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

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.

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.