“I am not very good at screenwriting.” “I have no original ideas.” “I’m a hack. I can only write clichés.” “No matter how hard I try, nothing worthwhile comes out.” “It’s just too hard. Everything’s been done.”
by Karel Segers
These are not my words. I’m paraphrasing young people who are working hard to learn the craft of filmmaking. And yep, it’s all true… if you’re willing to believe it.
Your writing sucks. YOU don’t suck.
Over the past two years, I have done more teaching than over the previous twenty years combined. Recently I encouraged some students to be braver with their material and was surprised that some felt disheartened.
I did recognize the feeling and frankly I used to have the same problem. Others always came up with the most and the best ideas. They simply didn’t come to me. Today, my problem is to choose which ideas to act upon – and how to further improve the vast majority of those.
Some say: “If you don’t like that 99% of your ideas are crap, then don’t be a screenwriter.” You must accept that even the greatest ideas may not come to you in a polished, ready-to-write shape. They will require hard work. If you can’t accept this, end your suffering and do something else with your time.
Even the greatest ideas may not come to you
in a polished, ready-to-write shape.
You may be happier executing other people’s ideas. There’s really no shame in that; William Shakespeare and Alfred Hitchcock both built respectable careers on other people’s ideas.
Is the shower your only source?
Some students had failed to deliver their screenplay to the brief, which was quite specific. They had struggled to make it work, but mostly the very idea didn’t suit the brief.
When the concept doesn’t fit, I would ask if the students had considered other story ideas. Can you believe hardly anyone had tried looking for alternatives? Some claimed they had, but couldn’t find anything better. Almost every single student had started working on the first idea that came to them.
It reminded me of that screenwriter whose script I read three years ago and who had been working on it for 17 years. It had a poor concept and a major structural flaw. Are you perhaps pushing s*** uphill? Have you been
Almost every single student had started working
on the first idea that came to them.
If you want to be a filmmaker, you need to have a stable of ideas. Concepts must be tested, compared, reworked – and often abandoned. Don’t be mislead by stories about people who wake up one day with a great idea and become a successful writer overnight.
Those stories are mostly lies.
Quantity over Quality
To find the One Great Idea, you may need to do a lot of creative thinking. But how much is enough? When is it time to move on?
These questions you answer BEFORE you do the work. Until you KNOW you’ve found the billion dollar concept, you will need to keep looking. You’ll stand a better chance if you churn out ten ideas a day than if you just wait for it to come to you.
I told my struggling students to set aside a generous amount of time to just sit and allow ideas to come to them, to freely associate and write down everything. Half an hour of creative thinking should generate pages and pages of stuff. And I wanted to see those pages because procrastination and resistance are powerful enemies of the creative mind.
Set aside a generous amount of time
to just sit and allow ideas to come.
Once the students had come up with a list of ideas for themselves, they formed groups to brainstorm further from those. The result blew my mind. It reminded me of the 999 business ideas of Seth Godin’s “Alternative MBA” program.
(Osborn’s) 4 Rules of Creative Thinking
You’ve probably heard of these, but I’ll list them anyway for your convenience:
- Quantity over Quality: 1,000 ideas is better than 10.
- Keep the Left Brain Out: no limiting thoughts, no self-censoring, no criticism.
- The Crazier the Better: “out there” may be just what you need now.
- Mix, Match and Improve: combine stuff and surprise yourself.
Are you ready to be great?
So the day arrives when you finally have that great idea. The question is: will you know? How do you distinguish a touch of genius from yet another ordinary run-of-the-mill story rehash?
How can you possibly identify the story idea that is going to set you up for life if you don’t know the criteria of those who are willing to pay for it? You’ll need to do some research and some learning. You need to know what works and what sells.
This is not easy and you need to keep up the work. Read the trade magazines, the blogs, the Tracking Board. If you’re new in the game, read Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT (purchase link in the right hand sidebar) or download William Martell’s YOUR IDEA MACHINE (you’ll forgive the sloppy editing – it’s only $2.99!)
Now start writing your 999 ideas. And let me know when you sell the first!
– Karel Segers
Karel Segers is a producer and script consultant who started in movies as a rights buyer for Europe’s largest pay TV group Canal+. Back then it was handy to speak 5 languages. Less so today in Australia. Karel teaches, consults and lectures on screenwriting and the principles of storytelling to his 5-year old son Baxter and anyone who listens. He is also the boss of this blog.
photo credits: adriagarcia, andymangold, laszlo-photo, HikingArtist.com, twm1340, kevindooley
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.
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7 thoughts on “Train Your Screenwriting Brain”
Thanks for a great piece.
As it happens I’m in that exact phase at the moment for a short film I’m developing.
I’m an animator – so finding and committing to your best idea is even more critical, since it takes so long to make the film.
I’d rather go through the effort now making a bunch of scripts and storyboards, than to waste time creating a film that didn’t even work on paper.
Thanks for the timely advice.
I’m pleased that it has helped you Phil!
What is the motto of the Pixar guys again? Something along the lines of “Fail early.”
I guess this has to do with the willingness to acknowledge that something is not as great as you’d want it to be – and move on.
I find it just amazing how with EVERYTHING quantity is the key to quality. Once you figure this out, it become so much easier to deliver quality work. Interestingly, it doesn’t always necessarily take you longer to come up with 100 ideas than 10.
It’s a matter of mindset…
hmmm…i’m not convinced on this one. sure if you come up with 1000 ideas 10 ‘might’ be good.
i just don’t think you should believe that by “forcing” yourself to come up with heaps of ideas you can assume this will guarantee a hit idea is bound to come up.
there has to be a method to idea generation in itself. not just generating lots of random thoughts – you may think forever :)
i think a more methodical approach to idea generation will allow you to come up with 10 solid ideas and 1 which is unbelievable will stand out and be the one you focus on. isn’t this how scientists work?
but again, in every industry EVERYONE is mediocre and only some truly shine.
Nice reminder, thanks!
There’s nothing worse than starting on the wrong idea, the one that either leads nowhere because it is inherently flawed (or naff) or is simply unlikable as a premise to audiences and will never be made.
Both eat three years of your life.
Unfortunately I have seen many of such (naff) ideas developed and produced in Australia, often with agency support. Then, when they bomb at the box office, they blame it on poor marketing.
Of course a poor idea can never be marketed properly.