How to Come Up With Great Story Ideas
Need to come up with a great story idea? Here are some of my favorite approaches to story generation:
1. Know Why You're Making It
How do you know what story justifies you sacrificing the next few years of your life making it? There are two questions, when asked, that will give you the answer you seek: (a) What kind of story do I want to tell? And (b) why do I want/need to tell that story? This may seem like an oversimplification, but those two questions are the driving force that will keep you hustling as you labor over your next film. A good movie comes from within; it’s personal to the writer. It means something to you. And, in my opinion, the only thing that matters when you’re coming up with your next movie idea is that you have an emotional or personal connection to the idea, story, or character. You need to have a pretty good reason for making it.
Making a movie for the sake of making a movie is a waste of everyone’s time and money, but making a movie that’s important to you is something that will never go out of style, and it’s most likely going to linger on and make an impact on people. That importance is your mission statement – it is the reason for why you are choosing to make that particular movie – and it will get you through countless production hardships. If you’re an immigrant, write a story about an immigrant (literally or in the form of an allegory); if you lost a family member or have gone through a personal trauma, that’s the story you should be telling next. Your next character should be struggling with something that you are emotional about or connected with; that’s the master key to a good idea, in my opinion.
2. Research, Research, Research
The process of writing a screenplay always involves research, whether it’s watching documentaries or other films, interviewing people, reading books, or just plain old self-discovery. When you research a topic, you get a lot of new information about it and about the characters that live within that world. It doesn’t matter how well you think you know the subject matter – spend the time to research plot lines, characters in history, props, time periods, science, visual style, and other works of fiction. It costs almost nothing, and it pays off big time. In an interview for Playback with Kris Tapley, filmmaker Ryan Coogler said that much of what ended up in the Black Panther movie originated from his trip to Africa as part of his research, and while you don’t have to go to Africa, you can access similar information by using the power of Google, reading, and conducting interviews. Do your research!
3. Keep The Shower Principle In Mind
Have you ever wondered why the best ideas tend to come to you when you’re in the shower? Or why it is that when you’re a young child, your imagination is that much more active than when you’re an adult? Well, the reason is quite simple: distractions and the lack thereof. When your mind is focused on an activity and when you are actively doing work that requires focus, your mind is focused on the job at hand, but when you do nothing, the brain allows itself to get distracted, to wander off and daydream. That’s why kids are so much better at it than adults; they can take the time required to play and use their imagination. As adults, we have access to that precious time every once in a while: in the shower, when we play golf, when we’re out for a morning walk, when we’re stuck in traffic, and when we spend time doing tasks that don’t require our brain to overwork. Sometimes that includes cleaning, doing dishes, etc. So when you lack the inspiration, put on your headphones and go out for a ten-minute walk. The purpose of this walk is to think actively about what it is you’re currently writing (a scene, a character, a log line, etc.), then go back home and meditate, take a long shower, or just chill for a few minutes. Give yourself some time to play around in your mind, act out a scene, or visualize a sequence without pressure or restraints. This is what I do sometimes when I need inspiration, and it works for me! I hope it does the same for you.
It sounds like a cliche, but it’s true. The more books you read, the more you use your imagination, and the more you use your imagination, the easier it is to come up with new ideas. Books, whether in the form of novels, memoirs, or nonfiction, are a treasure trove of good ideas, and they can quickly get you thinking about and asking yourself questions about your own ideas. Keep a notepad handy and write notes, ideas, and thoughts as you’re reading; you’ll notice that notepad filling up pretty darn quickly. I find that whenever I need a creative boost, the best thing to do is go back to the basics – reading. It never fails. Books are also good tools to help you “visualize,” and visualization is key for good writing and good directing. I keep a reading list for every new project I am working on. So if you’re not writing about something, read books about writing. Out of all the advice in this chapter, this would be the one that’ll make the biggest difference in your writing. The more books, scripts, and literary content you consume, the better writer you become.
5. Listen to Music
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve walked down the street wearing headphones and when a new song popped up, I instantly got an idea for a scene, a sequence, a shot, a character moment, or a story. I hate to think that I’m the only one who does this because, for me, it’s just so darn effective. If you’ve never tried this before, I recommend you give it a shot. The next time you feel stuck or lacking inspiration, go out for a walk, put on your headphones, and listen to a new piece of music.
6. Write a Personal Story
One of the things that you are guaranteed to be an expert on is your own personal experience. The movie world is full of great movies that are extremely personal to the people who wrote them. From Lady Bird and The Big Sick, where the story is either inspired by or influenced by the filmmaker’s personal experience, to The Pursuit of Happyness, Hidden Figures, and The Wolf of Wall Street, where the story is based on a book, written by the person who’s gone through these experiences. The reason why these stories are so good is that the characters in these stories are generally the authors themselves. In many other cases, the story, subplots, and characters could be inspired by real life but also remain hidden under a cloud of fiction. A good example of these types of storytellers are the likes of J.K. Rowling, whose deep depression inspired the creation of the “dementors” in Harry Potter; Jerry Siegel, who created Superman as a result of being bullied in school; William Moulton Marston, who created Wonder Woman based on his own personal experience with powerful women; and as recently as Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, creating a TV show where its characters and plots are based on the writers’ actual life experiences. There are many, many more writers who created popular characters and stories based on their own life experiences and hid them well within the confines of fiction and genre so that they are not considered “based on true events.” Try thinking of some life events, traumas, or catharses that you could write about, either literally or as allegories; every human being should have at least one of these in their arsenal.
7. “Borrow” from Real Life and Hide it Well
Continuing with the notion that great ideas, great plots, and characters are inspired by true events; the event itself doesn’t need to have anything to do with you or your personal experience (in my opinion, it’s better if it does, but it doesn’t have to). You could easily decide to base your movie, your plot, and your characters on other real-life events, people, or circumstances that you’re drawn to; the key is to hide it well. There are many characters in the world of fiction that are based on the likes of real-world people (Adolf Hitler, Vlad the Impaler, Al Capone, Winston Churchill, etc.). Stan Lee wrote Ironman as a fictionalized superhero version of Howard Hughes; Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger based The Joker on Conrad Veidt’s character, Gwynplaine, from Paul Leni’s 1928 film, The Man Who Laughs. Alfred Hitchcock said that Norman Bates, the Psycho villain, was directly inspired by body snatcher Edward Gein; Don Draper from the TV show Madmen, was based on real-life ad man Draper Daniels; the beloved 1930s cartoon character Betty Boop was influenced by the mannerisms of singer/actress Helen Kane, and those are only a few examples. Many great characters, stories, and plots begin as personal obsessions of the writer – what happens if we tell a Romeo and Juliet story on the Titanic? Well, it’s the movie Titanic! What happens if we take Bonnie and Clyde and turn them into mass murderers? Natural Born Killers. Take a real story that you’re obsessed with, change the characters, and fictionalize it.
8. Writing Exercises
I love writing exercises! They’re designed to help you develop the skills you need to become a better writer. They challenge you to create great plots, characters, intentions, and obstacles and can often give birth to new movie ideas. I recommend doing at least a few of these “writing exercises” every month; you’ll never know what kind of script or story they will inspire. I made a short film called Fine Dining based on a screenplay challenge in 2017; they are powerful tools that’ll help you fine-tune your writing skills and, more importantly, get your imagination going on a consistent basis. Solving problems in writing is a life-saving skill. I recommend you get a copy of screenwriting exercise books such as 150 Screenwriting Challenges by Eric Heisserer, the writing exercises within it could change the way you write. In my opinion, writing exercises are the fastest route to becoming a better writer as well as being an immediate idea generator (they’re especially helpful with dialogue).
9. Write About Your Obsessions
Take a subject you’re obsessed with – it can be anything from Nazis to computer hacking, sex dolls to bank robbers, fast cars to bird watchers – whatever it is, it must be something that you are obsessed with, something that you either love or hate, something that you either understand well or want to explore, something you find fascinating for any reason. For the sake of this example, we’ll go with Sex Dolls. Next, pick an existing character you’re either obsessed with or want to explore or understand well – let’s say Dirty Harry... Now, keep in mind that when I write Dirty Harry, I’m not talking about Dirty Harry; I’m talking about a character that is inspired by Dirty Harry in one way or another. So are you getting a picture inside your head? A rough, tough lawman develops a relationship with a sex doll... (let that sink in). Okay, forget Harry and his doll; let’s explore some ideas based on this formula of taking a subject and mixing it with an existing character you like:
Subject = Illegal Street Racing
Characters = Mad Hatter; Al Capone
Plot = An elusive, psychotic, illegal race car driver suffering from a Dissociative Identity Disorder steals the prized super-car of a notorious mobster and races it to the top.
Subject = Computer Hacking
Characters = Sherlock Holmes; Zorro; Rapunzel
Plot = A private detective hires a selfless white horse hacker to track down his missing daughter after a recent picture of her is found circulating the web.
Subject = New York City; Getting Stuck in Elevators
Characters = Santa Claus; Ebenezer Scrooge.
Plot = A reclusive, stingy billionaire with a bad reputation gets stuck in an elevator for two hours with a jolly old man on his way to give gifts to the poor and needy on Christmas Eve.
These are just off the cuff – they’re not loglines or synopses – they’re just ideas. You can use this formula to come up with new and creative ideas for plots that are based on cool characters or subject matter that you find interesting. Ultimately, it’ll be your job to make sure that the “mashup” fits and that the story is worth telling, but if you write it down, you’ll be surprised at how many ideas come into your mind as a result of this tool. Practice makes perfect; try using this approach to write a screenplay for a short film.
10. Reinvent History
Take any historical event you can think of. It could be ancient history, modern history, Greek history, or something that happened in your hometown six years ago. Mix it up in a pot, and you have yourself a plot (I didn’t mean for that to rhyme, I guess that’s just the magic of writing). Reinventing history is a popular writing trick that a lot of filmmakers turn to for creative ideas and inspiration; you can take a historical event and change it up in any way you’d like. From unsolved murders to the first black LAPD officer, any real-life event can be retold in any way you choose to tell it. You have creative license to write about the subjects that you want to write about, whether they’re based on true stories, inspired by true stories, or are true stories buried behind an allegory. The universe and all the stories within it are yours for the writing. The only rule is… “don’t be boring!” There are a lot of stories on Wikipedia, from pioneers to people you’ve never heard of, key events, murders, disappearances, government conspiracies, and much, much more. There is plenty of source material out there. You’ve just got to find it and have a good reason for writing it.
11. Take The “What If” Approach
This is my personal favorite approach to coming up with movie plot ideas. You take any circumstance, either real or fictional, and add a “What if…” to it. For example, what if Winston Churchill had an affair with his assistant? What if Gandalf had a wife and kids? What if human beings invaded earth as an alien species? What if a man and a woman who hate each other are forced to spend three days handcuffed to each other after a hostage situation leaves them stranded? What if the nerdiest man in the world was trying to get together with a supermodel? What if the coolest guy in school fell in love with a friendless loser? What if the best country singer in the south was a Pakistani immigrant with a beautiful singing voice and a love for American country music? What if a man was living inside your apartment walls? What if your neighbor was a sought-after serial killer, but he had a wife and kids and lived a normal life? What if a conservative man/woman learns that their husband/wife was born in the opposite sex? What if you woke up in the New York City Subway every night at 2:00 a.m., regardless of where you fell asleep the night before? The “What if” game works! Write down five to ten “What if” scenarios and see what kinds of ideas you come up with.
12. Write To Budget
A big chunk of the no-budget/low-budget filmmaking community is always on the hunt for great ideas for movies they can produce for absolutely no money (or for very little money). There are some common approaches to making a $0 movie, and we cover them in later chapters. But, as far as story ideas are concerned, these can be a good jumping-off point:
1. Movies Shot on Free Location / Big City
Following; Before Midnight
2. One-Location Movies
Phone Booth; Friday, Buried; 127 Hours; Wreck
3. Movies Shot in Real Time
Silent House; Rope; Before Sunset
“Good ideas are common – what’s uncommon are people who’ll work hard enough to bring them about.” ~ Ashleigh Brilliant