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Friday, May 15, 2009

Where Do Your Ideas Come From?

It all starts very mysteriously, doesn't it? That first inkling of an idea? You see or do something and suddenly this little light bulb goes off. That was neat/scary/romantic but what if THIS also happened? What if the person it happened to was in thus and such situation? What if it happened in reverse? What if, what if, maybe this? That's what writers spend a lot of time doing. Musing, thinking, imagining...

The thriller that my partner JP Smith and I wrote together came from a newspaper article I read years ago, about a person waiting for an organ donation. And I remember thinking - huh - wouldn't that be a weird feeling? To know that someone needs to die in order for you to live? Wouldn't you watch the local news and get slightly excited when you heard about a train accident that killed 10 people? And wouldn't you be repulsed by your own thinking, just a little bit? And that little kernel gave birth to a dark thriller that took on a life of its own.

I just had an idea yesterday, based on something really odd that happened. The idea didn't arrive until hours later but unfortunately, I only entertained it for five minutes because I then realized it's inspiring but not at all unusual. I haven't even done a keyword look up on IMDB to check but I know in my heart of hearts the basic setup has definitely been done. It feels familiar to me. Bummer. So I filed it away under "well, maybe someday some other component of that idea will make itself known to me and make the idea unique."

So where did you get the idea for the script you are currently working on? What was the genesis of it? Did the idea emerge from something that happened to you or someone you know? Did you get the idea from something you read or saw somewhere? What is at the core of your idea - is it a situation or an object or a character? How long did you think about it before it began to take a shape? Do you have a filing system for your ideas? Do you write them down and save them? How do you know (or find out) if your idea really is that unique?

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Neil said...

I generally I have more ideas that I can count.

I'm trying to think of where the idea came for for the first scritp I wrote (that I'm currently redrafting). I really can't remember. Don't think I was inspired by anything but I remember having a very complex backstory to my world. In the end, I thought "why not tell that backstory rather than explain it all in my film?" So I wrote my backstory.

I knew where I wanted to start and where I wanted to end. I knew my characters and I loved them. I could identify with the protagonist but more so with the antagonist. Then the thing wrote itself - albeit rather badly, hence the rewrite.

My problem is that a lot of my ideas come from films or even trailers. This means I have to change things dramatically to make them mind (which is never too hard). I get inspired by the tone of a film or 'feel' of it - then I just need a story to create that tone. Just take a look at my blog and you'll see how many of my ideas go that way.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

like you, sometimes i get ideas from news events or historical events. but sometimes i think, "wouldn't that be fucked up if this sweet, pious nun was really a closet lesbian who was doing lines of cocaine in her sanctuary?" or I entertain ideas of normal people doing un-normal activities. Like, I'm vey interested in reading about these so-called "heteronormative" Muslim couples, who appear straight to their families and everyone else, but who are really gay and lesbian, who married each other out of convenience (which DOES really happen in real life, by the way).

or sometimes i take my inspiration from other sources, like punk rock, old Indian films, and Shakespeare, etc.

Trina0623 said...

The "what if" question is fascinating, isn't it?
Some of my ideas are inspired by other sources - articles, books, news, podcasts, documentaries. Sometimes they come from asking the "what if" question about a subject I'm interested in. Many times the idea comes out of the ether and a scene will just appear in my head. Then I flesh it out into a whole story. That's what happened with my current script.

I have a Word doc table for all my ideas and columns for title (or several options), premise, genre, elements, theme, and mash-up. This helps me explore ideas and track them before another one comes in and pushes it aside.

I like the keyword search on IMDB, but would love to hear other methods too.

Tavis Sarmento said...

I've gotten a couple of character ideas by flipping through the DSM-IV. and once you have an interesting character it's a lot easier to develop a story around them.

For example, Fugue states intrigue me -- and I'm sure it has been used as a catalyst for story ideas, though I'm not sure I can recall a really compelling film that used it.

Dave Shepherd said...

Mental real-estate.

More so recently then before. I used to do almost exclusively original material, but now I'm doing a lot more adaptations.

As for where I get my ideas... I have no idea. My current script I came up with the idea over dinner at the Paris in Vegas. The short I'm directing this summer came to me while I was trying to get to sleep -- it's remarkable how many ideas I get while trying to fall asleep.

I keep them in two places... a small little book and on my computer.

What's interesting is, how months after I have the original idea, I'll have an idea exactly like it. I came up with the same idea three times in a six month period -- and each time I thought it was unique.

So I wonder whether you can really know if you're ripping something off or if it's original... I mean, I came up with the original idea, than ripped myself off twice without even realizing it...

Julie Gray said...

I bounce my ideas off my friends and colleagues, most of whom work in the business. Because of their immersion in the industry and because they love me, they are ruthless and tell me honestly if it's a derivative idea. I rely on them for that honesty and experience. Who wants to write a whole script and then realize it's not a unique premise?

Christian M. Howell said...

Howdy. Food for thought indeed. My ideas come from everywhere. Sometimes I'll be watching a movie or reading an article on CNN.

Sometimes I'll hear another writer mention a topic and something will spark. I try to write movie that I would enjoy. And I'm PICKY!! Lately I don't go to anything other than superhero movies but mainly because drama doesn't have to be dry and love can be TOOOOO funny.

Scorsese says that if you look at any movie in a certain way it will not be unique. That's not to say you shouldn't let your imagination wander and try to be unique, but it'll be a crime drama, or a story of redemption, or a love story or the start or end of a hero or villain. Truthfully that's why I love movies. You just need to be interesting enough. Well, if you want Oscars or boffo-like god hood, you need to work hard at driving story with dialog and images. I guess that's why you'll never get a great movie from a not-great screenplay.

The best current example is Star Trek. Perhaps the most perfect movie to come out - except it's all OLD and has been done 8000 times.

I think the uniqueness comes with the characters. Even they will be cliche if you're not careful but in 2009, you'd have to write about extinct polar bears in Nebraska banding together to save the land that will be their ancestors' zoo, but that's a movie about the school closing or church being torn down - except with polar bears.

Anyway, ideas are like paychecks, everybody gets them but not everyone uses them right. This kind of discourse definitely helps. I thank you ever so much.

Racicot said...

Hi Julie,

You're lucky to have friends and colleagues to bounce your ideas off of...

I have a girlfriend and she's, well, a girl.

And I write horror - predominately.

I one thousand percent trust her opinions in regards to my ideas on everything BUT horror. For that, I ask ten year-old me from the 1980s: 'would this scare your sheets wet?'

Mike said...

My first script was inspired by the Poe song "Angry Johnny" specifically the line, "...this is Jezabel in Hell. I wanna kill you." Of course, the ultimate story was more hard-boiled, with demons, and didn't really have a femme fatale. But that's what it germinated from.

My current script has its roots in a brief, fleeting encounter I had with a young woman at a festival one night. I lent her my umbrella during a downpour. That was it. :)

And even then, for many years afterward, the premise for the story that I built up around this experience was almost entirely different from the one that I finally settled on when I sat down to write it.

Just_Hiltz said...

Odd you ask this question...where do ideas come from?
I'm finishing a doomed script(part Ironman part Taken) which I've worked on for 2 years...I'll finish it and move on although I know it is doomed for now but I will complete it because I know it will stand on its own down the road. So today I go to the library and research a new idea...
I keep them in a Japanese blank notebook with "Thoughts" in Japanese characters on the cover...Also on my PC under IDEAS...I write backstory, logline,dialogue and whatever else to add the "yeast" to make it grow...I get the ideas from, news, conversations, people,bits of dialogue from overheard conversations. Amazing process..I wasn't really aware of the process until you asked the question. Thank you.

meg said...

I do keep a list of ideas that mysteriously come to me (this is a small list). But I don't just rely on that. I actively look for ideas (this is a big list). I play with possibilities all the time. I set aside time to do this regularly.

I tend not to wait for inspiration. I found I was waiting a long time! Plus most of it wasn't even worthy of a junior high writing class. lol

Give me a newspaper, a visit to the eye doctor, whatever and I could generate several pages of ideas. Not saying they'd all be winners but somehow that mental workout always leads to something worth writing about. I also don't assume every idea is a stand alone. I often put a bunch together to create a script or other project. And while asking "what if" may intially get me started I found my characters were a little thin if I relied on just that question to get me to through all the plot points. I ask "how would" a lot more. Then I draw up a list of how my character would feel, react, answer, etc and pick one and see what happens next.

I also tend to write in my head all the time. And not even for my current project but random scenes or passages on something I spotted as I drive or shop or work. Does anyone else do that? Most of the time it's not anything I rush home to type up either. Performance art in my head.

I guess for me as I get more into writing I see it less as a "talent" thing and more as a "deliberate practice" thing as decribed by Geoff Colvin in Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.

JPS said...

Never discount being inspired by a dream. I once woke up with an entire novel in my head, down to the title (which has since been changed). I wrote about my experience here:

Emily Blake said...

I decided I wanted to write a martial arts pic like House of Flying Daggers or Crouching Tiger, so I made a mental list of the common story elements in those films. Then I thought of ways an American film could meet the same criteria. The story wrote itself because I looked at it as a problem solving scenario. I kept thinking "Okay I need a doomed romance. What kind of characters can I have whose romance will be doomed?" and I made a list and chose the one that spoke to me.

It was for more logical and organized than my usual method, but it's going well.

J.J. said...

There used to brick and mortal "Idea Stores," but they've gone the way of the Dodo bird. So, now I order my ideas from "IdeasRUs." I can get "Highly Original But Not Sellable Ideas" (these are often purchase to further develop my desire to be really frustrated with this town), "great ideas" (they're expensive), "pretty good ideas," "so-so ideas," "mediocre ideas," "re-cycled ideas" (I've noticed many people buy these, I guess it's the economy or something), "Ripped Off Ideas" (which, sadly, seem to end up on Lifetime), and various degrees of, "Awful Ideas" (I've bought these before. They're really not all that bad, it's a question of execution), and, finally, "So Absolutely Awful That the Guy Who Thought This Up Should Be Shot, Hung, Castrated, Boiled in Oil, and Burned at the Stake," (I'll confessed I'm guilty of buying a few of these--it seemed a good idea at the time)...

Anyway, IdeasRUs sends out a catelog: and they have a sister publication/website:

I spend a lot of time at that last one.

Trina0623 said...

@ Meg - I sometimes "write in my head" while doing other things -- the characters just start talking to each other and I watch and listen, then write it down.

Thanks for bringing up that book. That would make a fascinating discussion as it applies to screenwriting. I've put it on my reading list. I wonder if Julie has read that book?

Chaia Milstein said...

I have no idea where my ideas come from but basically in order to prime the pump I usually ask myself what the most fully ridiculous premise could possibly be...then make it even ridiculouser and go from there. I write small, intimate chamber dramas so this method works great.

Stan said...

For the script I currently entered into a bazillion contests, I deliberately set out to write a story for a 'William H. Macy' type. I just picked a role I thought would be well played by an actor like him and went from there. From the character, and an old but frightening statistic I'd once heard about, came the plot.

I think statistics are a great place to look to story ideas for. Big numbers can be scary or overwhelming, but hard to personalize. The writer's job is to personalize the statistics down to one actual person, one real dramatic story--even if it's complete fiction.

The core to this particular story is really a combination of character(s) and situation.

I can't remember how long it took the idea to crystallize--but since it was a relatively simple one, the writing actually came quick. Then the script sat. For a while. The rewriting came a lot slower, and was done more recently.

Eddie M said...

I riff with my Muse.