How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 11: Raid the Public Imagination

If you don’t want to raid the public domain, you can simply raid the public imagination. Ted Elliott memorably described this as “mental real estate” and talked about how he and his writing partner raided it quite profitably for Pirates of the Caribbean.

Another great example is Men in Black. There was a longstanding urban legend about mysterious G-Men in black suits and glasses who would show up after any mysterious event and intimidate people into saying nothing had happened. Even if you’d never heard the legend, it tapped into a universal fear of government suppression in an iconic way.

Likewise, you don’t have to make a extensively-footnoted docu-drama like JFK in order to tap into fears about assassination conspiracies. Movies like The Parallax View, Winter Kills and The Package do the job just as well.
I pointed out before that there’s no better source for short film ideas than Paradox Publishing’s graphic novel compilation “The Big Book of Urban Legends”. For feature-length ideas, you could do worse than to raid the rest of that series, which offered more in-depth looks at other twice-told tales that infect the public consciousness. Their “Big Book of Conspiracies”, “Big Book of the Unexplained”, etc. collect and codify those nagging, unproven suspicions that lurk outside the realm of confirmed fact.

The simplest version of this tactic is shown by the movie Safe House. If the movie had just been titled Kill the Spy! it would have sounded too much like something we’ve seen a million times before. On the other hand, if it had been titled One Day in Johannesburg, it might not have piqued anybody’s interest.But most people have some vague idea that spies uses something called a “safe house”, and yet we’ve never really seen a movie set there, so that was a piece of mental real estate waiting to be claimed. By choosing the name Safe House, they said to the public, “It’s a genre you know and love, but it’s an angle you haven’t seen before.” A name like that is gold.

Okay, that’s it for now. Below, you’ll find the tag for this series. Feel free to send it to your future fans when they ask you, “Where do you get your ideas??”

How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 10: Raid the Public Domain

I probably don’t need to tell anybody this, because it’s all the rage right now, but the public domain is a great source of story ideas. One of the most popular movies of last year was Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, leading to an avalanche of edgy re-interpretations of fairy tales and other children’s stories.

Of course, if legal sanity had prevailed, we would now have everything from the 1950s on back entering the public domain, but corporate power has declared war on this precious natural resource by constantly extending copyrights. Copyrights were created to reward innovation, but now they do the opposite, encouraging their owners to wring a thousand years of blood out of every old stone. It now seems unlikely that most post-1910 works will ever enter the public domain, much less anything from the 21st century.

But that still leaves a treasure trove of works to plumb, including works that still have recognizable names and easily-adaptable stories. I’ve toyed with adaptations of “The Most Dangerous Game” and “The Man Who Was Thursday”, both of which have very modern themes that still resonate today. All you have to do is update the setting.

It used to be hard to figure out which works were in the public domain, but the internet makes it much easier. Just look up any work you’re curious about at Project Gutenberg. If it’s available to the public, they’ll know, and they’ll have the whole text available for download at the touch of a button. Cut and paste it into a new document, then start reshaping.

But as I said before, this well is currently being over-tapped, and after we have a dozen failed fairy tale updates in the next year, then it may become poisoned for a few years. Tomorrow, for our grand finale, we’ll look at a variation that works just as well...

How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 9: Show Us the Other Side

One day, Billy Wilder was watching David Lean’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, about a veddy British adulterous couple having a series of guilt-wracked assignations. They’re ashamed about every part of the process, including the fact that they have to stay out of sight by doing the deed in the apartment of the man’s friend.

That friend is barely seen onscreen—he has nothing to do with the story, but Wilder couldn’t stop thinking about him: that poor schmuck who has to come home to a sullied bed. The character stayed with Wilder for years until he finally turned into C.C. Baxter, star of The Apartment.

Likewise, it’s not hard to figure out the origin of The Other Guys: it begins as two hard-as-nails supercops watch some bank robbers driving away…They look at each other and decide to take a so-crazy-it-just-might-work leap off a building and onto the bad guys’ car…But it was a little too crazy and they simply splat dead on the ground. That leaves the case in the hands of two paper-pusher cops who are more used to riding desks.

Of course, this can be a dangerous way to create an idea: you don’t want to end up with the abstraction of an abstraction. Instead of writing something that merely comments on someone else’s metaphor, it’s important to fill in the missing half of the original metaphor and connect it back to your own hopes and fears. On Scriptshadow, I recommended the book “Fat Vampire” for adaptation, which has a good example as its premise: Why does becoming a vampire always mean that you remain forever beautiful? What if it just kept you forever fat?

How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 8: Flip Another Movie’s Genre

In order to sell a pitch, you need a catchy logline. My latest script, which I’m getting notes on today, couldn’t have been more simple: “The thriller version of [a well-known comedy]”. (I’m not at liberty to say which yet, but it’s one of the movies in the list at right.) Once I said that, everybody could instantly see the appeal.

This has been done a lot over the years: Throw Momma From the Train is explicitly the comedy version of Strangers on a Train. The recent spec sale From Mia With Love is basically the comedic version of the dreadful Nicole Kidman thriller Birthday Girl. A movie I mentioned yesterday, Chronicle, could be called the thriller version of Zapped.

Here’s the zany action-comedy version of Taken: A divorced CIA agent, who is convinced that Europe is a cesspool, can’t reach his daughter in France on the phone, so he rampages across the continent trying to get her back, while she constantly tries to ditch him. Along the way, his hysterical fears of Muslims are turned on their head when he gets mixed up with a beautiful French-Socialist-Muslim lady-spy. Meanwhile, his daughter, looking to borrow money, pays a surprise visit to his ex-partner, only to stumble onto the fact that he’s now an illegal gun runner. Now the dad and the French spy have to team up to save his daughter after all, unexpectedly falling in love along the way!

Here’s the thriller version of The Hangover: The introverted brother-of-the-bride is reluctantly invited along on a wild Vegas bachelor party by the groom and his friends. These guys turn out to be corrupt cops by day and drug dealers by night. When they run into rivals in the midst of the party, things get violent. The brother-in-law has seen too much, so they inject him with something that wipes out his short-term memory and leave him at the scene to take the rap. …But he wakes up early, avoids the manhunt that’s looking for him and searches the city for clues as to what happened in the missing hours, so that he can clear his name and nail the real killers...

These things write themselves!


How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 7: Pull a Genre Element Out Of Its Genre

For the second half of this project, lets look at ways to tap into pre-existing stories...

For a long time, genre stories and realistic stories were strictly separated. Stories with fantastical elements happened in fanciful settings. If someone got superheroes, they put on tights and fought crime, because that’s the appropriate genre for that story element.

But now those assumptions have been blown to hell, for good or ill. There are lots of stories that take a fantastical element and put it in a realistic setting. This especially happens in found footage movies like Chronicle and Cloverfield. This can be a very fruitful way to create a new story, but it also had its pitfalls.

On the one hand, why not? If done right, such movies can turn our genre expectations upside down, forcing us to see these familiar genre elements with fresh eyes and reject the tired familiarity of the stories we’re used to. These elements are injected with a new rawness and immediacy, allowing our enjoyment of them to be revivified.
On the other hand, the danger is that the writer will try to have it both ways. In movies like The Dark Knight (which I thought was overrated—heresy, I know…) you have a lot of messy real world politics rubbing up against the fact that, in the real world, no one would dress up as a bat to fight crime.

Even worse, you get movies like Hancock. In one broadly comic scene early on, Hancock literally shoves one guy’s head up another guy’s ass. Later, in a very serious scene, the two guys deal with the trauma this has caused. Nuh-uh. Not allowed. Don’t ask us to consider the PTSD caused by silly, unrealistic stories.
A great example of taking a genre element out of its genre was shown by the excellent French movie Poison Friends. It begins as typical thriller: we meet a group of friends in a competitive academic program who don’t suspect that there’s a sociopath in their group, telling devilish lies and pitting them against each other for his own selfish purposes. We expect things to escalate until the knives come out, but instead, the group gradually realizes that this guy is just a dick and they shun him from their lives. The movie becomes a straight-up drama as we see the exposed sociopath try to pick up the pieces of his wasted life.

You might not associate such a movie with something like Chronicle or Cloverleaf, but they have the same essential set up: How would you deal with a monster like this in real life, rather than if you were in a genre movie? When done right, this can be an electrifying question.

How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 6: Start with an Image

A man waiting at a lonely crossroads suddenly realizes that a cropduster pilot is plunging down towards him with death in his eyes. Why? A house lifts up out of the city, carried aloft by thousands of helium balloons. Who’s in it? Where’s it going?This is one of the most exciting but dangerous ways to generate an idea. You’re essentially starting with the poster: an arresting image that would make anybody want to see more. All that you’re missing is characters and a plot and a theme. The danger, of course, is that once your hero comes to life, he’ll think of easier ways to get down to the Amazon. If you start in the middle, there’s no guarantee that your hero will want to get there.

I’ve had an image in my head for a while: a horde of Tyrannosauruses rampaging down the streets of modern day New York. How did they get there? And who will discover the cause of the problem? And why will the audience love that character? And what does any of this have to do with any genuine emotion of mine? Most importantly, what is the metaphor here? The image gives me none of this. It’s just a great poster.

Ultimately, it’s much more organic to start with a universal emotion and extrapolate an extreme situation from it, rather than starting with an extreme situation and reducing it back down to the emotion at its core. But it can work either way, if you’re very careful.

Pixar is especially good at this. I would imagine that most of their movies began with an image (toys coming to life, a mouse-chef in a human kitchen, a ruined planet covered in trash), but they don’t move forward until they’ve connected those concepts to very universal emotions.


How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 5: Search For Empathy

Occasionally there will be a small news item that will seize hold of the nation’s collective subconscious, generating dozens of famous stories. One such story was the arrest of deranged loner Ed Gein, who provided the basis for dozens of horror stories, the best of which was Robert Bloch’s novel/screenplay “Psycho”.

Movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre imagined what it might be like to be one of the Gein’s victims, but Bloch’s genius was to ask himself, “How could I make this guy sympathetic?” (The answer, as always, was a disapproving parent.)

Likewise Zoe Heller’s novel “Notes on a Scandal”, which Patrick Marbur adapted into an excellent movie of the same name, dared to find empathy with a female high school teacher who begins a sexual relationship with a student. The title of the American release of the book spelled out the source of Heller’s idea: She read a spate of news stories about similar cases and wondered, “What Was She Thinking?”

The most famous example of all was probably Citizen Kane. Far from being the cruel denunciation that William Randolph Hearst imagined it to be, the movie is actually an extraordinary act of empathy. Welles may have set out to topple a giant, but he wound up ennobling his deeply-flawed target. Instead of finding a villain in Hearst, he found a kindred spirit, and the movie acts as an unheeded cautionary tale for Welles’s own life.


How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 4: Do the Craziest Thing You’ve Ever Wanted to Do

Who hasn’t thought, after a bad break up, that they’d rather just wipe the whole experience out of their mind? Well guess what: in a movie, you can! Hard sci-fi starts with existing technology and extrapolates where it might go, but zanier stories like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind start with our hopes and fears and invent some vaguely-explained tech to make them manifest.

And you don’t have to go all the way into science-fiction. Take High Fidelity: I doubt that Nick Hornby ever actually called up all of his exes going back to elementary school and asked them what was wrong with him, but as soon as he had the idea, he knew it would make for a good novel and movie.And Jonathan Ames obviously didn’t actually chuck his writing career to become a cragslist-private-eye, but he considered it long enough to realize that it could make for a good TV series.

All three of the above stories worked, but be warned that this can also be a way to generate dubious gimmick-driven hokum like Yes Man, in which a man says yes to everything for a year, or self-indulgent messes like Synecdoche, NY, about a man who transforms his whole life into an elaborate theater piece.

These are all stories about the sort of grand romantic gestures that people make in their head but never in real life. The difference is that the first three projects are all about characters who come to realize the folly of their grand conceit, whereas the latter two stories supposed that these enterprises could be a source of profundity.

Ultimately, there’s a reason that we only do these sorts of things in our heads. If you’re going to try to turn one of these grand romantic gestures into a movie, then your hero needs to come to realize this sort of self-indulgence is a bad idea.


How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 3: Tap Into Your Irrational Fears

One problem with serial killer movies is that the victims are over-motivated to stop the killers. A serial killer is so obviously evil that opposing one is a no-brainer. If fears are perfectly rational, then your story runs the risk of being too generic. If you want to write a story that’s specific to your character’s psychology, then make your character’s most irrational fears come true.

Every pregnant woman suffers the occasional fleeting fear that this process is actually entirely unnatural and there’s a monster growing in her belly… That’s why Rosemary’s Baby resonates so powerfully.

And this doesn’t just work for horror movies. Who hasn’t idly wondered, in their more paranoid moments, “What if everyone around me is in on a secret? What if my life is secretly being manipulated for the amusement of others?” The Truman Show made those fears come to life in an especially trippy way.These movies work not simply because the audience worries about Rosemary and Truman, but because we feel a creeping sense of dread that our own craziest fears are being exposed to all the world and made manifest. We can’t help but wonder: if this fear can come true, what’s to stop all the others??


How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 2: Start with a Unique Relationship

It’s fascinating to go back and re-watch the first six episodes of “30 Rock”. All of the elements of greatness were there, but they didn’t add up, because the show hadn’t found its focus. Liz’s boss yelled at her, to little effect, and she yelled at her employees, to little effect. The individual characters were hilarious, but these were all relationships we had seen before.

Then, suddenly, in episode six, everything snaps into place, and the show re-centers itself around a new, never-before-seen-on-TV relationship. Despite the fact that she’s a loosey-goosey ultra-liberal girl-about-town, Liz reluctantly accepts an ongoing offer of mentorship from Jack, her type-A ultra-right ultra-sexist boss. This odd but mutually beneficial mentor-mentee relationship quickly became the heart of the show, and it has been ever since.

As I’ve said before, movies are defined not by unique characters but by unique relationships. This is good because we’ve already seen every type of character onscreen before. I’ve met a lot of oddballs in my life, but none that were totally unlike anything I’d seen onscreen. There’s always some movie somewhere that’s already gone there. Likewise with the heroes, villains, and love interests I’ve encountered. But I’ve had plenty of relationships that I’ve never seen onscreen before.

Think about times in your life when a teacher suddenly needed your help, or a favor turned into an bizarre feud, or a love affair turned into something else entirely. If this was a fascinating relationship that we haven’t seen onscreen before, then you’ll find a treasure trove of fresh, un-cliched emotions that you can tap into.

Can you find relationships from your life that are as incongruous as those seen in Paper Moon, Midnight Run, Election, etc? If not, you can always invent one from scratch. Simply take two very different types of characters and force them to rely on each other in a unique way.