London Screenwriters' Festival

Three Tricks of the Trade for Getting Ideas by Linda Aronson

Posted on: September 18th, 2011 by Lucy V Hay 1 Comment

There were 115 entries for last year's Short Script Challenge.

I’m not on the panel of judges for the LSF one-page script competition, so I have no idea what they’ll be after, but I’ve been writing scripts since the late Iron Age and have judged many script competitions, so here are a few tricks of the trade that just might help.

I can’t think of short film competitions without remembering a colleague some years ago telling me that she’d just judged a short film competition with over 400 entries and to her amazement a staggeringly high percentage had the same story. This was, a person emerges from home/work/shopping centre/pub to see someone trying to steal their car. Said person wrestles the thief to the ground only to discover (boom, tish) it wasn’t their car. I heard a similar story from the writer Carl Sautter, who when he was head writer on a US TV detective series was amazed to find writer after writer turning up to pitch the identical idea for an episode.

Were all of these people terrible writers? No. They were stressed writers, more precisely, they were writers who’d jumped at the first idea that came to them. Let’s look at this business of getting ideas because it’s something you’ll be dealing with for your whole writing career. The first idea that comes to you is usually a cliché because it’s coming from logic and memory banks rather than imagination. Since we all share essentially the same memory banks, the first idea that comes to you is likely to be the first idea that comes to other writers. Hey presto, you, a good writer, have produced a cliché.

The thing here is to realise that all writers think of clichés (because clichés are only overused good answers), but good writers expect to hit clichés, hence look out for them, then either dump them or put a new spin on them
So, how are you going to get a brilliant idea for this competition? The first thing you’re going to do is NOT dash off the script. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that speed necesarily means brilliance. Plan. Find five minutes here and there at work to brainstorm. It’s amazing what you can do in five minute slots.

Trick number 1

Start by listing for yourself the restrictions and aims of the job. Every writing job comes with restrictions, but it’s surprising how many writers won’t think about restrictions. I suspect it’s because they’re terrified that thinking of the negatives will put them off. Ironically, avoiding the negative actually places you permanently on the edge of being disheartened, permanently watching your back. Listing restrictions empowers you. You know the nature of the task so you can get on with it – and, to be cold-blooded, you have already given yourself a distinct advantage over the people who are ignoring the restrictions rather than, as you will be doing using them as a springboard to originality. So, list the restrictions and any solutions or workarounds that you can think of (and don’t worry if you can’t think of any yet), then start to think of ideas using trick number 2.

Trick number 2

Don’t try to think of just one idea. You need to think of at least twenty then choose the best. Don’t panic. There’s is a knack to this. Start by telling yourself that your idea must be ‘real but unusual’ and (for this competition’s purposes) add the instruction ‘ and runs for only a page’ . Next, write down every ‘real but unusual and runs for only a page’ idea you can think of – good or bad. It’s most important not to limit yourself here. Give yourself permission to have bad ideas among the good (or you’ll paralyse yourself) and think ‘quantity not quality’. The reason for working this way is that to get vividly original ideas you need to access your lateral imagination, which necessitates you suppressing your logical intellectual hypercritical self – which will fight to take over and make you choose a cliché, particularly in any situation where you’re under stress (which for writers of course is most of the time). So, shut down your hypercritical self and let your imagination go wild with your topic ‘real but unusual and runs only for a page’. When you’ve got your long list of ideas then you can be hypercritical, and yes, you’ll have some junk in that list, but you’ll be surprised how little.Use this ‘real but unusual’ trick every time you need to make a plotting decision of any kind in creating this (and any other) script – and double check for clichés because stress will permit them to sneak in.

Trick Number 3

Now you’ve got the hang of getting story ideas by accessing your lateral imagination and thinking ‘real but unusual’, turn your attention back to the list of restrictions. Use the same method for getting as many original clever solutions to the restrictions as you can, not worrying at first about quality. Try to see advantages in the restrictions. Try to get excited by the challenge, fired up. Think ‘what can these restrictions give me?’ ‘What will nobody else have thought of?’. It’s hard, of course, but focus, and keep brainstorming.
When you’ve done all of that, choose the best idea and the cleverest answers to the restrictions. You may find you can combine ideas.
Good luck! And see you at the LSF!

By Linda Aronson, 21st Century Screenwriter

One Response

  1. Tricia says:

    This is brilliant advice, thank you! I’m a screenwriter and story editor, and thinking of twenty ideas per problem is simple and smart.

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