Happy New Year one and all! The holiday lights are down and everyone is pretty much back to work. I hope all the screenwriters out there have pen to paper fighting the good fight.
As we embark on an adventurous new year, I figured it’s a good time to explore one of the more difficult questions a writer gets asked:
“Where do you get your ideas?”
Much has been written on the subject. There are few straight or easy answers. Harlan Ellison famously acidic reply to this question: “When some jamook asks me this one (thereby revealing him/herself to be a person who has about as much imaginative muscle as a head of lettuce), I always smile prettily and answer, “Schenectady.” And when the jamook looks at me quizzically, and scratches head with hairy hand, I add: “Oh, sure. There’s a swell Idea Service in Schenectady; and every week I send ’em twenty-five bucks; and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas.”
In some ways asking a writer where they get their ideas is kind of like asking a gymnast how they perform an somersault. It’s a skill very difficult to explain but more than possible after a lot of practice. Of course, having an idea is not unique to writers. But having a large number of new and fresh ideas is an essential part of the writer’s job. Whenever I tell someone I’m a writer, I often get the response, “I’ve got a great idea for a movie!” to which I’ll sometimes reply, “That’s great. I’ve got about 50.” (And 50 is low but I don’t want to be unkind.)
Screenwriters are constantly bombarded by ideas and sometimes it’s harder to decide which one to pursue as opposed to thinking up bold new concepts. At the same time there are fair number of people who’d like to try writing or are even very experienced who have a hard time coming up with ideas.
This is by no means a definitive guide, but here’s some things that I’ve learned over the past few years that have helped me generate a constant flow of ideas for stories:
BE OPEN: This is actually harder than it sounds, depending on your ego. But a great way to be open to ideas is to – be open. Be open to new concepts, new opinions, new theories, new judgments, new…well, ideas. No matter how intelligent, intuitive or well-educated we are, there is always new things to learn in our ever changing lives. Shedding preconceived notions and retaining as much curiosity can be an absolute gold mine. In other words, revel in the fact that you don’t know everything.
Open your ears, open your mind, listen and watch the world around you. Everyday life is actually an endless supply of source material for story. Everyday scenes in life provide countless inspirations for writers. Don’t worry if the idea is concept or genius, just be open to what’s happening. Fantastic movies, novels and TV shows have been born out of those small struggles.
The concept for one of my pilots clicked into place while delayed in airport terminal and I started to think about a bunch of grumpy people being trapped together. Then I thought, what if everyone trapped together were a mix of criminals, outcasts and losers? Then I thought, what if they were exiled together in the last hiding place an Earth? What if that last hiding spot was actually a remote, hidden bar? A few weeks later the first draft of Finnegan’s was written. A year later, Finnegan’s was collecting laurels on the Festival circuit and today is in the hands of several gatekeepers.
A lot of ideas manifest and grow just by looking around and saying “what if…” Practice by trying to make a story, any kind of story, even just a concept, from things you see every day. You may be surprised how many are feasible and actually pretty good. (Honestly, I think I’ve thought of 10 movies just from walking the dog.)
Listen, Listen, LISTEN: This is similar to above but it’s worth going over. Listen to people. Especially people with dramatically different views and experiences than you.
Some of the very best writers I know spend their time at parties or at the bar asking people questions (and not pitching their stories.) And I mean A LOT of questions. One of the reasons I started the podcast was to ask lot of questions and to absorb the answers.
Talk to people you don’t agree with. Don’t argue with them, just talk them. Are you atheist? Find out why someone is a true believer in God. Don’t judge them, just do your best to understand them. Liberal? Have dinner with a conservative or vice versa. Explore all the layers that make up the difference of opinion and that far too often get lost in “YOU’RE WRONG.” This won’t only help you with ideas, but in creating real three dimensional characters and not one-dimensional stereotypes.
So much of writing is reliant on a distinct understanding of people. Not snap judgments or social media wisdom “People who believe in common core are stupid” kind of thing. I mean, a real understanding of people. Hopes, dreams, fears, adversities, pride and belief are the playing field of the writer. Sticking to only our own can be narrow-minded and detrimental.
READ: If you’re shy or don’t want to talk to people because they’re people and who needs that aggravation, there’s still plenty of ways to explore the world and the people who live in it.
You don’t have to be like Sarah Palin and read “all the newspapers” but there’s little excuse to not have a firm grasp on current events. I can think of several writers I knew of whom I suspected would fail because they just didn’t care about the current events.
Watch the news when you exercise. Read about your community on the subway or in waiting rooms. Read about other communities far away. Whatever news you like, as long it’s telling you “This is what happened today and this is what a number of people think of it.”
If you can’t stand the news or politics, fair enough. Every month fine publications are printing things you don’t know. For example, these are some of my favorite screenwriting magazines:
“Breaking Bad” was inspired by a newspaper article, don’t forget.
Story mechanics are reinforced by story mechanics so it’s always good practice to be reading as many stories as you can.
And don’t get mad, Script magazine, I read and like you guys too.
Write down well, everything: Waiting for genius or inspired greatness can be a very long wait. Many fail at writing anything at all because they’re waiting for that “perfect idea.” Many succeed at writing because they write down the imperfect idea and get to work on making it better.
Your local pharmacy or office supply store sells notebooks for literally a few bucks. Grab some. Take one with you everywhere you go. Or use the notes app in your phone or tablet.
Write down EVERYTHING that inspires you. Write down every little idea or even scene or line that occurs to you. Again, don’t worry about the quality or level of genius. Just write it down. The next thing you know, you’ll have a notebook filled with an armada of scenes, ideas, dialogue all kinds of things that could really save you as you write your story. Or maybe all those things will become one story. Whatever works, you’re the writer after all.
The more you write down, the more you’ll write down. The more you’ll be looking for stuff to write down, the more open you’ll be. And the more confident you’ll be because now you’ve got an arsenal of ideas under your arm wherever you go.
PAIN: This is the one I hear the least about in a lot of screenwriting literature and I’ll argue it’s the most important source for ideas – Your own personal pain.
No, I don’t mean embarrassing stories from high school or that time you got fired for being late too much or whatever. I mean the deep searing pain in your soul. I’m talking about the pain that comes from alcoholism or a childhood of abuse. I’m talking about the pain from rejection, from people hating you, from abandonment. The pain that makes people do drugs, cry endlessly or stay awake all night.
There’s a lot of other phrases like “emotional truth” but people are for the most part talking about pain. Of course, you can explore your happy place as well but conflict, drama, struggle, adversity and obstacle all come from the well of our own personal pain we struggle with every single day.
The exploration of that pain is extremely difficult but in many ways it’s necessary to become any kind of writer worth a damn. If you’re hiding or lying about the pain in your life, it’s going to be hard to sit down and write a scene where your leads come to terms with the pain in theirs. Not impossible but hard. And the quality of the drama won’t be there.
We’re artists. And artists not only recreate the world around them, they also explore the world inside of them. How many times have you said during a movie or TV show “It’s like they know exactly what I’m going through?” It’s because they do and they’ve had to face it in order to bring that story to the screen. It’s easy to feel like we’re alone with our pain but the reality is that there’s a whole audience out there who are feeling exactly what we’re feeling.
If you want to be a writer, be ready for tears on the keyboard.
Hopefully this post offers a way to several new ideas. Which one should you write? That’s up to you. But I always let myself be possessed by one. In other words, I may think of an idea on Monday, let’s say. If I think about it every single day that week, I’ll ideally start it the following Monday. If I forget about it or it gets lowered down the ladder by other ideas, I’ll start it much later.
Great stories possess the soul of the viewer, but first they have to possess the soul of the writer. The idea has become something I HAVE to write. Keep writing, keep being open, keep listening, keep reading, keep exploring your pain until you find one.
I hope these pages are at least somewhat helpful as you embark on the good fight. Have a great 2016, everyone!
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