Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 1)

August 3rd, 2015 by

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I will run a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

Black List logo

This week: How do you come up with story concepts?

In this first set of responses, the writers take a more ‘naturalistic’ approach which is to say they wait for inspiration to strike them:

Aaron Guzikowski: “I don’t have a specific way of doing it. Something occurs to you while you’re driving down the street, and it just seems like a good idea. I think anything that presents itself in my brain as something that I’d like to see on‑screen, and then you just want to make it real so you can see it. It’s all very selfish.”

Michael Werwie: “I think the more observational you can be in the world, the more open you’ll be to ideas in whatever form. I often put ideas together in the shower, or driving, or random moments when I least expect it. I think when an idea has story potential, it’s something that sticks with you. I’ll often carry it in my head, sometimes for a few years before I actually get to breaking a full story.”

James DiLapo: “It hits me. I don’t go looking for them, they come looking for me. I find that the entry point for me typically, is the setting, and the world. Getting a chance to live in that place, and flesh out the characters and story within it, is where I get the most rush.”

Kyle Killen: “I wish I knew where I found things – I’d look there more often. Notions, ideas, thoughts, they just sort of come to you all the time and some stick around long enough that you decide you should try to do something with them.”

Eric Heisserer: “If I could figure that out then I would be able repeat that process ad nauseam until I had a giant library of ideas. I don’t know how they come or where they come from. Sometimes I’m seized by one in the middle of the night. Sometimes it’s a slow accumulation of different little pieces that Voltron up to give me a story. Sometimes it’s during a conversation or an argument. It happens at random times. They can show up in my brain fully formed, or I have to work long and hard at it. The end product is no better or worse, but there doesn’t seem to be one way to map the genesis of an idea. I guess that’s probably good, because if there were then a lot more people would do this, and I don’t need the competition.”

Stephanie Shannon: “I don’t have a set method. I’m trying to be better about actively looking, reading articles and listening to NPR, that sort of thing. I know people do that, and I want to do more of that. I find that if I try to think of ideas like it’s a job, then it’s more difficult. That’s one of the things I want to work on, being more attuned and open to ideas and paying attention to potential stories around me.”

We’ve all been there, I suspect. Standing in a grocery line. Driving in our car. Out for a walk. When suddenly – wham! We get an idea. Perhaps it’s a concept which immediately suggests a story. Or maybe it’s merest seed of an idea which requires reflection to grow into an emerging narrative. But this spontaneous combustion, if you will, is absolutely one way story concepts come into being, a spark of inspiration seemingly out of nowhere.

For some writers, this may be all they need. However in a world of entertainment with so many different narrative platforms — movies, TV, web, books, social media — and a voracious appetite for new stories, the competition for the Next Big Thing is fierce.

What if you are the type of writer who does not naturally come up with story ideas? What if that sudden bolt of illumination is a rare commodity?

Tomorrow and for the rest of this week, we will learn how other Black List writers I have interviewed take a more proactive approach to generating story concepts, and the variety of ways they engage in that practice.

Which writers deserve a Hollywood Walk of Fame star?

July 31st, 2015 by

Yesterday I posted this, a campaign to get Raymond Chandler a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In the process of researching this project, this shocking fact came to light:

How many “solely” novelists or screenwriters have a star on the Walk of Fame?

Answer: None. All novelists and/or screenwriters on the Walk of Fame are also producers, directors, actors, or animators.

No writer has a star solely based on their writing? How absurd! When I tweeted the post, Travis Larson suggested this:

Great idea. Which screenwriter, TV writer, or novelist would YOU suggest get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?

For background, the Hollywood Walk of Fame comprises more than 2,500 five-pointed terrazzo and brass stars embedded in the sidewalks along 15 blocks of Hollywood Boulevard and three blocks of Vine Street in Hollywood, California

As a reference point, you can go here to see a list of people who have stars, and here and here for some other websites about the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In another tweet, Travis suggested this writer: Dalton Trumbo. Check out his IMDb page, an astonishing roster of movies to which he contributed his writing expertise including Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Roman Holiday, The Brave One, Spartacus, Exodus, and Papillon. Plus he was one of the Hollywood Ten, blacklisted writers who were sentenced to one year in prison and forced to work incognito. There is a biopic coming out in 2016 called Trumbo starring Bryan Cranston at the writer. Yes, Trumbo deserves a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

39a) Older Dalton Trumbo photo

Dalton Trumbo

Here’s my suggestion: Anita Loos. She was the first screenwriter to emerge as an actual star, a darling of Hollywood tabloids. She has 137 writing credits on IMDb in a career which began in 1912 and spanned four decades. She even co-wrote a book on the craft called “How to Write Photoplays” (1920).

Anita Loos

How about you? Which writers should get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?

Help get Raymond Chandler a Hollywood Walk of Fame star

July 30th, 2015 by

I get hit up all the time to help promote a variety of causes. Normally the best I can do is offer a retweet. Otherwise the blog would become more like a clog… jammed with requests for money. But this one is different. Bill Boyle and Aaron Lerner have taken up a most worthy crowdfunding campaign: To get Raymond Chandler a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Some background from the IndieGoGo page:

The paperwork and approval process have been completed.  The Chandler Estate has given us their blessing, and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce has approved a star for him.

It’s about time that Chandler was honored.  His private detective, Philip Marlowe, remains one of the archetypes of the hard-boiled crime fiction genre and has  influenced generations of mystery writers.

It could be argued that Chandler created the Hollywood mystique, and if it were not for him there may not have been a Hollywood Walk of Fame.  His novels are the engine behind what was to become “Hollywood Noir.”  Chandler had an immense stylistic influence on American popular culture and, in particular, the Hollywood style of film noir.

His books have been turned into eighteen movies to date and three television series.  Chandler’s screenplays were no less noteworthy. Double Indemnity and The Blue Dahlia were Oscar-nominated for Best Screenplay,  and the critically acclaimed Strangers on a Train remains his great collaboration with Hitchcock.


How many “solely” novelists or screenwriters have a star on the Walk of Fame?

Answer: None. All novelists and/or screenwriters on the Walk of Fame are also producers, directors, actors, or animators.

Let’s make Raymond Chandler the first. He deserves it.

Raymond Chandler (seated) from the movie Double Indemnity
which he wrote with Billy Wilder

During our conversations with Aaron and Bill, I was surprised to discover these stars require private benefactors. This from Bill:

Yes, every star is paid for except the 1,500 ones that were first laid in 1959 paid for by a $1.25 Million tax assessment. After that there was a fee which I believe was initially $5,000 and has progressively increased.

Rarely do people buy the stars themselves. They are usually sponsored and paid for by the studios, production companies, recording companies and the ceremonies are coordinated to take place at the same time as a film or television series is launching.

This is why no screenwriters. In fact there isn’t even a writer emblem. The five existing emblems are; Film, Television, Radio, Recording and Live Theatre. Studios and networks don’t get much millage out of sponsoring a star for the screenwriter thus they were again ignored as were the writers whose work has played a huge role in motion picture production; J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Ian Fleming etc.

Seriously, no writer has a star solely based on their writing? Preposterous. But of all the writers to be ignored… Raymond Chandler? Here’s a promotional video Bill and Aaron put together which gets at the utter inanity of this situation:

I have featured Chandler on the blog before. For example, you can go here to listen to an amazing conversation in which Chandler is interviewed by none other than Ian Fleming. Yes, Ian “The name is Bond. James Bond” Fleming. You can go here to read a 1945 Atlantic Monthly essay penned by Chandler about his experiences in Hollywood. You can go here to read a letter Chandler wrote to Alfred Hitchcock. But perhaps what could really help sell this idea is to provide a few choice quotes from Chandler’s writing to remind us all of what a unique writing voice he had:

“To say goodbye is to die a little.” — The Long Goodbye

“From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.” — The High Window

“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.” — The Big Sleep

“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.” — Farewell, My Lovely

“He snorted and hit me in the solar plexus. I bent over and took hold of the room with both hands and spun it. When I had it nicely spinning I gave it a full swing and hit myself on the back of the head with the floor.” — Pearls are a Nuisance

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” — Red Wind: A Collection of Short Stories

Perhaps no writer captured the atmosphere of Los Angeles from that era better than Raymond Chandler. Think of film noir without his contributions. It’s literally unimaginable. Plus he was just a damn fine writer. If anyone deserves a star on Hollywood Boulevard, it’s Chandler.

Hence my support of this campaign. Here is how your money will be allocated:

More from Bill:

If there were no Raymond Chandler there would certainly be no Philip Marlowe and if there were no Philip Marlowe there would arguably be no Hollywood Noir or Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Currently of the 3,000 stars on the Walk of Fame there are none for a writer or screenwriter.

Let’s change that.

Today we begin our Indiegogo Campaign to get Ray a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. We need to raise $54,000 in 40 Days. With your help we can do this.

Below is the link to the Campaign. Check it out and review the amazing perks that we have put together for those who donate.

Everyone who makes a donation of any amount will receive a personalized certificate with a mock-up of the star that acknowledges your support in this campaign.

Here are the key links to help make this dream a reality.




IMDb: Raymond Chandler

If you’re an L.A. resident…

If you’re a fan of film noir…

If you’re a novelist, screenwriter, or TV writer…

If you’ve read and enjoyed Chandler’s novels and movies…

Step up like I’ve done: Contribute some money to see to it Raymond Chandler gets a deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

There are 37 more days in the campaign to make this happen. Spread the word!

Go here now and make a contribution.

Do it for Ray.

Words of Wisdom from Hunter S. Thompson

July 23rd, 2015 by

July 18 was the birthday of writer Hunter S. Thompson. There were a surprising amount of tribute pieces and mentions of him on that day, among them an item which included a bunch of his quotes. Here are two I thought especially relevant for writers:

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!’

When we type FADE OUT on a script after however many drafts it’s taken us to reach The End, I think we should feel something akin to what Thompson described above:

So we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?

Oh, yes. If a person feels the Siren’s creative call, to do anything less than follow it, regardless where it leads, is a tragedy. We have one life. One. To ignore our Bliss is a loss. But to follow it is a gain… of limitless measure.

“Buy the ticket. Take the ride.” That’s not only something Hunter S. Thompson said, it’s the title of a documentary about the writer and progenitor of Gonzo journalism. To see the doc, go here.

For the article featuring a bunch of Thompson quotes about life, go here.

One Key to Character Development: Get Curious

July 14th, 2015 by

In my current Prep: From Concept to Outline workshop, the online message board discussion was about subplots. In the workshop, we explore my principle on that subject: Subplot = Relationship. By identifying key characters and their relationships, we zero in on them as subplots, each with their own specific Beginning-Middle-Ending arc and impact on the story’s central plot.

One of the workshop’s writers in commenting on another writer’s story provided several great questions about some of that story’s characters in terms of who they are, why they are, how they are, and so forth. Here is my response:

Thanks, Christine, for your post as it not only raises some good questions for Will to ask about several subplot relationships, it also points out the importance of curiosity for the process of character development. Note how you list a number of questions. That is curiosity put into action. Questions provide windows into the lives of characters, revealing inner states of mind and emotion, as well as personal history and backstory.

So when you have an impression about some aspect of a character – let’s say, you get a sense they are an introvert – ask: Why is she an introvert? How does being an introvert impact her social life? Does she like being an introvert? Does she wish she could change? Is her introversion innate to her as part of her nature or is it a characteristic forced upon her by life circumstances? If the latter, what are those life circumstances? Does her introversion impact the way she speaks? Does her introversion impact the way she has feelings or even allows herself to have feelings?

All that and more based on a single impression. Obviously, the questions here lead to other impressions of the character which lead to other questions. Pretty soon, you have a fleshed-out sense of the character, one that will almost assuredly influence the emergence of the story’s plot via her relationship with other characters.

That’s what curiosity can do for you in terms of developing characters.

Here’s a great quote from Tarantino: “I need to know where these people [his story’s characters] come from. It’s a universe I’m creating, and I have to know my universe backward, forward, and sideways. The audience doesn’t need to know, but they need to know I know.”

The bridge to that level of understanding is questions you ask about and of your characters.

So one key to character development: Get curious.

Questions can be amazing tools in both character development and crafting a story. And curiosity is the engine that empowers the question-answer process.

“There are no original story ideas, only original ways to tell them”

July 3rd, 2015 by

Last week, we had a terrific discussion about the movie Ex Machina. In it, Marija Nielsen made this comment:

My takeaway is that this movie beautifully demonstrates my belief that there are no original story ideas, only original ways to tell them. We should always look for various ways into the story we want to tell and try out different walking shoes, even if they clash completely with the clothes we wear. That is the only way we can find the diamonds.

To which I responded with this:

Marija, you hit this one square on the head:

“…there are no original story ideas, only original ways to tell them.”

Story ideas have all been done before. However…

The crafting of the story structure. The shaping of each character. The presence of our voice. The exploration of various themes. Pace, scenes, atmosphere, tone, and all the rest, those specific ways we bring a story to life are our conduits for originality.

That’s an excellent takeaway… and sounds like a blog post waiting to happen!

Name one movie released in 2015 that is utterly and wholly original, a story which has never been told before. There are none. Every basic premise or plot, story conceit or idea has been told or used before.

That’s the ‘similar’ part of Hollywood’s business theory: Similar But Different.

The ‘different’ part comes in when we, as writers, put our individual stamp on the material, hopefully reflecting an “original way” to tell the story.

In all honesty, I find this freeing. We are freed from trying to generate a new story idea because there are no new ones. On top of that, what we can bring to a script is something we can grow and control: Our voice. That’s where the originality comes into play.

So cheer up! Every story’s been done before. Now go about the business of discovering what is uniquely ‘you’ as a writer, then bring that awareness to bear on the stories you write.

HT to Marija Nielsen for her observation.

“Effective Feedback: The Little Known Secret To Pixar’s Creative Success”

July 2nd, 2015 by

Ed Catmull, one of Pixar’s founders, came out with a book last year called “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration”. I’ve got it and have it in my To Read stack. In the meantime, here is an overview via Digital Tonto of one section of the book focusing on feedback. Catmull makes four points on the subject:

Every Idea Starts Out As An Ugly Baby

People tend to think that great works are born out of sublime inspiration.  There may be some truth to that, but it’s only a small part of the story.  Catmull calls Pixar’s initial ideas “ugly babies,” because they start out, “awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete.” Not everyone can see what those ugly babies can grow into.


Feedback Requires Candor, Trust And Empathy

While rushing to judgment can stop the creative process in its tracks, excessive positivity can be just as bad.  The only way an ugly baby idea can get better is through honest feedback. You have to identify problems before you can solve them and the sooner that happens, the better.  Every creator has to face hard truths.

However, that requires trust.  An idea is never just an idea, but also a part of the person who puts it forward.


Keeping The Cooks Out Of The Kitchen

One of the key principles of creativity is that you want to take ideas from everywhere.  Truly original ideas never come from any one place, but from synthesizing disparate domains and applying them to a new context.  However, while casting a wide net is great for generating ideas, it’s often fatal for developing them


At Pixar, there is a group called the “braintrust,” made up of a small group of the company’s top directors and producers that is charged with giving feedback to films in development. Importantly, everyone on the braintrust is a filmmaker and is capable of putting themselves in a director’s shoes.


The Purpose Of Feedback Is To Move The Project Forward

One of the most interesting things that Catmull had to say was that, although he had met an extraordinary amount of creative geniuses—and I would assume he included Steve Jobs in that group—he had never met “a single one who could articulate what it was that they were striving for when they started.”

Not a single one.

Often, feedback sessions are seen as a chance for people to give their input.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The purpose of creative feedback is to move the project forward. Anything that does not fulfill that purpose—not matter who it comes from—has no place in a feedback session.

Every single one of these points is directly relevant to the story-crafting process of a screenwriter, TV writer, novelist, any storyteller.

* We have to accept the fact that our stories are imperfect, sometimes significantly so. We ought not look at this as a reason to quit the story, rather we should call it what it is: A starting point.

* We have to be willing and able to receive honest feedback, no matter how tough it is to hear. That said, we have to trust the creative instincts of the people providing the critique.

* Feedback from too many sources can be ruinous as disparate takes on the material can lead to nothing but confusion, so we should seek out reactions from a small group of readers we trust or a respected evaluator of scripted content.

* We need to suss out the intention of the people critiquing our stories because believe it or not, there are a lot of a-holes out there who get their kicks by deriding scripts and degrading writers. Seek out people who will be honest, who we can trust, and who we know are offering feedback in the spirit of advancing our project toward a better draft.

One approach: Become part of a writers group. Not your friends, family, or inexperienced writers, but people who know Story, and qualify per Catmull’s advice.

If you can’t source a writers group, I can recommend the workshops and classes at Screenwriting Master Class. Our philosophy of constructive critique exemplifies the four points noted above. Moreover you not only get peer feedback, but also comprehensive comments from Tom Benedek or myself.

Then the bonus: Many of our workshop writers go on to create writers groups. It’s something Tom and I actively encourage. There are writers who took online classes with me over a decade ago who still have ongoing writers groups.

Writing is rewriting and feedback is one of the crucial aspects of that process. Ed Catmull has articulated the spirit of the Pixar approach and it’s one we, as writers, ought to try to emulate as part of our own feedback system.

For the rest of the Digital Tonto post, go here.

HT to Deborah Salter Kawaguchi for a link to the article.

Another Story Idea Straight from the News

June 30th, 2015 by

Every April for six consecutive years, I have run a monthly series called A Story Idea Each Day for a Month. It’s exactly like it sounds: I post a story idea every day for 30 days in a row. We brainstorm possible ways to take each story, then I give them away for free.

The one thing they all have in common: My source for each story idea is the news. Here are links to 180 story ideas I’ve surfaced via various news services over the last 6 years:

Which leads me to this recent news article from the Daily Mail: ‘I am the Watcher. Bring me young blood’: Family forced out of $1.3m dream home after being targeted by terrifying stalker.

A New Jersey family say they’ve been forced out of their luxury home by a stalker who identifies himself as the home’s ‘Watcher’ in letters threatening their children’s safety.

Maria and Derek Broaddus began receiving letters last month – just days after closing on the $1.3million dream home in the idyllic community of Westfield.

‘Why are you here? I will find out,’ the letter read.

‘My grandfather watched the house in the 1920s and my father watched in the 1960s. It is now my time. Do you need to fill the house with the young blood I requested?’

The letter is signed ‘The Watcher’.

I had already flagged this story for next April’s series, then this: Hollywood Eyes “The Watcher” – True Scare Story Packaged Around Town.

In a nightmarish story straight out of a horror film, a New Jersey family was forced to leave their idyllic dream home after becoming tormented by a terrifying stalker who calls themselves “The Watcher.” In two days, the macabre report made national headlines and has already captivated Hollywood interest. I’m hearing that in a mad scramble to be the first out of the gate, several packages are being shopped all over town, with names like James Wan and Bryan Bertino in the mix. Sources confirm that interest is swelling and the project is taking shape at the likes of Blumhouse Productions, Dimension Films, New Line Cinema, and Universal. Several different takes on the true terror tale are being pitched across the board, some unofficially, with rights still up in the air.

While it looks like I won’t be able to include this story in the 2016 version of A Story Idea Each Day for a Month, assuming it gets set up as movie deal, the larger point is this:


It is virtually impossible to overstate the importance and value of a strong story concept for a spec script. The best way to find a great one is to generate a lot of them. And one source for story ideas: The news.

All you need to do is be a watcher…

Of the news, that is.

Why write?

June 24th, 2015 by

Fact: The chances of you making any money from writing, let alone establish a career, are slim. This is especially so with the creative arts like screenwriting and TV writing.

The competition is fierce. Writing gigs are limited. Studios, networks, and other purveyors of content are currently caught up in an obsession with pre-branded material — remakes, reboots, prequels, sequels — much to the detriment of original stories.

Which is to say if your primary goal with regard to writing is to make money, you are much better off going to work on Wall Street or some such thing.

Bottom line, it’s hard to make a living as a writer.

Given the long odds against financial success, the obvious question is this: Why write?

Here are my three answers.

Write because it brings you joy to give expression to your creativity.

If you are a person drawn to reading, watching, and telling stories, and you have a strong creative impulse, then it’s probably safe to say when you create something, that experience gives you a sense of personal satisfaction.

Holding an original script or book in hand, something you took from concept to The End, to be able to bring something into existence from nothing but your own imagination, creativity, talent, and perseverance…

You cannot put a price tag on the value of that experience.

So if creating from the seeds of your own inspiration brings you joy… that is a good reason to write.

Write because you love the act of writing.

Some people love having written something, yet loathe the actual writing.

Far more writers, I would guess, actually do love the act of writing.

There is something special about the time we devote to writing. The solitude. The deep immersion into our story universe. Communing with our characters. Seeing their actions and hearing their words. All of it playing out in our mind’s eye.

In some ways, it’s approaches something sacred, transforming however many hours we give to a particular writing session into an almost otherworldly type of experience.

There is nothing else we do which can approximate the unique nature of the very act of writing.

Yes, sometimes it can be incredibly hard to find the words. Writing. Rewriting. Rewriting again. Plot complications which at times seem unsolvable. Characters not responding to our pleas to talk to us. And the endless hours of butt on chair…

Yet we know this is a gift which has been given to us. While there are times we may say we hate it, we grasp that at a deeper, more existential level, we love writing… hands on keyboard or pen on paper, the tactile experience of magic happening in front of our eyes, words appearing on the page.

So if you love the act of writing… that is a good reason to write.

Write because if you don’t, you’ll always regret not having taken the chance.

Giving voice to one’s creativity is always a risk. We can fail. Be rejected. Craft a story which simply does not work.

And yet, there is a greater existential risk if we do not pursue writing. The risk that at some point in our lives, we will be haunted by a soul-crushing question: What might have happened?

You will never know the answer to that… unless you try.

If you have a creative spirit and you feel you have stories to tell, if you do not try your hand at writing, you can be assured of one thing: You will regret it.

There are a lot of sad things that come with human existence, but from an aesthetic perspective, to me there is nothing sadder than someone who goes through their entire lifetime and opts not to attempt to follow their bliss and pursue their creative ambitions. Joseph Campbell summed it up well:


So if you know you’ll always regret not having taken the chance… that is a good reason to write.

There is no guarantee anyone will make money off their writing. But that doesn’t mean there are no good reasons to write.

Write because it brings you joy to give expression to your creativity.
Write because you love the act of writing.
Write because if you don’t, you’ll always regret not having taken the chance.

Those are three good reasons. There are dozens more. How about you? How do you answer the question, Why write?

Special thanks to Patricia Curtin for creating the Joseph Campbell image above.

What writing podcasts are you listening to?

June 24th, 2015 by

The Writers Guild of America, West has launched a new podcast called 3rd & Fairfax (named after the street corner in L.A. where the Guild headquarters is located). With its debut, I thought it would be a good idea to touch base with readers to see what writing / screenwriting / TV writing podcasts you find worthy of your attention.

Here is a list of podcasts I frequently promote in Saturday Hot Links:

3rd & Fairfax (WGAW)
Black List Table Reads
Broken Projector
Dave Bullis
Chicks Who Script
The Moment with Brian Koppelman
Nerdist Writers Panel
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith
Writers Guild Foundation

What other podcasts about the craft of writing are you listening to and would recommend?