In April when I ran the “A Story Idea Each Day for a Month” [A.S.I.E.D.F.A.M] series, several GITS readers emailed me wondering if I’d lost my mind.
Why give away story ideas?
I don’t think I’ve gone insane, although the amount of time I spend working on this blog does give me pause from time to time…
But as long as some have raised the question of my mental sagacity, allow me to present forthwith my rationale for what I did on this blog each day last month at 12PM ET / 9AM PT.
The inspiration for the series came from interacting with some aspiring screenwriters recently whose inventory of story ideas was… well… ‘scant’ would be a pretty generous description. There’s a problem noodling around with your creativity if you only have one or two story ideas available. First, you’ll be strongly inclined to think that your couple of ideas are great ones — but in all honesty, how much of your attachment to the idea/s is about its/their inherent quality as the core of a screenplay versus running with it because you don’t have any other (read: better) ideas?
Second, and I’ve mentioned this before, but could not for the life of me find the GITS post: When you sell your spec script, and your reps send you around Hwood to meet producers and studio execs, the first words out of their mouths will be, “Great script! Loved it!” and their second words will be, “What else ya’ got?” If you don’t have anything or even worse, pitch them a marginal story idea — because that’s all you’ve got — those will likely be extremely short meetings.
Okay, but still why would that precipitate me posting story ideas each day for a month? Because I believe the best way to come up with a great story idea is to generate lots and lots of story concepts – good, bad, or awful.
The not so subtle subtext of the A.S.I.E.D.F.A.M series is this: That is how professional screenwriters work, constantly churning up ideas, separating the ‘wheat from the chaff.’ A part of their brain is always filtering what they experience in their lives as possible story material.
Now it’s true that many screenwriters never generate original story concepts, rather they work on adaptations, rewrites, sequels, and so on. But most of the screenwriters I know have written spec scripts and/or worked up original pitches. And you can be sure that those writers do spend time generating story ideas.
So yes, in large part the “A Story Idea Each Day for a Month” series was a pedagogical one, a blatant attempt to train you to have a mindset where – every day – at least part of your conscious self is looking at the ‘stuff’ that comes your way in your daily life: the news, conversations you overhear, tales told to you by friends and family members, and so on as possible movie story ideas.
Here’s another point: successful screenwriters often become producers. Just last week, Variety announced this:
Continuing a trend that vests screenwriters with greater power, DreamWorks Studios has inked a first-look, two-year producing deal with Steve Zaillian and his Film Rites shingle.
Garrett Basch will head development for Film Rites, a writer-driven company that produces original films from established and emerging talent.
Like Zaillian, Kurtzman and Orci are screenwriters who have moved into the role of producers, much like showrunners in television. Two weeks ago, Fox inked a producing deal with scribe Robert Kinberg. Other scribes with producing deals are Akiva Goldsman at Warners and J.J. Abrams at Paramount.
Hungry for fresh material, studios say these deals give them direct access to original ideas. For their part, scribes say being a producer allows them to farm out ideas they might not want to write.
Notice the presence of the word “ideas” twice in that last paragraph. Studios like to link deals with screenwriters to have access to their “original ideas.” Writers move into producing in order to put more projects into play, i.e., “farm out ideas they might not want to write.”
Yet another reason to turn yourself into a story idea generating machine.
Okay, fine, I’m at heart a teacher, so I did the A.S.I.E.D.F.A.M month-long thing as an educational exercise. But that still doesn’t answer why I simply gave away all those ideas.
Awright, you got me. I confess. While some of the ideas were good, many of them were just so-so. At least in my eyes. Your eyes may see something different. I figured, “If I can’t see greatness there, why not pass the ideas along to someone else, see what they come up with.”
Also apart from this idea — Ivan Hirst, British Officer Who Revived VW — which I have been tempted to write, I didn’t really resonate emotionally with any of the other concepts. And that’s another thing I’ve posted before: One of the critical qualities a story idea should have in order for a writer to commit to writing it is if they are emotionally invested in it. The fact I didn’t freed me up to give away those 30 ideas.
Several people emailed me with this basic point: “But won’t you be crushed when somebody sells a spec script based on one of these ideas.” On the contrary, I’ll be elated. I’m almost always happy when a screenwriter sells something — there are a few circumstances when I’m not, the most prominent being when I see they’ve sold something very much like what I have been working on. Besides I’m sure writers who find success based on an idea posted here will be emailing me their thanks along with a coupon good for a Grand Slam Breakfast at Denny’s.
So ya’ see, I got that working for me!
“Scott,” I hear you saying, “You’re such a damn good guy to do this… but I feel sorta bad that you’re not… you know… getting anything out of the ‘Story Idea Each Day for a Month’ thingee.”
In the process of scanning newspapers, online journals, and other sources for the A.S.I.E.D.F.A.M series, I sourced three killer story concepts. And they’re mine, all mine.
[Insert maniacal ‘bwahahahahah’ here].
Seriously two fantastic ideas perfect for spec scripts — one a comedy, one a thriller — then a third story franchise — yes, I said “franchise” — that’s going to take some time to research, but is an awesome story world.
See, everybody wins!
Now two last things. First, I’ve had a few people ask if I could do the story idea thing every day on GITS. And my answer is a polite “no.” What’s that old observation: “If you give a person a fish, they can eat for a day. But if you teach them to fish, they can eat for a lifetime.” Substitute “story idea” for “fish,” and I think that makes sense per what I am trying to do. As noted above, the A.S.I.E.D.F.A.M series is an educational exercise. Hopefully you’ve learned a little bit about developing ‘eyes’ that can ‘see’ story ideas — because they’re out there everywhere!
That said, I have no objections to doing a month-long series again next April. That is, if I haven’t run out of words, inspiration, and time to keep doing this blog.
The second thing is this: I focused the S.I.E.D.F.A.M. series only on story ideas that came from the news. But that is hardly the only source of story ideas.
So I’d like to ask GITS readers: What other sources do you use for finding or generating story ideas? You don’t have to give away any specifics about your sources, just something generic will do. Who knows? Perhaps a little insight for the masses with send some good karma your way.
Did you get anything out of the “A Story Idea Each Day for a Month” series? Would you like to see it again next year on GITS?
[Originally posted May 3, 2010]