Who is this? What does she want? Where is he going? What happens next?

2. Spark

If I hang around that image long enough, some pieces of story begin to emerge – sometimes they were around anyway but in fragments. The pieces grow together lightninguntil something sparks. The spark is that moment when you realise you have the potential of a story that will engage people.

The spark can come quickly or slowly. It invariably involves the collision of two or more new ideas. Often it’s there, but you don’t know it until you bounce the ideas off someone else and their eyes light up. In fact, the fastest way to find your spark is when you discuss your idea with other writers in an atmosphere of trust and constructive support.

3. Challenge

An exciting idea will be one that challenges me. If it’s all too easy, where’s the excitement? And if I’m not excited, how can my readers and viewers be? A good idea will stretch me.

I ask myself if my idea scares me in some way. Is it going to force me to face difficult emotions? Will I have to write in a way I’ve never written before?

If I am going to start this script it will need to challenge me, as well as my characters, to grow and to learn. Otherwise what is the point?

4. Pitch

When I teach pitching, I teach that it’s as important to work on your pitch before you write the script as afterwards. Because that’s when you really find your focus, your spark and your challenge.

It’s only when you try your ideas out on other people that you start to uncover the hidden strengths of your story.

I call pitching “the great accelerator” – because the ability to pitch your story strongly will rapidly accelerate every single aspect of your work, from starting a project, developing characters, creating the treatment and writing the script, to selling it, furthering your career and collaborating with production teams.