Writing a Screenplay (and Interview with Xandy Sussan) – Screenplay Ideas

You might have seen me mention this before, but I'm about to start on my first screenplay. If you've followed my blog(s) for a while, you might also remember that I let you follow along in my process to outline two novels (as a part of a process to compare different novel outlining / drafting methods). I'm planning to do the same with the screenplay project.

I know you won't learn a lot from me in the process, other than to observe my mistakes (and hopefully a few successes along the way). That's why I'm not going it alone. My updates will be accompanied by an ongoing interview series with produced screenwriter Xandy Sussan.

You might remember Xandy from her past interview here on getting started in screenwriting or the recent announcement about her (and Merrel Davis') Double Feature Story Analysis service. She'll be answering one or two interview questions for each update I post here about my progress with the screenplay -- on idea generation, screenwriting research, outlining, drafting, etc.

Let's get to it!

From Scaredy-cat to Screenwriter?

This isn't the first time I've wanted to pursue a screenplay. I outlined my first novel back in 2004. I shelved it because when I finished those 70+ pages of outline material, I really felt the story would be better suited for a screenplay (after trimming some of the fat). Then when I was doing the other two novel outlines for readers to follow along with, I had more ideas for pursuing that outline as a novel again. So it's still shelved until I decide what to do with it format-wise.

Fortunately that wasn't the only screenplay idea that I had, and I really didn't have to look far for one. Back in 2008 a friend renewed my passion for the horror genre. I loved it in my younger years, and then became the biggest coward about watching and reading horror for some reason (says the girl who was reading Stephen King by 10 -- don't ask me what my mother was thinking, or if she even knew, but I'm still terrified of clowns thanks to both the print and film versions of IT).

So I knew immediately that I wanted to write a screenplay in the horror genre. The idea seemed so obvious. There was this local legend in my college town. My ex-fiance told me about it (he grew up there). I got tired of hearing about the bullshit stories pretty quickly. You know the type -- juvenile males daring each other to do stupid things and thinking it's going to impress a girl. Yeah. Not so much.

Then a few months back I was reading a book with some area legends and lore, and that story was in it -- with more detail than the ex's version. The story suddenly became fascinating, not because I believed the essence of the tale, but because it turns out there's possibly some factual back story that led to the legend. That's what caught my interest.

I wish I could tell you about the specific idea, but I'm not going to. I've come across quite a lot of people online openly itching for this story to be turned into a movie, and sharing the overall idea as well as my fictional take on it would defeat the purpose of writing it myself. Besides, I can be pretty damn slow with these types of projects due to other commitments, so the last thing I'd want to do is hand over the idea to others to have them pursue it first.

What's even better is that I'm reasonably close with a professor at my old college who I worked for at the time. He'll be able to shed light on one aspect of the town like no other, and when we get to the in-depth research portion of the project and I'm ready to make a trip out there, I'm hoping to get him on a road trip to check out some elements of the story and educate me along the way. We'll see.

So anyway, that's the gist of what my screenplay is about -- it's a horror story based on a local legend. I'll tell you a little bit more when we get to the research phase so you can understand what I'm actually out there doing.

In the meantime here's some information from Xandy Sussan on screenplay ideas!

Xandy Sussan on Screenwriting Ideas

Where do you get most of your screenplay ideas, and how do your organize them?

I mostly get them from real life. I'm a professional eavesdropper and all-around-nosey-body. I love people and their stories and I always want to know everything about everybody ever. With that comes the unprecedented access to the best stories around. Strangers love to hijack me and confess their darkest sins to me in between the Sharpies and the Uniballs in Staples, in the grocery store, at the doctor's office. I listen, I remember and I mull over for later.

If you had to choose 2-3 story elements / factors that tell you an idea is appropriate for a screenplay (as opposed to another medium like a book), what would they be?

What tells you that a story is ready for the screen? If a client came to me with a script filled with pages and pages of novelized text and internal thought, you probably have a novel not a screenplay. Novels allow for a deeper exploration of feelings, ideas and inner monologue that has absolutely no room in screenwriting. Screenwriting is a utilitarian pursuit. A script is a literal step-by-step of what to do to make art. Also, novels and most film are finite stories. They take place during a specific time period (even if it spans 100 years) and they have a beginning, middle and end. A television series is open ended. It requires something producers refer to as "legs;" basically meaning, can the show, under certain parameters, maintain it's exciting adventures week after week with little forward movement? So, those are the things I immediately look for. Otherwise, the difference between a novel and a movie is really the visual component.

I don't have an exact frequency set for this series. I'll update as I move from one area to the next. The next post will cover research, and that will depend on when I can schedule in a research trip.

I know not everyone here is interested in screenplays, or novels, or other writing formats. But I hope you'll bear with us and enjoy this series as it progresses. While we specialize in freelance writing here, we want to encourage writers to pursue their own projects as well -- as additional revenue streams, or even just to flex your creative muscles once in a while.

In that spirit, I'll again put myself on display whether that means succeeding in the project or making a complete fool of myself. We're all new at something at one time or another, and these kinds of experiments are precisely why I never forget what that newness feels like. And that's why I'm able to push you to do more and be better in your career -- because I'm willing to do it right alongside you.

If I fail, that's okay too. We're not all cut out for everything. And worst case? Maybe you'll get a laugh out of it -- and any excuse for a laugh is a good one. 🙂

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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16 thoughts on “Writing a Screenplay (and Interview with Xandy Sussan) – Screenplay Ideas”

    • Like Xandy said, give it a shot then! I’m just glad to hear that at least one reader here wants to give it a go too. 🙂 If you happen to work on something while I’m posting the interviews and project updates, by all means feel free to comment and let us know all about it! 🙂

  1. Matt you should totally give it a whirl. It’s a discipline just like everything else. Practice makes perfect. So read, watch and write as often as you can. You’ll get there in the end.

  2. I love the idea of writing a screenplay, but I think I would get annoyed writing all the camera moves and background descriptions. You do write those, right? When I think about it in my head (where I do my thinking) it sounds like busywork and it sounds tedious. But maybe I should try it just to see if it actually is?

  3. you need to do basic description in action passages:


    Xandy, sprawled out on the couch, drooling a little, still plays GTA.

    I totally love this game!

    you want to avoid heavy camera direction at all costs. you need just enough to set the scene visually and emotionally and then it’s on to the dialogue.

    if you have any more questions, you can email me xandy@covermyscript or @reply me on twitter, @covermyscript. i’m always happy to help!

    • Uh oh Xandy. Now you’re asking for it. You’ll get bombarded with Yo-style questions. lol

      I think the formatting might be what I dread the most. I’m more of a “do what I want” type. lol So I’m not sure if I’ll want to format things first and then write to that template I setup or if it would be better to freestyle it and then go in and format. I’m also not into using format-specific software, so I’m going to go old-school-manual on that. I’d rather just learn how to do it and be able to do it in any program I want to later. But that’s just me. I’m sure there are plenty of tools that would make life easier for normal people. 🙂 On the plus side, I did get the book you recommended re: script formatting, so that will likely become my bible.

      • I bug her enough on Twitter as it is. But then, how can I resist questions like “What should I eat for a sad breakfast?” 😉

        Xandy–how much do you have to set the scene–or is that up to the art director (I don’t really know what they’re called)? In your living room example, would you have to describe the room? Also, what about actor directions? In plays, the stage directions are often written too. I could deal with some of that for purposes of non-verbal communication furthering the story–but too much would annoy me.

        • i set up the scene exactly as you should. you only mention objects or home furnishings if they somehow pay off. if they are integral to your story. the locket in when peggy sue got married. that sort of thing. “well appointed kitchen” is enough to say what it is and where we are. it’s utilitarian, scripts. think of them like a step-by-step how to, to make art. so you need just enough to tell us what to do, but not so much that we hate you for micromanaging.

          i suggest you start by reading some scripts. read your favorite movies. read some charlie kauffman, because he’s simply excellent. read william goldman to get a sense of how they used to do it when they were more verbose. read anything and everything. then it will start to make sense to you. then you’ll see, it’s just a new way of thinking. it’s a fun way too. it really is.

  4. I would love to write a screenplay. My biggest problem is developing a story line. I have one tiny little tidbit of an idea, but I can’t figure out what the heck to do with it. It’s been used many times before in films, but I have no idea how to make it different, so that it would appeal to people. My mind is a complete blank when it comes to that.


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