Stop Making Sense, Screenwriters!

The pitch has come to an end, without any expression of interest. But then, the producer looks up at he screenwriter again, asking: “So, what else have you got?”

It may have happened to you – or not. Either way, whenever you prepare your pitch, you better prepare for this question. Or are you perhaps the kind that will work on the same project until it is perfect? If necessary… for years? Hmmm…

I’m afraid that’s not going to work.

Some decent brainstorming may save your ass.

Be A Pro Screenwriter

Professional writers, write. That’s what they do – all the time. So if you want to be perceived as a pro, you will need to (give the impression that you) have more than one project. To get hired, or even to sell a screenplay, better build a diverse portfolio of work, rather than tinker on that one life project.

So you need to start looking for new projects, and one way to do this is by frequent brainstorming.

better build a diverse portfolio of work,
rather than tinker on that one life project.

One of the rules of brainstorming is ‘Quantity over Quality’. This sounds counter-intuitive, but let’s look at all the benefits of this approach.

Are you still only working on one project?

Get brainstorming. Now.

More means more options to win

Brainstorming Saved My Radio CareerI often tell my screenwriting students how at the height of my previous career – as a radio producer – I worked with all the idols from my teenage years. I was the kid in the candystore. Then lightning struck. The management of the network decided to sweep the broadcast schedules clean, and everyone had to pitch for their jobs again. Some celebrities had been hosting the same show for 20 years, and now they ran the risk of losing everything.

People started brainstorming like crazy, developing brand new radio show concepts. So did I.

Then lightning struck.

I came up with something I really liked. In essence it was a talk radio show, using the (then) emerging technology of speech recognition and tele-voting. The concept shaped up and I was pretty happy with it.

Then, fear kicked in. “What if they don’t like it?”

So I started putting together a backup plan, a show with a very different angle, something more like the programs I had been running successfully up to that point.

Again, doubt crept in. “What if they don’t like this either…”

Fear Is Your Friend

Fear Is Your FriendI started work on a third, fourth idea… until I realised there would be value in having a whole portfolio to choose from. So I decided I wanted to present not one but TEN shows.

Given the tight deadline, this was not entirely realistic, yet within the few weeks we had available, I managed to develop seven new radio concepts.

Most other producers had only one. Others two, three at the max.

there would be value in having
a whole portfolio to choose from.

All staff were assembled in a gigantic meeting room, and rather than telling who could stay and who was fired, the new programming schedule was projected on a massive screen. My eyes flitted across the time table, and right on the first day of the week – Monday 8am – there was my #1 concept. I had made the schedule, better even: I was going in prime time!(*) The relief was so great, it took me a while to realise that this was not all. A colleague prodded me: “You’re gonna be busy. You scored THREE shows!” My excessive brainstorming had paid off.

While some true radio dinosaurs saw their careers come to an end because their new idea was not picked, mine was just about to take off. I was not only the youngest producer for national radio, I had just become one of the busiest.

Brainstorming Like A Pro. Go Deep.

Brainstorm Relentlessly. Go Deep.Getting more ideas is one reason why you should brainstorm often.

Getting better ideas is another.

Perhaps you have found that the same bunch of ideas keeps springing to mind. It either means you haven’t gone deep enough, or – if they are truly original – perhaps there is something in there that you should develop. Unfortunately, those top-of-mind ideas are not always the gems that will sell.

Beginning storytellers often rehash stories they have heard elsewhere, or emulate styles they like. They simply express the ideas that live in their conscious mind, or just under the surface. Your brainstorming needs to go deeper.

Those top-of-mind ideas are
not always the gems that will sell.

Only once you have figured out a way to access the deep irrational pools of your unconscious, this really interesting, darkly original CharlieKauffman-type-of-material will emerge.  If you have ever kept a dream diary, you know what I mean.

This Is Not Writing. Don’t Try To Be Logical

On this level, you don’t try to be logical, or plausible, or sensible. What you do need, is emotion. The emotions can be anything: fear, pain, torture or fun. In the early stages, it may seem as if you are not making sense. And for the outsider, you may not. Fortunately, you’re alone here in your creative cocoon.

To get to this level, you may have to be brainstorming for a long time, or frequently, and give yourself the opportunity to figure out your own process. Do it daily. Find your way of slowing down your mind, and getting access to great ideas.

You may have to brainstorm
for a long time, or frequently.

In times when I meditate frequently (not often enough), it is quite extraordinary what happens to my imagination and creativity. Where I otherwise struggle to come up with metaphors, they will hit me hard and fast.

Figure out your way. You’ll see, the ideas that hit you first may be completely unusable, without structure or shape. But after a while, you will find relevance on a deep level, and during development you may discover what your unconscious mind is trying to tell you. Some brainstorming methods can also be used when you are confronting writer’s block...

Nurture That Portfolio Of Ideas

Soon you will have a list of projects you are dying to develop, and before you know you will be adding further notes to those.

And guess what, you don’t need to have written the full screenplay before you can start pitching a project. If you have a rough structure, and the confidence that one day this will be a story, you are ready to answer that question above with a resounding ‘Yes!’ Of course you’ve got other projects!

Because you’re a pro, remember.

So how do you create that zone where great ideas come to you?

– Karel Segers

(*): This show would run for no less than 17 years, and outlast my own radio career.

4 thoughts on “Stop Making Sense, Screenwriters!”

  1. Hi Karel,
    I was just wondering where you found those brainstorming cartoons from (specifically the one with four workers constructing a light-bulb). I would really like to use them for my site. Thanks!


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