File your screenplay ideas in a trusted system.

People ask writers where they get their ideas.  The more interesting question is where do you put your ideas, once you have them?   Every writer needs a “trusted system” to file ideas in, a system that enables you to record, collect your ideas and easily recall and deploy them in a context specific way.

That’s a mouthful.  Here are two illustrative anecdotes:

Rodney Dangerfield came to comedy late.  He worked a day job, but when he thought of a joke, he’d write it down and put itn a duffel bag.  When he finally launched his career, he had a duffel bag full of jokes ready to go.

Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, and Paul Dinello were working on a book, but, in the words of Amy, ” We kept coming up with funny [stuff for STRANGERS WITH CANDY protagonist Jerri Blank] to say, so it would go into a file, and by the end of the book, Paul opened the file and there was all this Blank stuff.” That file became the STRANGERS WITH CANDY movie.

If you’re working on Project A, you’ll have ideas for Projects B-through-Z, but you don’t have room in your short-term memory for more than a handful of ideas.     So you need to file these tangential concepts somewhere, and keep that unearthed gold from getting buried again.


1) Analog Files  – For Luddites, this is the way to go.  If you have an idea, write it on a piece of paper, drop it in the relevant file (sample folders: project a, random jokes, random scenes, etc).  Most writers I’ve met are terrible at maintaining file cabinets, and file cabinets are rarely convenient to your workspace.  If you must do this, I recommend putting all your active files in a box, one that’s at arms reach from your desk.

2) Master Document (or Spreadsheet)  – It’s called “word processing for a reason.”  You can search, copy, paste, and shuffle the words around till doomsday morning, and you can make it into a “database” by hash tagging ideas (i.e. Act three idea – love interest turns on hero, turns over tape to corrupt cop <#copStory><#thirdAct><#plotTwist> (the “#” symbol makes it easy to search the document).  If you store your data this way, searching is a breeze, and you do’t have to worry about your software going out of date.

3) Database – Just as the file cabinet was king of the 70’s, and the Word document was king of the 90’s, the database in the king of the now.  The big advantage of databases is that you can store lots of types of information (pictures, files, audio clips) and you can tag one item for multiple projects.  I use Evernote, which merits a blog post on its own.

By using your system wisely, you’ll make your mind exponentially more agile and ensure that every sentence you write adds value to your projects and your life.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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