In my last column, I encouraged you to attend Sexaholics meetings to find inspiration for your writing. But don’t use this “worldly exploration” as a reason to avoid the actual writing. I know a dude who’s been “researching” his spy thriller screenplay for seven years, making sure he gets every detail just right, down to the serial number on the XM8 Lightweight Assault Rifle used by the villain. But he hasn’t written a single word. That’s just plain procrastination.
Don’t find reasons to procrastinate. For your first screenplay, write about something that’s not going to require you to get a PhD. And write every day, even if you only have fifteen minutes to spare. If you wrote only one page a day, you could finish three screenplays a year! What are you waiting for?
You see, that’s the problem, Dave. I can’t even write one line a day because I don’t know what to write about. I don’t have any ideas. Nada. Zip. I’m empty inside. I’m cold. I’m frightened. I’m curled up in the fetal position next to my laptop.
Don’t panic. A lot of writers get intimidated at the concept stage. They feel out of control. They think that good movie ideas are like meteors—you have no control over when they arrive or where they hit. But if you’re lucky—really lucky—you might look up in the sky just in time to see one tearing by in a supersonic fireball. But, most likely, you’ll be scrolling through your smart phone at the exact moment and somebody else will catch that falling star.
It’s not like that. Good ideas are not special. There, I said it. They’re not one-of-a-kind snowflakes that alight pristinely on the highly-evolved brains of A-list screenwriters. Ideas are more like big chunks of hail in the middle of an Oklahoma thunderstorm. No matter where you try to run, they will bash you on the head without mercy, inflicting coma-inducing concept concussions… if you train your mind in the tried-and-true method by which all ideas are produced.
What is an idea?
Screenwriting guru Syd Field said, “The hardest thing about writing is knowing what to write.” And he’s correct. However, much of the fear of staring at a blank page can be relieved with a good idea that you are excited about. But how do you come up with a good idea? And, on a more basic level, what is an idea? It seems like a stupid question, but understanding ideas and their relation to your logline is a very important step that most screenwriters miss.
So, what is an idea? An idea is a combination of two seemingly unrelated but complementary elements. Put a different way: a new idea happens when you put two old ideas together and they kick ass. The perfect example from a few years back is Cowboys & Aliens.
Movies about cowboys fighting Indians are as old as cinema itself. Movies about aliens invading the earth go back almost as far. One day a writer sat down and asked the question: Why do aliens always invade today? If they’re thousands or millions of years more advanced than us, why couldn’t they have come to earth a hundred years ago? Or more? When people didn’t even know what aliens were. It’s a high-concept title just looking for a movie, so you can see why producer Steven Spielberg and director Jon Favreau immediately got onboard. (Not to be confused with Zombies vs. Robots to be produced by Michael Bay or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to be produced by Natalie Portman.)
I don’t know exactly what sparked Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s idea for the original Cowboys & Aliens graphic novel, but aren’t you whacking yourself over the head for not coming up with it first? Let’s not let that happen again! (Caveat: I’m not saying that Cowboys & Aliens was a great film—it only got 44% on Rotten Tomatoes. However, despite a flawed execution, it was a great idea, and you can see why it got made.)
The 48-page book called A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young is a classic resource to help you come up with your blockbuster idea. While Young penned the brilliant book in the 1940’s for application to the advertising world, its step-by-step techniques for sparking creativity are applicable at present to the field of screenwriting. Because your concept has to sell your script, it’s your job to come up with the most commercial product possible.
Young divides people into two groups. The first group sees each fact in the world as a separate bit of knowledge, existing independent of every other fact. The second group sees each fact as a link in a chain of knowledge, with every one tied together, albeit in an obtuse way. Being able to see the relationships between these seemingly unrelated facts is the key to coming up with good ideas. It’s like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but with concepts!
Experienced writers see these relationships unconsciously, but there are those in the entertainment industry who just don’t get it. And you’ll find yourself sitting across from them while they pitch you their half-formed ideas. For example, I was meeting with an exec who said he’d come up with the most high-concept movie of all time, and he was going to let me write the script for it. Ready? Here goes—Garage Sale: The Movie. He proudly said, “Everybody’s had a garage sale, or at least been to one, right? It’s gonna be huge!”
Of course, I made the mistake of asking, “What’s the story?” The reply was one you’ll hear quite often, “You’re the writer. You figure it out!” He was in no mood to take questions. In his mind, the exec just came up with the most brilliant idea of all time, and he was gifting it to me. In mind my, I realized he had no idea—literally.
The possibility of setting a movie at a garage sale is only one element of the puzzle. Where’s the other element? How about a serial killer who picks his victims by visiting garage sales? How about a lonely teenage guy who goes to garage sales to meet older woman? How about a garage sale staffed by aliens—who stammer? Okay, not every combination works. But you get the picture.
Another producer pitched me what he thought to be the biggest blockbuster since Avatar. You ready? Hold on to your hat. It’s called Bass Fishing: The Movie. He said, “Bass fishing is bigger than NASCAR, so think of all the potential viewers sitting on their motorboats right now just dying to go see a film about it!” Then, he paused for applause. Instead of clapping, I again made the mistake of asking, “What’s the story?” He stared at me as if I just ripped up a winning $100 million lottery ticket. “What story? This is a hit movie about bass fishing!”
I tried to explain that there seemed to be an element missing. Perhaps there’s a bass fishing tournament, and our hero has never fished a day in his life. Maybe he’s hiding out. Like Steve Zahn’s character in Happy, Texas, who posed as a gay pageant organizer after escaping from a prison chain gang. (Just like Steve Railsback did twenty years earlier in The Stuntman.) Or maybe two big city crooks must pose as bass fisherman to find the loot from a bank heist that was dumped in the lake. Who knows. But you need a jumping off point that will give you somewhere to go. How to find that jumping off point? Tune back in for Part 3!
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The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Writing Your Script Ten Minutes at a Time