How to come up with story ideas in a flash?
August 25, 2012 6:37 PM   Subscribe

Help me prepare for a writing contest! In September I signed up for a competition where I will have 48 hours to come up with a short (<8 min) film script. They will reveal a specific "catch", a theme, prop or other constraint which must be incorporated into every entry.

How best to prepare for this? I know I have difficulty brainstorming plot ideas so I'm afraid I'm going to freeze and not be able to come up with a decent storyline. (Note: not looking for "how to write a screenplay", more at how to quickly generate great, short, story ideas)
posted by storybored to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
What a great question.
IANY playwright, but I suggest 3 options:
1. Do nothing to prepare. You'll be fine.
2. Write a short film script in advance. When you learn the catch ... make it work.
3. Practice. Have somebody come up with a catch and write.
Being me, I'd tend toward #1. But only you know you. Have fun, and good luck!
posted by LonnieK at 7:09 PM on August 25, 2012

Work on a commonplace book / scrapbook of story snippets, imagery, scenes, character hooks, etc. Here's horror writer H. P. Lovecraft's Commonplace Book for example. When the time comes, match the writing prompt to something that inspired you earlier and go for it.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:16 PM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've done film festivals like that. We did LonnieKs 3rd suggestion. Hang the story off the hook. Practice.
posted by DaddyNewt at 9:29 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I of the distinct impression that almost everyone doing those "24 hour film festivals" is doing some variety of #2. But in that case, they need to actually shoot, so they gain a great deal by being prepared.

Still, if you really want to win, you'll do better by pre-writing several drafts. I guarantee others will do so.

As for idea generation, I look at my DVD rack or bookshelf, pick two at random and try to "cross" them. I came up with as a play on the cliche of "it's X meets Y," but you come up with some really interesting ideas, or at least good starting points.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:49 PM on August 25, 2012

As someone who has done (and if you can respect a self-backpatter, won rounds/done well in) similar contests, I've found that practice makes perfect, especially if one of the constraints they're giving is genre. Having to come up with an idea based on a location or object is easy compared to coming up with a romantic comedy, horror or mockumentary script if you've never written one. So randomly select something similar to what has been assigned in the past* and write it - maybe not the complete thing but brainstorming and outlining as if you were.

It will also give you practice doing what I think is the hardest thing about short scripts - creating characters and the store that actually fit the time constraints. Hanging out a 5 to 10 page screenplay in a weekend is relatively easy compared to editing down to one that stays within the limits and makes sense.

And if you're serious about winning the contest don't get too cutesy trying to stay within the bounds of the constraints. If it calls for an object or setting, be sure to use it rather than trying to bend the rules or use it abstractly.

Good luck and have fun!

* If your contest doesn't have past examples available and you're interested, let me know and I can point you towards a list or even send you my own.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 4:04 AM on August 26, 2012

It's actually not that hard to write to constraints (writing with no constraints? now that's hard). The trick is to identify as many of your constraints in advance as possible. If you wait till you get the writing prompt, then blast out a script, then you've got to track down actors to play those roles, locations, props, etc. If you settle on actors and locations in advance and write with them in mind, as well as the prompt, you're way ahead when it comes to shooting.
posted by zanni at 4:46 AM on August 26, 2012

I have done this, we did #1 Do no preparation. We were not fine, it was awful.
(it's on youtube, but I am absolutely not linking to it)

Ours DESPERATELY needed much more script editing, much more crew and much better actors. That said, we did complete it and it was a lot of fun.

If there was anything that could have saved our film it would have been a good script editor. One team to write the first draft and then someone completely different to script edit and make sure it all makes sense and hangs together.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 4:17 PM on August 26, 2012

I have done this as well, but with shorter time constraints since we actually had to film what we had written with the resources available. 8 minutes is not a long time for a script, so most stories are going to have to feature 2 or 3 quickly sketched "stock" characters. A common mistake is to be too complex - it is hard to be subtle in such a short duration.

Make sure you know your genres. I am not sure if that is one of your constraints, but it is helpful to know how a typical spy thriller, murder mystery, love story, etc is constructed for two reasons. One, it helps you set the scene at the beginning and ditch expository dialogue, and two you can invert the genre for a shock/funny ending. It is hard to do a standard three-act plot in such a short time, so play with the genre to make it interesting.

One last idea: a quick flashback for your second scene is a good way of adding an different location with the same characters. This can make a simple story appear less linear.

After that it just comes down to editing. A script for an eight minute film is surprisingly short so pruning will be required.

On the other hand, all of our films have been fairly awful so take this advice with a grain of salt.
posted by AndrewStephens at 4:35 PM on August 26, 2012

I have done this, we did #1 Do no preparation. We were not fine, it was awful.
(it's on youtube, but I am absolutely not linking to it)

Too late, I have found it!!!
posted by Sutekh at 4:41 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I should clarify that ours was 48 hours to create a 5 minute film. We were given a title, a line, an object and an action that all had to be in it. The genre was sci fi as it was part of the London sci fi festival.

I think AndrewStephens has it, be sure to leave time for editing and checking. You are likely to end up with plot holes that you assumed made sense because they did in your head, but that haven't been fully explained, or inconsistencies here and there. Leave time for editing and be strict about it.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 9:04 AM on August 27, 2012

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