There’s a technique some stand-up comedians and comedy writers use to develop their joke writing skills. Every day they open the newspaper (or whatever news website they prefer) and find a current event. They then write ten jokes about that current event. They repeat this with ten other current events, resulting in one hundred jokes. Some then choose ten of those jokes to submit to one of the late night talk shows that buy jokes, while stand-ups might choose one joke out of the hundred to work into their act. Others do the exercise simply for practice.
The theory here is that trying to craft a single perfect joke will cause you to freeze up. Our writer brains work in two modes: creative and critic. In order to free the creative mode, you need to turn off the critic. So the joke writer focuses on quantity rather than quality. (That inner critic isn’t bad – you’ve got to turn it back on when you evaluate the results of the brainstorm process.)
Many comedians find the first three jokes that they come up with will be the same ones everyone else would come up with. But the professional comedian can’t just tell the same jokes everyone else does. Jokes four, five and six will be original – but awful. Around joke seven or eight is where they’ll get a really original, really good joke. Things often start to go downhill from there, but sometimes joke ten ends up being a winner. The goal is to push the comedian beyond the first thing that pops into their mind to get to something insightful and personal.
Screenwriters need to find similar ways to apply brainstorming techniques to their process.
I attended Wonder-Con this year, and one of the panels I went to was “Inside the Writers’ Room,” a panel of television writers. There, panelist Steve Holland from The Big Bang Theory mentioned that they had a bunch of white boards in the writers’ room, one of which was labeled “Shit That Could Happen.” Whenever they had an idea for a story, they would go to the board and start thinking of shit that could happen. If they filled up the board, it meant the idea was probably good enough to be an episode.
The same technique can be useful in the early stages of feature film development. You’ve got an idea – a character, a dilemma, and a situation. What could happen? Start coming up with ideas. If you can fill up several pages of possible incident and event, then the premise is probably large enough for a feature film. If you have difficulty even filling a page, it’s probably an indication that you will run out of steam in the middle of act two. The idea just may not be big enough. (There are other considerations for choosing an idea as well, of course.)
You won’t necessarily use all of the ideas you come up with. In fact, one of the tenets of brainstorming is that you should only select the very best ideas. This is what turns off your inner critic: you allow yourself to write down bad ideas. Go for quantity. Then select the quality that bubbles out.
Another thing to ask when developing your idea: “Given this premise, what do I want to see in this movie?” Imagine you are a viewer watching the trailer for your movie. You’re intrigued so you head off to the theater. What are you expecting to see? What would disappoint you if it weren’t in the movie? Make sure you deliver these things. It can also be helpful to pitch your log line to friends and ask them what they would want to see in such a movie.
Brainstorming is also a useful technique to employ before writing the first draft of a scene. Before diving in, ask yourself, “What could happen?” List every possible idea for fun events or twists or lines of dialogue you can think of. Remember, the goal is not to use them all; it’s to push yourself beyond the first thing that comes to mind.
Like professional comedians, the professional screenwriter can’t just write the same scene anyone else would. You have to find that cool thing that nobody else would have thought of. That’s your “voice” as a writer, and it’s the only thing of value that you really have in this business.