I'm a Whale of a Fail.
September 29, 2010 3:35 AM   Subscribe

WritingFilter: Writers, what are some tips and tricks for coming up with awesome, totally original concepts? Or, conversely, what can I do to make sure my derivative stuff is top-notch derivative?

TL snowflaking: As an aspiring screenwriter, my biggest weakness is my ability to come up with original concepts. My first two full-length screenplays were purposefully based on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Descent, respectively, as I tried to use the archetypes as a learning crutch. But now when I try to come up with my newest concept, it's invariably derivative of something that I enjoy and, worse, have probably recently seen.

"An old man wants to explore his mind and..." Oh wait, Inception and/or Eternal Sunshine.

"A man working alone in a remote environment starts to be bothered by paranormal phenomenon..." Oh wait, Moon.

Please, please help me stop this!

... Or, failing that, turn me into the Joe Carnahan of writing.
posted by the NATURAL to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
"A man working alone in a remote environment starts to be bothered by paranormal phenomenon..." Oh wait, Moon.

You're really limiting yourself here. Define remote environment. Is it a someone on the moon? Or a forest ranger? or a night guard? or a paralyzed person alone at night? Ever write alone in the middle of the night? What if you started experiencing paranormal stuff through you computer? What if it seemed liked someone was trying to contact you via paranormal means through the computer. Maybe it's a dead relative/friend. Maybe it's something dark and evil. Maybe it's something good, trying to come back to finish a job, save a loved one, etc. Hell, what if it's the President? What if it's a pilot on a long flight? What the main character is the stewardess on that flight who sees the pilot slowly cracking up?

Note that I didn't use the word "man" in the above examples

Why does it have to be single person? What if it were two people in a remote environment being bothered by paranormal phenomenon? How would they play off each other? Would it really be paranormal phenomenon or paranoia? Would you definitely answer that question?

You need to start questioning the premise more and turning it ever so slightly to a different angle. What if Moon was told from the story of the computer in it, what would it be thnking, who would it learn and grow, why did it make the decisions it made in that movie? What bout the businessmen who created the situation in Moon? Or the designers/builders of the Moon program, what were they thinking as they built it, how did that experience change them, effect their world?

Finally, as a screenwriter, you should know that originality is overrated. You could write Moon, but from a different angle, make it more action packed or more noirish or whatever.

I expect a percentage.
posted by nomadicink at 4:00 AM on September 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Read this. It's premise is that all stories (films, books, plays, songs and so forth) are based on one or more of seven basic plots.

It's how you tell the story, rather than it's pure originality, that is most important.
posted by mooders at 4:03 AM on September 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

"Poor artists borrow, great artists steal." -Bob Dylan.
posted by ovvl at 4:33 AM on September 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've done a bit of writing for fun, mostly historical fiction stuff. Some of my best ideas are when I've sat down with a book or movie with a similar theme to my story and a computer by my side, and while reading/watching tried to think about things that they could have done differently, or how something might work in a different setting, then continually chopped and changed from there to come up with something "original". It's amazing how after only a few hours you can come up with your own unique creative product.
posted by thesailor at 4:37 AM on September 29, 2010

Most stories are derivative. The idea hardly matters. It's how you execute it.
posted by the foreground at 4:41 AM on September 29, 2010

Best answer: Character > Story.

The reason Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is good has almost nothing to do with the "story." It's because they're fun, likeable characters who are brilliantly portrayed. Their relationship and personalities are what give soul to the movie. Think about it: does anyone really care what, specifically, they do? No. It's engaging to watch them do pretty much anything.

Plots are overrated. The great and original screenwriters are not those who came up with the most interesting concepts. There are tons of forgettable movies which had really interesting and original concepts! Great writers write things which touch people in some way they relate to. Eternal Sunshine has a cool conceit, but no one would care if they didn't find the relationship between Joel and Clementine utterly gripping.

From the way you've phrased your post, you're coming at writing screenplays from the story/plot angle. Think instead about people you've met, people you know, things that have happened to you that affected you emotionally - as a person. Think about the last major argument you had with someone. There are already too many movies which use forgettable and interchangeable characters as mere warm bodies to move the "story" along. Create characters and give them form based on real people (including yourself), and they will come to life.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 4:46 AM on September 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

Quite seriously: Start writing down your dreams. You'll have more interesting ones soon if you keep it up, and you may get a truly original (or excellently derivative) idea or two out of that. Then you spin your story from there.
posted by limeonaire at 5:58 AM on September 29, 2010

Best answer: In my book (I actually do have a chapter on this in my book, Crafty Screenwriting), it's by paying attention and stealing. Paying attention to what's going on around you, in your life and in the news, and adapting that into a story; and stealing stories other people have told and transposing them into a fresh environmment or giving them fresh characters or turning them upside down somehow.

Nobody actually wants completely new stories. There are only so many ways human lives can unfold, and all the stories have been told all the ways that make sense. People want familiar stories made fresh and new. Familiar because they are grounded in human nature; fresh and new because you've added what makes you get up in the morning, your passion, your uniqueness.
posted by musofire at 6:11 AM on September 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do you have any awesome ideas that are already taken? Change the main character or change the setting. You could write Braveheart in space or Avatar where the main character could be mistaken for William Wallace. Play with the ideas in your head and tease them out until you have an exciting concept. Maybe our main character up there is a deluded scotsman who thinks that he's liberating his people; maybe the narrator is a retired hero of the people (think The General in His Labryinth) who wants to avoid taking sides but feels himself used as a revolutionary figurehead. Everything ever written is full of stock characters and archetypes.

You might also want to check out TVtropes, specifically the page Tropes Are Not Bad. Look up the movies you mentioned and see how many different tropes and cliches they play on.
posted by wayland at 6:25 AM on September 29, 2010

There's a reason why instructors tell their students to read the greats - so that students can learn to write by emulating the greats, then take that imitation and create their own voice. It's the same with ideas, take ideas from EVERYWHERE. My ideas come from my life, other people's thoughts, stories I've read where I say, "I wouldn't have done it that way" and just random ideas that float through my head.

Oh, and as someone else mentioned dreams also make great starting points.

The trick, as others have mentioned, is to take an unoriginal idea and create an original story out of it. That's why prompts work so well - one prompt can create several unique stories (I used to have a contest on a different site and I've seen it happen).
posted by patheral at 6:33 AM on September 29, 2010

Best answer: TV Tropes is a casual way to help out with this, provided you don't get sucked in and stuck reading it forever. Recognizing and playing around with tropes can be a lot more interesting than trying to think of something completely original.

Also, nthing that it's how you tell it, rather than what you tell. Excellent execution carries a weak concept far more often than the other way around.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:38 AM on September 29, 2010

"A man working alone in a remote environment starts to be bothered by paranormal phenomenon..." Oh wait, Moon.

Take a hard look at why something like Moon worked.

* It's a remote environment, sure, but it has a novel spin. He's not just out in the middle of nowhere. He's out in the middle of nowhere, but he can SEE the entire world right outside the window. He's far away ... but not. Plus, he has all these connections -- radio, video conferencing, a robot buddy. But they are all at a remove. Faraway, so close.

* It's a character study. He's losing his mind. Kind of. The robot is friendly. Maybe. His wife cares about him. You think.

* There's an Dionysian intrusion to an Apollonian world. His life is OK, he's got just a few more weeks to go, and then something completely, utterly weird happens, and it literally and figuratively invades his previously happy (well, sort-of happy) Apollonian world.

So, there's a possible answer for you. When searching for inspiration, take a mundane story and change several of the framing variables.

-- Faraway, so close. What would Moon have looked like if, instead of the Moon, it's an underwater mining facility? He can't look out the window and see anything that looks like Earth.

-- The character study. What if instead of a robot companion, there was a pile of three-ring binders that contained printed instructions from the company for every possible situation, and a special one that reads "OPEN ONLY IN CASE OF EMERGENCY CODE 145"? What IS emergency code 145? What do you think the instructions are going to say?

-- The Dionysian intrusion. He finds a message from someone, and initially he thinks it's from someone else, but it's actually a note from himself to himself, and he doesn't remember writing it. What if instead of being a clone, he realizes that his mind keeps getting wiped clean? A brain reboot, if you will. A story about "who am I" identity becomes a story about "what is memory."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:00 AM on September 29, 2010

You just said, "Inception and/or Eternal Sunshine." Either Inception is a rip-off of Eternal Sunshine, or this demonstrates that you're stretching so much that you've incorporated both.

It puts me in mind of that woman who sued for her script being stolen for both The Terminator and The Matrix. Does that mean you can't have a future war between man and machine? (Oh, wait, Battlestar Galactica.)

This means you've progressed to a certain level of ability, that you're recognizing these patterns, but that you haven't progressed beyond that, to be able to see beyond those patterns.

The TVTropes recommendation might serve to inure you, but it's primarily written by people who are at that level of recognizing patterns, so there's a risk of it serving as an echo-chamber if you don't take it with enough salt.
posted by RobotHero at 10:24 AM on September 29, 2010

Most successful movies aren't all that original. Are you reading the good screenwriter blogs? I'd highly recommend John August.

Don't worry if you're using a time-honored plot. It's your spin and your characters and your language that count.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:48 PM on September 29, 2010

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