The most challenging part of the screenwriting process for many writers and filmmakers can be the concept development stage. Coming up with a new idea or refining an existing idea to get it ready to be fleshed out into a full screenplay is no easy task, and from personal experience I find that I usually spend far more time in the concept development phase than any other stage of the writing process – including writing and revising the screenplay itself. One main reason this phase can be so challenging is simply because there are no limits on what you can do creatively, and this freedom can prevent you as a writer from committing to any one idea. Throughout this post, I’ll not only discuss why this phase can become problematic, but will also outline some easy techniques for getting through it efficiently.
Being a creative person is very much a double edged sword when it comes time to getting a new project started. On the one hand, most creative types have no shortage of ideas for a script or story floating in their head at any given time (which can be a great place to start), but on the other hand, being highly creative means that your mind tends to wander from idea to idea which can be a hinderance during certain parts of the writing process. Many of you writers that are reading this can probably relate to the feeling of having so many ‘good ideas’ for your script, but not being able to choose one and run with it, because it likely conflicts with some of the other ideas that you have been mulling over as well. The best thing that you can do to avoid this situation is setting some limitations and rules for yourself when writing to allow for your concept to be given more direction from the get-go.
Orson Welles has been famously quoted as saying ‘The enemy of art is the absence of limitations’, and I’ve always felt that this sentiment was unbelievably true. As artists we always want to think outside of the box (and most of the time we should), but there are times when we need a box to reel us back in and capture all of the ideas that are aimlessly floating around, so they can evolve into something more tangible.
Which Limitations Work Best?
It’s important to note that when I talk about imposing limitations on yourself when writing, the idea is to focus your creative vision, not stifle it. In other words, don’t want to impose so many rigid rules and guidelines for yourself during the writing process that they will work against you, but rather focus on a few ‘creative cornerstones’ as I would call them, that will allow your vision to be set free.
What works best for me is to pick 3 elements that absolutely need to be in the script and force myself to work the writing process around those constraints. Most often I will impose an opening image for scene 1, a character flaw in the protagonist, and a rough scene idea that I feel would work really well with the film’s concept or theme. Any ideas that I develop for the screenplay from that point forward must be able to gel with these self imposed limitations, which helps me to focus the creative process immensely. The more you assess your concept and the different scenes/characters/moments that are floating around your mind, the more you will start to realize that only some of those ideas will work perfectly with the 3 cornerstones you have laid out, and before long your story will be taking shape.
In order for this technique to work to it’s full potential, it’s really important that whatever limitations you place on yourself, they all need to be true to your vision. For instance, don’t just choose an opening image arbitrarily or without much thought and allow that to guide your entire concept, because it probably won’t focus your story in the right direction. Spend as much time as you need early on to really commit to whatever limitations you set upon yourself, and once you’re really confident in those choices, everything else will start to line up more easily. Don’t feel like you need to stick to 3 sets of limitations either, or that they need to be exactly in line with what I described in this article. You might have a setting in mind that you feel really strongly about using, or a prop that you feel will have some metaphorical significance to the concept. Whatever works for you is completely okay, as long as you are genuinely driven by those fundamental ideas and they aren’t chosen at random.
Once you’ve found a few cornerstones to anchor your creative vision, I highly suggest utilizing them to mold a really powerful log line that will later act as the DNA for your screenplay. If you haven’t already read it, check out my article on writing the perfect log line for more on this. Part of the benefit of having a great logline (much like the self imposed limitations), is to give you an anchor point during the screenwriting process that will keep your vision focused and keep the writing process simple. In my opinion, the easiest part of your writing process should always be the actual screen writing, because if you have done your homework, you know your characters, and you have some rules and guidelines for your writing process, the actual writing phase will be nothing more than putting your vision down on paper.