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By Ben Cohen · July 20, 2014
Student: I don’t have any ideas.
Professor: What activities have you done to brainstorm or focus?
Student: I sat in a Barnes & Noble for 8 hours and cried.
Replace "Barnes & Noble" with “that cave behind that tree” and I would bet that this conversation has occurred in some fashion since the very day that the first writer decided to teach the first writing student. Why is it so hard to inspire writing? I don’t pretend to have any secrets to help inspire writing because all humans create differently. Kafka used to only write at night after a nap and family dinner. Hemingway drank Absinthe the way my nephew drinks Caprisun. Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman wrote Annie Hall verbally while walking up and down the streets of Manhattan.
You can’t force inspiration, right? Great ideas come to us in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, right? The answer: Sort of.
Inspiration is a lot like love. Does love strike you when you least expect it? Sure it does. Does it strike you when you’re alone in a Barnes & Noble crying because you hate yourself and your ideas? Probably not.
As an instructor at the New York Film Academy since 2012, I’ve probably read somewhere between 300-400 short student screenplays and watched a comparable amount of student films. This, alongside my work in the independent comedy film world, has taught me a few tips for finding inspiration for your writing.
1). Start with the Truth:
Student: So it’s about a boy who meets a girl in the park.
This is hands-down the most common pitch I’ve heard from film students. It makes sense. Stories are about new experiences and fundamental human emotion. What’s more fitting than two people meeting for the first time on a cost-effective park bench?
Professor: So who’s the boy?
Student: I don’t know.
Professor: Okay, why would she like him?
Student: I don’t know.
Professor: Have you ever met a boy in a park before?
So the problem with this student’s inspiration is that the student fears using her personal life when writing. We all hear anecdotes about Sofia Coppola writing about her marriage or Larry David literally writing his life into his show. Not all writing is autobiographical. Good writing is, however, relatable. In order to relate, do not fear the truth. Here’s the rest of the interaction with the same student:
Professor: What’s one way you met a boy before?
Student: A French boy offered me directions when I missed my bus, then he walked me home but I couldn’t stop thinking about how much my hands were sweating.
Through these simple details, the student went on to create a short, relatable, filmable comedy about a girl attempting to hide her sweaty palms on a first date with a charming Frenchman. No park bench, just real characters with real flaws and real strengths.
A) Identify 5 things you’ve witnessed or experienced in the last week that you yourself would define as “unusual.”
B) Pick a Genre that seems opposite or antithetical to one of these unusual things. For example, if the unusual thing is that you saw a dog walking outside of a car while a man drove the car, pick something like Sci-Fi/Fantasy. A student recently did this in one my classes and developed an idea about a future where humans only walk dogs via machinery.
C) Write freely in the prose form using this unusual event and this genre for 10 minutes. Try to refrain from dialogue or internal descriptions while writing.
D) After 10 minutes are up, write a logline for what this story would be if it were in fact a film.
Stay tuned… Part II coming tomorrow.
Ben Cohen is a Brooklyn-based comedy filmmaker and Screenwriting Instructor at the New York Film Academy. He studied at the Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Theater. He co-wrote and directed the “Godamsterdam” web-series and wrote and directed the short film, “Is It Because of My Penis?” He performs improv and sketch in New York with indie groups, “Diddler on the Roof” and “2 Single Guys.”