How to Develop a Screenplay: Part 1 – Idea

In 2008 I had a stroke of beginner’s luck when I won a screenwriting competition. The prize involved developing three drafts with a script editor, and this short series explores that process. First posted on my old blog in 2010, this rewritten version now includes extracts to illustrate the development of the script as I worked through the drafts.

We start with the idea.

I’d only been writing four years when I decided to enter the Euroscript Screenwriting Competition. The script was This Other Eden – a road movie and love story about Calum, a reclusive carpenter, who finds Anya, desperate and pregnant, hiding on his cart. He decides to help her, and leaves his isolated shack in the woods to embark upon a horse-drawn odyssey through the wilds of Northumberland on a quest that reawakens his heart and transforms his life.

The story came hidden within another idea: set in the future in a post-oil, post-environmental apocalypse world, two men go on the ultimate road-trip to find the younger man’s brother. On bicycles. The older man was an academic who had written a book about the coming doom and became a local hero. Despite this, he was bitter and drinking too much due to the death of his wife in a flu pandemic years before. The younger man was a carpenter who made useful stuff out of junk and flat-pack furniture.

I pitched this story, called Lemmings, on a screenwriting course at the Tyneside Cinema, where the tutor, Steve Chambers, suggested some changes: set it now and make it about a woman looking for her sister.

I don’t recall the reasoning behind the gender switch, which suggests it had no solid basis, but for whatever the reason, I went along with it and reshaped the story. I merged the two male characters into one, and Calum was born. As for the date – a present day setting would create more conflict. Set in a devastated future world, Calum’s choice to live in a shack and subsist on what he could salvage and barter, made perfect sense – how else could he live? But if you set it now, his choice puts him at odds with society and implies an alternative, older set of values which conflict with the modern world. Meanwhile, Anya started out as a mail-order bride on the run from her violent husband. This evolved into her being trafficked into the sex trade, which created more drama and enabled the introduction of the gangster chase element of the story.

Whittle Dean shack
Shack in Whittle Dean, Northumberland

The character of Calum was drawn from a mixture of people I knew: a man who lived in a self-built shack in the woods at Whittle Dean in Northumberland; an old boyfriend who was forever bringing home junk he’d found in skips because he thought it might be ‘useful’; and my sister’s ex-husband who used to live on a bus to hide from the tax man, which inspired the idea of someone walking away from an old life and unable to return.

The original idea of Lemmings wasn’t completely worked through, but the men would encounter various women on their journey and confront the devastation wreaked upon the earth. I had in the back of my mind ideas concerned with healing the ‘feminine’, taking responsibility and becoming a guardian of life. This Other Eden incorporates the same ideas.

I wanted to explore what happens when you deny life and exile yourself. Calum is a craftsman with an aesthetic sensitivity. To do what he does well requires time and care, and implies a character deeply connected to life. However, he has exiled himself from others due to his hatred and fear of society. He’s a man living at odds with himself and his own values, too scared to care. Anya acts as a catalyst to reignite Calum’s love of life. She has been betrayed, violated and enslaved, but the love she has for her sister and her unborn child drives her to fight for her life, and her loved ones. The Eden brothers (the traffickers) represent everything that Calum hates about society. They also reflect his own hidden destructiveness and nihilism.

Other influences came from film and mythology. This Other Eden incorporates several different genre strands: the gangster thriller and chase movie, the road-movie, and romance. It uses a lot of the same elements as other ‘let’s rescue a prostitute’ dramas, such as Mona Lisa (the horse!), Taxi Driver (obviously), Eastern Promises (sex trafficking, gangsters, and a baby in jeopardy) and Children of Men (a man living in the woods, a disillusioned protagonist, and a baby everyone wants to get their hands on).

The myth of Perseus was also a big influence on the ideas underpinning the story. Perseus is born in exile and is sent on an impossible errand: to bring back the head of the Medusa. Pegasus, the winged horse, springs from the dead body of the Gorgon. She had carried him inside her for eons, unable to give birth because she was too poisoned with rage at her mistreatment. Perseus flies off on Pegasus and spies Andromeda chained to rock and being menaced by a sea monster. She’s to be sacrificed by her parents, the King and Queen, in order to save the kingdom. Perseus slays the monster and rescues Andromeda. Instead of returning home to claim his birthright, Perseus and Andromeda found a new dynasty.

Pegasus admires the view

While the myth is about many things, I chose to focus on the destructiveness caused by the rift between the masculine and feminine sides of life. There’s a need to heal the separation between mind and body, man and nature. The myth and the screenplay also have a symbolic parallel with my own experience leading to my emergence as a writer. For many years I feared the power of my imagination and kept it locked away, a chained Pegasus. Through confronting my self-destructiveness and fear of life I was able to bring some healing to the wounded creative force lying dormant and seething in the darkness. Following a number of deaths and rebirths, I’m now affirming life and finally learning to harness the power of my own Pegasus.

Back to the script.

I wrote the first two drafts in 2007, and entered the competition early in 2008. I submitted a short treatment and the first 10 pages of the second draft, convinced it wouldn’t win, and set my sights on being a runner up. Waiting to hear the results was unbearable, so to take my mind off it, I rewrote the script again.

In May 2008 I received an email informing me I was on the shortlist along with 9 others, and a month later came confirmation I had won. I couldn’t believe it and had to print out the email to get a better look at it; somehow seeing it printed on paper made it seem more real! I was keen to get started on the next rewrite, and over the following year I worked on developing the screenplay with script editor, Fenella Greenfield.

The rewriting process up to this point had revolved around making all the characters more believable and dimensional, and looking at different ways of structuring the plot. The first act felt slow and Calum’s isolation needed to be clearer. My main problem was the bad guys – they weren’t dangerous enough so Calum’s journey felt too easy. I found it a tricky balancing act to make my bad guys nasty enough but also giving them a human dimension so they didn’t end up coming across as cartoonish or ridiculous.

Another problem was my tendency to underwrite. This makes me rather odd as a writer because usually they blather on and on, but I hold back. I try so hard not to ‘write on the nose’, or over do it, that I end up with bizarre elliptical dialogue that nobody understands, and scenes that lack drama because I haven’t milked it enough.

All of these issues would be dealt with during script development and we’ll look at them in more detail in part two. In the meantime, here is a brief story synopsis so you can follow the rewriting process more easily. Spoilers abound…

Cheviots from Corbys
The Cheviots seen from Corbys


Disenchanted with modern life, CALUM (late 30s), a reclusive craftsman, lives in a woodland shack in Northumberland. He survives by transforming junk liberated from skips into something useful and beautiful. He shares his seclusion with his horse, PEGASUS, and drinks too much homemade booze.

One summers day, he finds ANYA (mid 20s), desperate and pregnant, hiding on his cart. She has escaped the men who trafficked her into the sex industry and is determined to protect her unborn child and rescue her sister, KATERINA (late teens), who is in Edinburgh. Calum resolves to help Anya and they set off into the wilds of Northumberland, travelling along bridlepaths and country lanes, learning to trust and care for one another on the way. But Anya’s pimp is searching for her. TAM EDEN (mid 30s) is determined to recover his property, and sell the baby in a secret scam designed to make more money than his boss. Unfortunately, his boss is also his brother, MATTHEW EDEN (40s). Tam is out of his element in the countryside and struggles to track the horse and cart. He loses them in the remote Cheviot Hills, where Anya gives birth.

The new family arrives in Edinburgh and find Katerina in a brothel masquerading as a strip club called ‘Eden.’ Calum plans to buy Katerina back but Tam catches up with them and recaptures Anya. However, Calum succeeds in holding on to the baby. Now he must use all his ingenuity and resourcefulness to rescue the women and reunite Anya with her son.

In part two we’ll look at the development process, some of the main issues raised and how I tackled the rewriting.

>Read the rest of this series here

Images: Cheviots-Johndal; Shack-dianjo; Horse


3 thoughts on “How to Develop a Screenplay: Part 1 – Idea

  1. Wow, your a woman of many talents. Scriptwriting as well! Fascinating insight into the character development stuff. Finding a story within a story happens constantly to me. It’s like going through a fractal image. The bigger picture keeps zooming down and down into smaller buds which open and blossom to reveal other narratives, then those open and so on…

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    1. A fractal image is a great way of describing it. Every story is like a fractal, with layers and layers of imagery and ideas that reflect each other and expand on each other – well, every ‘good’ story! Something to aim for…

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