So what's a young writer to do?
For the longest time, my mantra has been: Watch Movies. Read Scripts. Write Pages. And it has served me well. What could be better than churning out pages while learning from the best scripts and movies out there?
But in one of my meetings, a Manager pointed out to me: Let's say we apply that mantra to a musician. This musician studies concert performances, reads tons of sheet music, and just jams out to new music... but something's missing...
Practice. We all have to practice. Especially emerging writers.
If we only focus on the result -- a polished spec script -- we're not preparing ourselves for a career of rewriting and polishing scripts for Hollywood, where we'll be expected to be handy with every tool in the writer's toolbox, from dialogue and structure to pitching and idea generation.
The paid writer in Hollywood is like a story mechanic -- a producer could tow in a sputtering action script and say, "Well, we modified it with an exciting chase sequence in Act Two, but now the characters are flat and have no chemistry... it was working yesterday, can you fix it?" And whatever is wrong with the script, you have to figure it out and fix it.
How do we get that good at writing? Practice makes employable.
For example, let's say you luck into that meeting with an agent -- and hey, that agent reads your script, likes it, and wants to meet with you again. But then, lo and behold, this happens:
AGENT: Hey, I loved your script!You don't want to be this writer. You want to be the writer that has another idea ready. In fact, you want to have 100+ movie ideas lying around so you'll always be writing... but how?
WRITER: Why thank y--
AGENT: So what else have you got?
WRITER: Well, I've been writing this zombie comedy --
AGENT: Agh, I've been trying to sell a zombie comedy written by one of my clients, brilliant script, but no one's buying it. You have anything else?
Here are two great practice exercises that help me generate new ideas for movies:
- Come up with a character. Any character. In fact, go to a cafe, sit down, and the next person who walks in the door -- that's your main character. Deal with it.
- Give that character an expected goal. A universal goal. A primal goal. But most importantly, make it an ordinary goal. A cop who wants to get back together with his estranged wife -- not become an alien-fighting space captain.
- Give that character expected opposition. Considering the character and goal you chose, what would be their usual or obvious opposition? If we're going with this cop, then expected opposition could be his wife has moved out, his wife's lawyer has sent him divorce papers, one of his wife's co-workers is trying to date his wife already, etc., all of which are getting in the way of his goal and are all very much expected in this situation.
- Only his bigger problem is... This is where you put in all your creative imagination. So let's say we take this cop who wants to get back together with his estranged wife, who is trying to divorce him -- when terrorists attack! And then, voila, you get DIE HARD.
I wholeheartedly recommend this method, but if it doesn't click with you after a while, try a more traditional, more intuitive brainstorming session a la Jane Espenson:
- Make a list of your favorite stories. Movies, TV episodes, books, graphic novels -- if it has a beginning, middle, end and something that intrigues you, write it down.
- Write next to those stories what you love about them. Perhaps you love Sherlock Holmes for the characters but could care less for Victorian England. This isn't a list of good stories -- it's a list about you and what you already want to write about.
- Play. Take your favorite story elements, mix, match, and change them around until they transform into original concoctions you'd love to write. Let's say you love the character Sherlock Holmes but you also love police procedurals and doctor dramas... and then, voila, you get the Emmy-winning hit HOUSE.