Discovering the Great Movie Idea for Your Next Screenplay
By Gordy Hoffman
I am lucky. I have no problems coming up with very good ideas for movies. If I never had another idea for the rest of my life, I would not make a sizable dent in the ones I already have. Screenwriters who struggle with coming up with an idea tend to be visibly annoyed when I tell them this. I think I'm comfortable sharing this with others because I know movie ideas really mean nothing and please nobody in and of themselves, so there's not much to brag about. I guess you can get lucky and sell an idea, but in terms of what's important, a motion picture screened in front of people, a great idea is simply a member of the orchestra that achieves that vision.
I'm not sure where all the ideas come from, but I can tell you where I was, and by telling you this, perhaps this will help you come up with your idea. First, you should know what you want to write. A feature? For the studios? For yourself to direct? Maybe a low budget script for someone else to direct. Will it be shot on film or digital video? Are you looking for an idea for a short film? Perhaps you have a particular genre in mind.
Parameters are excellent tools for creativity. The irony is restriction spawns wonderfully imaginative ideas. If you can write about anything or anybody, with absolutely no conditions, it becomes harder to settle and find that jewel of an idea. So determine your conditions, every one, and embrace them, because there you will find the frame of your idea. In other words, knowing your movie has to be shot on digital video in four weeks with two Asian women in their thirties at an antiques store will narrow your thinking and concentrate your imaginative power.
Is it necessary to have parameters before we come up with an idea? Of course not. You can always find a very special idea and that idea will determine it's own boundaries. But if you have needs for your screenplay, determine those needs, and it will help.
So after you have determined the conditions for your screenplay, or if you have not, now you can come up with your idea. What's a good place to start? The newspaper. Read a thick newspaper. Read through all sections. Read the obituaries. This is our world. Artists look at the world and become moved to express themselves. I read the newspaper anyway, but many times I find something, even one line, which is highly inspiring. By looking through the newspaper with fresh eyes, we become open again to what affects us. I also find the newspaper will confirm instincts I might already have about an idea.
And make sure you read the section you normally never read at breakfast. Trust me.
Okay, you're reading the newspaper, and you might find something interesting. Documentaries can also be great reservoirs for inspiration. Awesome documentaries abound these days and they often contain imagery, facts, and revelations that may provoke an idea out of left field. Now don't run out and rent 20 docs and lean into your DVD waiting for the logline to come out of the screen and hit you over the head. Just watch what is interesting and forget about what you need.
Walk where you would normally drive. Take the train to work if you don't. Get on a public bus, or go rent a car and drive. Spend the day at the airport. Take a different way to work each day for a week. Make a list of ten stores you would never for the life of you visit for any reason at all, go to all ten and browse for 20 minutes each. These disruptions in your environment will open your eyes. You'll be able to take in more of your world, and it will affect you and make you think.
We've run out of ideas because we are bored by what we see. You're shut down. You don't need to get on a plane or visit a foreign country to clear your head and help you focus. Your distant planet is down the street, walking distance.
Another inspiring action is to take the day and go to a series of garage sales. The homes, the neighborhoods, the people and the stuff they're trying to sell you will definitely make you think. There are a million stories in what people pick up and keep as belongings in their lives. Try an estate sale. I have left estate sales feeling as if I knew the personal habits and longings of the recently deceased, simply by the possessions they kept until their death. It's not difficult to find these sales, they happen every weekend and right close by.
Take up a new sport. Enroll in a language class. Sign up for a course at the Red Cross. I picked up a basketball one day and start playing after many years and I felt like I had a new movie in my head every time I stepped on the court. Getting an education in something new gets us humble and that humility keeps us open to new information and this makes us creative. If we feel like a master, we've run out of ideas. As students, we accept there's more out there, and that attitude will spawn discovery and fresh perspective.
Finally, when I don't know what I should write about, I ask myself what's troubling me. If you take a second to pause and get quiet with your heart, you will find you desperately what to say something very important. Let that something speak.
One more thing. Please don't write about you know, like they always say. Let somebody else do that, and you, you write what you want.
Bio of Gordy Hoffman
Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival for LOVE LIZA, Gordy Hoffman made his feature directorial debut with his script, A COAT OF SNOW, which world premiered at the 2005 Locarno Intl Film Festival. The movie would go on to win the Domani Vision Award at VisionFest, held at the Tribeca Cinemas. He has conducted screenwriting workshops all over North America, Poland and the UK.He recently taught screenwriting at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and the University of Kansas, and he's serving as a panelist for the 2010 IFP Script to Screen Conference in New York City, as well as a judge for the 2010 McKnight Screenwriting Fellowships. He's attached to direct CORDELIA, written by Melissa Brandt, a love story inspired by KING LEAR, and he's writing a comedy set in the Gaza Strip. Gordy Hoffman founded the BlueCat Screenplay Competition in 1998.
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