Dear Julie, one of the many problems I’m encountering as a novice is coming up with a good story idea. I imagine it’s one that plagues screenwriters at every level, but as a novice it looms large, that’s for sure.
Join the crowd. Coming up with fresh ideas is, in my opinion, the only REAL challenge of being an aspiring screenwriter. All the other stuff – execution, i.e. what I talk about on this blog, in one form or another – is something that screenwriters eventually get right through practice and repetition. Writing great character and dialogue, nailing structure, understanding theme and tone, developing voice, writing cinematic, kinetic action lines. That’s all accessible for most aspirants. Of course, there’s that ineffable innate talent thing and that’s just god-given but still, you get my point. Execution and craft can, for the most part, be learned.
But fresh ideas – that’s tough. The New Yorker featured a really great article about Tony Gilroy (MICHAEL CLAYTON, DUPLICITY, etc.) and here is a section I thought fascinating and depressing:
Gilroy believes that the writer and the moviegoing public are engaged in a cognitive arms race. As the audience grows savvier, the screenwriter has to invent new reversals – madder music and stronger wine. Perhaps the most famous reversal in film was written by William Goldman…in MARATHON MAN. Laurence Olivier, a sadistic Nazi dentist, is drilling into Dustin Hoffman’s mouth, trying to force him to disclose the location of a stash of diamonds. “Is it safe?” he keeps asking. Suddenly, William Devane sweeps in to rescue him and spirits Hoffman away. In the subsequent car ride, Devane starts asking questions; he wants to know where the diamonds are. After a few minutes, Hoffman’s eyes grow wide: Devane and Olivier are in league! “Thirty years ago when Goldman wrote it, the reversal in MARATHON MAN was fresh,” Gilroy says. “But it must have been used now 4000 times.” This is the problem that new movies must solve. As Gilroy says, “How do you write a reversal that uses the audience’s expectations in a new way? You have to write to their accumulated knowledge.”
Now, in this passage, Gilroy is speaking specifically about reversals – but the same is true of coming up with fresh ideas – you must write to the audience’s accumulated knowledge. Which is why the list of movies we were coming up with yesterday is important. Screenwriters need to be articulate in what has come before and what is going on now. Because audiences have literally seen every story that can be told at the movies already. They really have. But. Knowing that, it’s not that you have to come up with an idea for something that has literally never been done (good luck with that, by the way) it’s telling a story with your particular imprint, with your particular take on it – that is what you need to strive for. I believe there are infinite variations on each story and that’s what keeps the doors open for you as you strive to come up with an original idea. You have to think about the meta story you want to tell – okay this is the story of a man needing to restore his pride and his dignity. Okay how about if that’s a western? How about if we make the antagonist a wealthy landowner? Nah. How about we make the antagonist a dangerous outlaw? Yeah, okay – how about the story is not about the rancher trying to save his ranch but him accepting a job in order to save his ranch? What kind of job? How about if the job has to do with the outlaw? And we have 3:10 TO YUMA.
So it’s being able to go from the meta to the details of your story. And it is in the details that you will find the specificity and the originality you are looking for. In FRENCH KISS the meta story is an uptight woman who falls for a rebel type. Yeah but he’s a Frenchman. And the woman has to get on a plane and track down her fiance, who she thinks is cheating. And she sits right next to this crazy, stinky Frenchman – and they wind up falling in love. So the meta story is pretty familiar, yes, of course, but the specific details create a particularity we have not seen.
So when trying to come up with a good idea for a script, at first identify the meta. Then create details that have not been seen before. Use your store of knowledge about what has come before. If you’re writing a romcom – you better have seen a truckload of romcoms so you are aware of what has been done. Ditto every other genre. This is why it is essential that screenwriters – woe are we – see a huge amount of movies. Pity the poor sucker who skips this step, thinking that he or she is just so brilliant that totally original ideas literally sprout from their brain regularly. No such luck. You have to do your homework. Identify which genre you’d like to write, noodle around with some ideas then test them – go through the mental files (if not physical files) of other movies in this genre and look for similarities and differences. How can your idea be the same but different?