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By Emily J · May 16, 2022
There’s no such thing as an original idea. This is likely common knowledge for readers. It’s also a major reason writers lament when they’re trying to think of new ideas that they want to feel fresh and original, and struggling with writer’s block.
So, if ideas aren’t just popping into your head out of nothing but your unimpressionable and completely independent mind, where do they come from? The answer is… from everything and everywhere else.
By now, you’ve accepted that you have to do some stealing to come up with new ideas, so we’ve come up with seven ways to generate creative ideas for your screenplays… with only a touch of thievery involved.
One of the simplest ways to think of ideas is to think of an external element that you fear or gives you anxiety. Insert that word into “the _____ from hell.” If the thing you fear most is sharks, then the sentence is “the shark from hell,” and you wind up with the film Jaws, or more recently, The Shallows.
These kinds of stories often use an external source to directly confront a protagonist’s greatest source of personal trauma that they’ve been running away from for an extended period. What would be the worst possible version of someone who lives to deal with personal pain? The therapy patient from hell. From that, you get What About Bob?
A good story is equally plot-driven as it is character-driven, however, premise films (viewed as more plot-driven) are often criticized. So start with the character. What’s a character type you see on the screen a lot and dislike? What is their core flaw or wound? Take that flaw or wound and build on it, putting it in a plot that highlights and explores it further to create a more compelling character arc.
A go-to for anyone who has ever taken an improvisation class, a fantastic way to get your brain moving is to create “lists of ten.”
Simply number a piece of paper from one to ten and set a timer for one minute. From the moment the time starts, list as many environments as you can (you don’t have to limit yourself to ten, it’s just a jumping-off point), character flaws, things to fear, or film tropes you hate. It can be anything. The goal is that you don’t stop writing for one minute.
When you’re done, give your brain a rest and then do it again for a different list topic. Once you have two lists, pick an item from each and mash them together to create a fresh idea.
This is one of the most classic plot devices that never gets old. You can take it literally (Splash) or flip it around (The Incredible Mr. Limpet), or most commonly, use it figuratively with a character entering a world that is completely foreign to them (Legally Blonde, Witness, Back to the Future, Enchanted, Beverly Hills Cop, etc.)
You could also go to your lists of ten and find a unique world that is lesser-known to the audience that you’re introducing them to, such as competitive cheerleading in Bring it On, or any sports arena at the center of a Disney Channel Original Movie.
Something that has been gaining popularity in features the past few years is combining genres, with writer/director Rian Johnson the most obvious and successful practitioner. For example, Knives Out combines an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery with a Hitchcockian thriller. Johnson uses the tentpole moments of a murder mystery to clearly set up and end the story, but the second act undermines a classic tenant of Christie (don’t reveal the murderer until the end) in order to remove the mystery and allow the audience to become fully immersed in the suspense.
You can also take a premise and flip the genre. For example, Freaky might take its inspiration from the classic mother-daughter-swap, Freaky Friday, but it uses The Hot Chick, where the bratty teen girl we’re used to seeing swaps bodies with an adult man, who is a criminal. The Hot Chick is a broad, teen comedy, and Freaky has teen comedy elements as well. But the film takes it to a darker, more extreme premise by making the “man” a serial killer, which is a much more dramatic premise. By simply swapping mainstream comedy for horror, the film reinvents a premise that audiences have seen many times, making it fresh and original.
Some people are terrified to put their ideas out on the internet for fear that someone will steal them, while others will happily share tidbits that can lead to inspiration. Check out social media accounts such as @OverheardLA, to see if they spark the idea for a plot divide or character to build an idea around.
If you are nervous about stealing someone’s idea on the internet or someone else stealing from you, just remember, that only you can tell a story through your voice. When Tina Fey wrote the pilot for 30 Rock, it wasn’t beloved by executives the way the show eventually would be. That same pilot season, Aaron Sorkin wrote and filmed Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and executives were incredibly excited about it.
There were plenty of op-eds about whether it was smart or not to have two shows set in sketch comedy shows, but ultimately, the underdog pilot became an award-winning success, and Sorkin’s struggled to find its audience before being pulled. It didn’t matter that there were behind-the-scenes series about sketch comedy, and besides the setting, the shows had next-to-nothing in common in subject matter, tone, or humor, because Sorkin and Fey’s styles have next-to-nothing in common. If those two heavyweights didn’t sweat it, then up-and-coming writers definitely shouldn’t either.
Continuing the ideas from the internet, you can dive deep into places like Reddit and Twitter, which can provide plenty of peculiar seeds that will grow into big ideas later. For example, Safety Not Guaranteed came from a real ad in Backwoods Home Magazine (and it was meant as a joke) where someone was looking for someone to time travel with and ended the ad by saying that “safety not guaranteed.” Writer/director Colin Trevorrow saw the idea and ran with it, creating an homage to Steven Spielberg that landed him gigs with major franchises.
One thing that is true of all these idea generators is they take something that already exists and ask what if…? It should also be noted that when you’re generating ideas, the sky’s the limit! Don’t think about budgets or controversial topics, just do whatever exercise you can to get your mind in the best headspace, and write.