The best thing we can do for our writing is have more ideas than we can possibly write in our lifetimes. And that means trying to hit both quality and quantity – no easy task.
How do we generate these high-concept grab-you-by-the-guts ideas? How do we spark our imaginations and our passions and just as crucially, those of our audience?
By combining elements in a way that hasn’t been seen before. I believe the best way to do that is by making lists.
Method 1: Lists of disparate items
I often start my idea-generating time by making two lists, whether those are of geopolitical issues that interest me, professions, locations, historical events, etc. I’ve found the tastiest ideas come about when there is the most distance between those two lists. I don’t just mean physical distance. I mean emotional and conceptual distance as well.
I’m a romantic comedy writer and for my husband’s bad luck, my marriage is the Petri dish for my ever-evolving ideas of love and interpersonal relationships. For example, I might write one list of 10 historical events and another list of 10 ways in which my husband drives me crazy.
Then I would go to www.random.org. I would ask the website to generate a group of 20 integers between 1 and 10, formatted in 2 columns.
I’d end up with something like this.
Then match the numbers to each other and see what comes of it.
I might get a story about a couple who argues over how to raise a child while the Berlin Wall falls in the background. A couple struggling with lack of privacy during the French Revolution. You see? It’s awesome!
Method 2: Characters.
Since all great films come from great characters, we could start with the character.
Create a character from scratch. Go into as much detail as possible – goals, personality, appearance, age, upbringing – but don’t worry too much about it. We’ll have the opportunity to ask them questions later.
Now put that character in a pressure cooker situation. For example, have them:
- Confront an enemy or a lover from their past at an unexpected time or place.
- Be caught in a lie by a date.
- Be forced to question a deeply held belief i.e. crisis of faith.
- Realize that they are very good or very bad at something – self-actualization.
- Realize that they have two personality traits that are in direct conflict with each other i.e. internal dichotomy.
Much like the previous method, this is also about generating lists, but in this case, one list is made of characters.
Method 3: Life
Your own life can often be an abundant and often vulnerable place to go to for ideas. Make a list of 10 or more life-changing events. Then make another list of articles, interviews, TED talks, etc that have really had you thinking lately. Cross-breed those lists to generate ideas that really grab at your soul and your mind. (This tip was suggested to me by Shawn Whitney of Microbudget Film Lab whose excellent course I am currently following to make my first microbudget film.)
We’re all looking for those high-concept ideas that have intense drama and conflict baked into them and have fascinating characters and unique appeal. Using lists and looking for the most unique combinations of those lists is a great way to unearth those great ideas.
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