Road to Commissioning... How to Decide on an Idea to Develop
Updated: Jan 8, 2021
If you’re anything like me, you probably have a whole plethora of ideas kicking about your head. You’ve got ideas out the wazoo and you’re tormented daily by how you’re going to get all of your genius out into the world - do you write a book, a play, make a short film, a blog, develop a TV Show? There’s too many options and too few road maps.
Thing is, not all ideas are made equal. Some mediums just don’t work for some stories. Just because you can picture your idea on the big screen, doesn’t mean anyone else is going to resonate with it.
So, how do we decide what ideas to pursue and in what format?
As already mentioned, I have a lot of ideas. Like… a lot. I have roughly 1 billion semi-developed concepts floating about my head and hard-drive and more coming to me everyday - to the point I doubt I’ll ever be able to get them all out in one lifetime.
I’m sure some of you are thinking, ‘Wow, brag much? Better problems to have, pfft’, but I can tell you from experience that having too many ideas is no luxury. Have you ever been to a restaurant where you like everything on the menu, yet you know you can only choose one thing? Not only does having too many ideas give you too much to sift through when you’re deciding what to work on, but in terms of self-motivation, it’s absolute kryptonite.
Writing is hard work, it involves a lot of problem solving and staring at a blank screen wondering what to write. If you have a lot of ideas then there is no impetus to actually muddle through and finish one idea, hey, if this one is too hard I can just move onto the next one, right? Except, you can do this perpetually, making no progress and leaving a hundred semi-developed stories in your wake.
If you’re the type to come across inspiration little and often, cherish it. You will find this a lot easier than the rest of us chaotic lunatics - trust me.
So, how are some ways we can cut down our ever growing roster of ideas and work out what to put our energy to?
First thing is to take inventory of your ideas and work out which stories are the most realised. No seeds of an idea, no half-written scenes you don’t know what to do with, no endings with no beginnings (do you feel personally attacked right now?).
What ideas do you already have a treatment for or have a clearly defined premise that you could develop easily? This is your starting point. These are the ideas you should focus on. If you only have one idea that meets this criteria, well done, you can get started.
If, however, you have a lot of ideas that have made it through this first culling, here is a check list for how you can choose THE idea that you will focus on (for now):
1. Which idea is the most commercially viable?
We might not like it, but writing is a business and if you want to sell anything then you’ll need to latch onto what is, or will be, popular to the market. What do people actually want to watch right now? What is there a gap in the market for? If you can hit this on the head with your idea you will have producers biting your hand off.
Luckily, there is a tonne of information to help you with this; such as, deadline.com, r/screenwriting, screenwriting Facebook groups, your peers, industry news on twitter. You could even search reviews of shows with similar premises to your own on aggregate sites like RottenTomatoes.com to judge the public response to them.
Even if your idea is super unique, you can still evaluate if there is a taste for it in the market. With this in mind, you might want to put that memoir about your summer spent working in a canning factory on the back burner for the time being.
2. Can the idea support the medium I am developing for?
You see this a lot. A show has an amazing premise, a clear direction… right up to the end of season one. Then season two rolls around and it’s like nobody in the writers’ room knew what to do with it. So, it limps along for a few more seasons until one of those evil fun-killers Network Execs puts the poor show out of its misery - never having lived up to its potential.
You’ll often read that all you need to sell a pilot is to have an amazing script and a general idea of the first season. That’s great if you have a universal story that can go literally anywhere, but most stories aren’t like that. Most narratives have a clear start and finish point, and if you show your best cards in season one, you’ve got nowhere to go.
Not having an idea with enough legs for a multi-season arc isn’t exactly a death sentence. You might just need to think differently - could you retool your idea as a mini-series, a film, a novel? You need to consider the scope of your project and what medium will give it the best shot at life.
It’s time to be honest with yourself. If you’re dead-set on developing an idea for a continuing series, but your story only has enough scope for one great season - is the idea really viable?
3. What story do you HAVE to tell?
Now, this one is going to seem like it contradicts the other two points - it does and it doesn’t. You might have an amazing idea that hits all of the previous points but you just have no passion for it. Say you do get your show picked up, do you really want to spend years of your life running on a show you don’t care about?
I know we all want to be a Showrunner, but just because an idea seems viable, it doesn’t mean you have to be the one to do it. If it isn’t a story you want to tell, but you’re sure it would make a good show, then you might be better served packaging the idea and passing it off to someone else who wants to tell the story.
If you’re stuck between two different ideas then you should focus on the story you HAVE to tell. The one you will regret not putting out into the world. You will do this idea the most justice and audiences respond to authenticity. Follow the idea that feeds your soul and the type of artist you want to be.
4. Which of your ideas would you want to see?
This one leads back to authenticity. What shows do you want to see on the air? What is something you feel is a niche to be filled, or something you crave from a TV series that you aren’t seeing? You might have a few viable ideas, so chose the one you would want to watch the most. Ask your friends, family or peers to find out what kinds of shows they want to see more of.
For me, personally, the idea I have chosen to develop was born from my desire to see another show on the air that was like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I have never seen another show that hits all the same marks for me as Buffy did. I want to create something that has the same tone, hits the same sense of nostalgia, gives me characters I can root for - warts and all.
I urge you to do the same. Take a good hard look at all your ideas and make the decision.