Thursday, November 12, 2009

They Have NO Idea!

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


The script gurus have no idea. They sure know how to write, but they don't know what to write. They've got no idea! 

Perhaps THE least-examined area of fiction writing and storytelling is the process I’ll call, Creative Idea-Generation. Good ideas are a foundation for broad-appeal, marketable writing. But many sources on writing down-play the process of idea-generation. Some writers claim they are stocked to over-flowing with ideas. Some say they have “zero-difficulty” getting ideas. And many dismiss the whole idea of idea-generation with, pronouncements like, “Ideas are a dime-a-dozen! It’s what you do with them that matters.”

Ahhh… sage wisdom. As though one needn’t concern oneself with ideas and just take the top one from that inexhaustible idea-file and start writing.

There’s a reason idea-generation is dismissed or given short-shrift by the writing gurus, how-to books, and websites: it’s the hard part. I’m not saying getting any old idea is hard. I refer to getting good ideas, great ideas. Just read scripts for a living if you doubt me. Or, you could watch every film that’s released in a given year. I don’t have to convince you that you’ll find a lot not to like. And I’m not saying that writing a 120-page masterpiece is easy, either. But lots and lots of bad finished scripts circulate through Hollywood every day. So, finding the truly great idea is, indeed, the hardest part.

I wonder how many writers can relate to this: an acquaintance who frequently talks to you about writing and films comes up and tells you he has “a GREAT idea for a movie”. “Oh yeah?” you say. “What?” And, with fire in his eyes, he says something like, “NASCAR.” You wait, but there’s nothing. So you say, “YYYeahhh, and… what?” “That’s it. NASCAR! Racing, man! It’ll make a blockbuster!!!” The sad thing is that this isn’t limited to that average Joe on the street. There are film industry executives who are right there with this guy, too! (remember Days of Thunder, Top Gun-in-a-car?) Oh, and the topper: now, if you even write a movie about geriatric marathon runners some day, you’ll be hearing from his attorney. My advice? Just look back, sadly and say Hollywood announced the NASCAR movie last week, and hope to God he doesn’t say, “Well, let’s change it to old farts who run marathons!”

A good idea is more elusive than the proverbial “honest man”.

If one surveys the vast available literature on screenwriting one finds very little on the subject of how to generate great ideas. I invite reader comments on their favorite ways to get ideas. Most books suggest writers read the newspaper, observe their fellow humans, mine their own experiences, and rely on their innate talent. I don’t know about you, but my past offers nothing for Hollywood consumption, my talent is far too insecure, and I have only ever gotten maybe two usable ideas from newspapers. I’m not knocking the method, but for me it’s just not on my top-ten list.

Most of the time the material derived from the daily fish-wrapper is just too familiar. How many variations on “Police Arrest Prostitutes in Sting” or “Prison Escapee Steals Bus” can you cook up? And if you try for one of those unique ones, like “Six-Year-Old Stows Away on Hot Air Balloon”, you might want to discuss with your attorney strategies to avoid being sued by a father who had planned his own story, and now needs to make bail. The weirder the story, the less likely YOU can use it. Either it’s tied up in legal issues, the rights will cost you more than a controlling interest in Universal Studios, or it’s already being sold to those nefarious individuals with the deep pockets.

There is no magic idea formula. Syd Field (Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, et al) can give you his formula for what to do with your good idea, but he hasn’t got one for getting the thing in the first place.

There are, however, a host of things you can do toward getting to great ideas. I’ve spent more than a decade looking at this issue and am close to releasing a book on it: Lateral Screenwriting: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Write the Great American Movie. Now, before you think this is one of those Seven Habits of The Highly Successful Who Can Think and Grow Happy Using the Secrets of Genghis Khan kind of books, let me say it is closer to hard-learned experience from writers for writers. Along with the lateral methods, there are dozens of Hollywood screenwriting stories spanning the entire history of the movies. So, while there’s theory in it, it’s not all theory. In fact, it’s mostly practice.

I took a side job, one year, working in a bookstore. Every night, one of my duties was shelving new books. As any writer may have already guessed, that’s a very dangerous job for writers. You’re out there, working away, and then you pick up the next book from the V-cart and see the title. Next thing you know, you’re off somewhere in an aisle trying to read it before you reluctantly have to shelve it and move on. For me that was LOTS of books. Bookstores were places at which I just could not work. Football players get arthroscopic knee-surgery after years playing the game. I needed it after one year shelving books! Part time!

But somewhere in that year of torture, eye-strain, and massive credit card debt (despite the employee discount), I came across the work of Edward de Bono. His first book, Lateral Thinking, laid out, albeit, for me, in the driest, least-readable way, a process for generating good ideas. De Bono had taken this process and applied it to the world of business, offering his ideas to companies, organizations, and governments that needed to innovate, compete, or just to survive. His techniques turned around the marketability of the Olympics, changing it from an event no city wanted to one for which they compete, years in advance. So, if anyone was wondering why de Bono applied his ideas to the business side, well… that’s where the money is.

But I’m a right-brain kind of guy - just look at my desk-top some time (even my computer’s desk-top is cluttered!). I saw immediately that what de Bono was describing was something I’ve always done as a writer, albeit without understanding the process. The difference was that de Bono used his left-brain, analytical mind to devise techniques and methods that made what us right-brainers were haphazardly doing, into a methodical approach to consistently generate useful ideas. He did not guarantee you’d get good ideas, but he came close. As close as anyone could expect, I’d say.

I knew it worked because, as I describe in the book, I could recall a host of cases in my own work, indeed, in my own life, where I saw the lateral process in action. Now, here was a guy with some tools, power tools!

So, what if… I thought. What if de Bono’s ideas were brought over to the right-brain, creative side? After all, weren’t we better-equipped to use them? We’ve been thinking sideways all along. Lateral thinking, after all, isn’t some weird new flashy buzz-term. I now believe it’s the way the human brain creates, always has, in fact, created. Until now, no one has understood the process enough to try to make it work consistently. But, now, for business, de Bono has. And now, for stories, so have I.

De Bono’s approaches didn’t translate perfectly, but they did point to ways to develop right-brain analogs for some of his techniques. Along the way, I was able to add new ones of my own. With those as a foundation, I then approached the story-creation process itself, and, using real-world examples, applied the ideas to, and tested them against, real stories. That became Lateral Screenwriting, a book that is now complete and going through its final edit before finding a publisher.

It offers a variety of methods to get to good, marketable story ideas. But it doesn’t stop there. Ideas aren’t limited to story concepts, alone. Ideas are everywhere in stories, from the macro to the micro, the conceptual to the granular. Lateral thinking can aid writers at every level, and the remarkable thing is that many of the techniques the book offers work the same at any level. So the approach provides ways to get to good fresh stories, and also every feature and detail within them.

Publishers, if you’re out there… #


Lee A. Matthias

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