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This week's question: 

How do you come up with a good idea for a screenplay?

Nancy S. from New Mexico

This week's Answer: 

Excellent idea, Nancy.  For a question about screenwriting, that is.  Look at that:  You’ve already come up with a good idea.  I know I might be getting a little “Zenish” here, dear lady... but the last thing I advise you to do is to try to come up with a “good” idea for a screenplay.  I’d take out the idea of “try,” and, while you’re at it, I’d eighty-six the “good,” also.  So, if you do that, what do you have left?  You have “idea” and “screenplay.”  An idea for a screenplay.  And that’s all you need.  Who knows what is good?  And who is the “they” who get to say exactly what is good?  Are you starting to get my point?  Good.

Here’s another way of looking at it:  Whatever moves you, whatever keeps you expressing yourself through story... now that is good.  Your good.  And, if it’s good for you, it has to be good for everybody else.  I think (and this is just an intuitive conjecture) that you may be putting too much unnecessary pressure on yourself to “come up” with a story all at once.  What has worked for me many a time is to initially tell myself, inform my subconscious (or Muse.  Your Muse loves to be called on and will be your trusted confidant if you ask.) that I’m ready to start again, to write another screenplay.  Then, instead of pulling my hair out over struggling to think of a good idea (and I can’t afford to do that unless I want to become a Hair Club For Men poster boy), I simply observe what comes up, what appears in my dreams – both during the night and day (the day ones can be a little tricky – especially if you’re driving or operating heavy machinery) – what I find myself thinking about, feeling about (that’s a great one).  If you choose, you can explore images, tastes, sounds, scents, textures; just douse your senses if you sense the well is a bit dry.  But, for me, your idea, your story is already within you.  And only you can tell it.  In your own, unique way.  Forget about it having to be good.  You’re way past “good” now.  Your story has to be YOU.

Just to fill up some remaining space so it looks like I’m writing something substantial, I’ll give you an example of a possible course to take if you’re feeling stuck.  Say you’ve decided you want to write a romantic comedy.  (I’m waiting for you to say that.  As you can tell, I loved that humor-groundbreaker, “Airplane.”)  You may ask, “Where do I start?”  (I won’t wait for you to say that.)  Try something like this:  Just start associating words, images, feelings, memories (for it is your memory that your stories are all ultimately based on), etc.  Even recall romantic comedies that you have a special fondness (or strong dislike) for.  (I know I just dangled a preposition.  But, hey:  I like to live dangerously and break rules.  Something that some of the most notable screenwriters have been known to do.)  Not to steal anything, or even pay “homage” to.  (Always loved that saying.  A French way—I guess that makes it okay because it’s far away in another country-- to steal and act that you’re not.  Everybody steals ((or “homages.”))  I think the saying goes that there’s really only seven stories told over and over again.  I just stole that.  So, if there are only seven stories, then, actually, nobody is really stealing.  We’re all just dipping into the same well.)  Let your imagination soar with absolutely no limits.  The “What if” beginning is an effective one to give yourself permission to explore whatever may come through (e.g., “What if a germophobic woman struggles to realize her dream and become a high-profile lawyer, but reluctantly finds herself falling in love with a pig farmer?”)  At first, this might seem to be a ridiculous premise.  But here’s the point:  You (or let’s pretend you) thought of it.  And there’s a reason why you did.  Even though this may not be your final idea, if you explore it, you may come up with another one that is associated with it.  You might, instead, find yourself working with “What if a young corporate lawyer quits her job to finally live her dream and become a pig farmer and is reluctantly attracted to a germophobic?”  Now that’s a blockbuster!  Or maybe not.  But at least that imagination of yours is working.  And that’s the key:  to get your creative engine going and let it run.  You’ll be amazed by what you discover.  And don’t edit; don’t let the critical editor take charge.  He/she’s not supposed to show up while you’re still “throwing the paint on the canvass.”  You must let your Inner Artist Child play! (I like that phrase.  Maybe I’ll write a book about it.  But how do I start it?  How do I come up with a good idea for my book?  If you noticed, without trying... I already did.  And so can you.)


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