STORY PROMPTS / STEALING CREATIVELY
One of the things I often find myself talking to writers about is the importance of having a fund of great ideas that you’re interested in writing about – and the need to be constantly replenishing this supply of killer ideas.
This is particularly the case once your ‘spec’ script (or even better several ‘spec’ scripts) has made its way into the industry and picked up some positive responses. This is when indies – or the producers, development execs and script editors in these indies – will be interested in talking to you and hearing what you might be interested in writing about, seeing if they have common points of interest with you, if they respond to your creative sensibilities with these follow-up ideas in the same way as they have with the script of yours that they’ve read.
This is such an important part of being a screenwriter – being constantly on the lookout for ideas that excite and energise you, that you think you’d be excited to explore further in dramatic form.
IMO the most important thing here is to look outside of yourself rather than sitting in front of your computer screen with an open Word document in front of you, wracking your brain to see what you can squeeze out of it.
I think the principle of STEALING is very liberating. Inside of seeing what is inside your head (which all too often just leads you to come up with bastardised versions of other shows you’ve already seen) I would urge to look outside of yourself, to look for ideas that are already out there in the real world.
One of the reasons that a lot of writers don’t do this as much as they might is, I think, the worry that by doing so, you’re not being original, you’re just taking stories that have already been told, that don’t belong to you. But even with the most familiar stories, every writer will bring enough of themselves to it, their own personal take on the material, their own distinctive, personal response and interpretation. And even in the initial choice of story, you’re landing on the ideas that mean the most to you, to which you have some personal or emotional connection.
By ‘stealing’, I mean –
Looking at the news every day, seeing what is happening in the real world and what this news means to you or what it sparks in you – whether that’s a relatively faithful retelling of a news story or a completely tangential idea that it sparks for you. And written news rather than TV news. And actual hard copies of newspapers rather than online text (somehow to me that feels more creatively accessible?).
Other media – songs, photos, poems, pictures, etc etc. There is so much amazing storytelling in other media. Stories that will inspire you and cause you to come at screen stories from an unexpected, fresh angle.
Real people. Particularly people you don’t know. People watching can be so creatively productive. Go for a walk in town and look at people, think about why certain people intrigue you. What is it about them? The weird clothes they’re wearing, the expression on their face, the things you overhear them saying on their mobile phones. Make notes about them – and then create fictional characters inspired by the impression these people made on you.
Real world things – houses, cars, shops, trees. This list could go on and on…Be open to observation when you’re out and about. Look at houses, think about their occupants and their history, similarly with businesses and shops. Look at parks, at ancient trees, railway and bus stations. Every public and private location has its own enormous store of extraordinary stories.
Your own lives – this is trickier. You don’t want to gain the reputation among your friends and family as the writer who is going to cannibalise every aspect of the lives of those around them and then publicly shame them! But each of our lives is inevitably full of amazing detail and incidents of joy and heartbreak. Take note of the extraordinary things that those in your circle of family and friends have done or experienced – and use them (but disguise them well!).
Social media – every day social media is so packed full of extraordinary people and stories that it’s almost overwhelming. I tend to bookmark the Twitter stories that excite me (and then rarely come back to them!).
Here are a few examples of the Twitter stories I have bookmarked over the years that made me think there might be a story in them –
‘A Utah mom wrote a kids’ book about grief after her husband’s death. Now she’s charged with his murder.’
‘Essex County Cricket Club’s portable scoreboard, once a feature at their numerous out grounds, is shown here during its final outing at Colchester’s Castle Park in 2016. Having scored its last, it can now be found slowly withering away behind the pavilion at Castle Park.’
Not such an obvious one! – but I imagined a stage play (?) about the obsessive statistician who has spent their life inside this scoreboard on wheels. Dedicated to recording the cricket score daily and what his (or her?) life was beyond the world of the cricket obsessive?
‘A man wanting to jump off a bridge in London was talked down by strangers who held him for an hour until help arrived. Look at that grip. Look at the care, compassion, selflessness, and determination shown by strangers to a hurting human being. We need more of this in the world.’
‘A girls’ school in Iran brought a member of the IRGC-run Basij paramilitary to speak to students. The girls welcomed the speaker by taking off their headscarves & chanting “get lost, Basiji”. Teenage girls have been at the forefront of protests for days.’
‘LAPD officer Houston Tipping died after a training exercise during which he was beaten & slammed to the ground by other cops. Now his lawyer says at the time he died he was investigating a gang rape by 4 cops, at least one of whom was part of the exercise.’
‘In the late 1940s, my wonderful late grandmother was studying at @UniofOxford and lacked a desk. Her father had this one built for her from shipyard scrap wood, and she kept it all her life. Now it is mine, and I’ve brought it home to her college! Excited to be at @lmhoxford’
The story of generations of a family told through the medium of a desk.
I’d love to hear about the creative prompts you use for your own writing, the games and tricks you use to speak creativity so that I can share them in a future newsletter.
The next newsletter will be on Friday June 2nd,
Friday May 19th 2023