“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”

Mar 22

Scout and Boo would be surprised at my sequel...

Hi, guys,

Thought I’d jot down something about this subject, as it comes up often — is, in fact, a cliche.

Most writers cringe at that question, not because it’s invalid, it’s just too general.

In reality, we all get our ideas from the same place — from the totality of our experiences, everything we’ve read, seen, heard about, experienced and imagined.  The real trick is differentiating a good idea from a bad one, and also knowing when combining several so-so ideas can create something great.

Over the thirty-plus years of my career, I’ve come up with some good ones (“Far Beyond the Stars” for DEEP SPACE NINE comes to mind).  One thing that helps this happen is generating a LOT of ideas.

For instance, whenever I pitched to a TV show, I routinely came up with at least 100 story ideas.  I’d then boil that down to five or six I worked out completely, plus maybe two dozen springboards — notions that would run anywhere from a sentence to a paragraph or two.

(And by the way, “Far Beyond the Stars” was inspired by my friendship when I was a teen and in my twenties with one of my first mentors, the great science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon” — I very much wanted to show the roots of science fiction, our beginnings in the genre, and why writing one’s personal truth was so very important, despite or perhaps because of the cost.)

Part of the benefit of this working strategy is I recognize that building a writing career is not dependent on my coming up with that One Great Idea.  There are plenty of them, they’re everywhere you look.

I keep a notebook in my pocket to jot down ideas as they occur to me, conversations I overhear or take part in, those fleeting thoughts that vanish like scared fish if you don’t grab them and hold onto them.

Another useful practice is trying to write down ten ideas for movies, TV shows or books per day.  They don’t have to be good, just whatever occurs to you.  I’ll give you some examples I just came up with:

  1. “Heinlein, Asimov and Bradbury” – Three science fiction writers in the 1950s suddenly find themselves whisked a thousand years into the future and have to adapt to being part of a space-going galactic federation, utilizing their three very different natures, imaginations and expertise to make a go of things and help others.  (You can see that this one is reminiscent of “Far Beyond the Stars,” just turned on its head.)
  2. Slidecruise” – A luxury liner that takes people to alternate earths.  (This of course could have been an episode of SLIDERS, which I worked on as a writer-producer.)
  3. “Citizen of the Mall” – A teenage girl discovers a teenage boy who has grown up secretly at the mall since being abandoned as an infant.
  4. “Gorgeous” – The most beautiful woman in the world decides to marry the world’s ugliest man.
  5. “Just Average Guy” – About a very ordinary superhero.
  6. “Twenty Twenty” — Glasses that allow you to see the truth of other’s hearts.
  7. “Cleaners” – Folks you hire to clean up everything messy in your personal life.
  8. “Lie in It” – A haunted bed that eats people, sending them to a place where they must account for every rotten thing they’ve ever done in bed.
  9. “Restoration Vacation” – A man takes a vacation from his oppressive life and discovers he’s moving back in time along the defining moments of his past.
  10.  “Spartacus 2050” – The replicant revolt.

As you can see, some of these are good, some less so.  But I could actually work up a viable outline from each of them if I had to (and anyone who wants to hire me to do so — at Writers Guild rates — is welcome to).

But again, let me disabuse you of the notion that inspiration has to come from some deep or profound place (though it certainly can, or you can arrive at that point once you’ve actually written and/or filmed it).

Recently, Elaine and I were talking about movie sequels and I tried to come up with the most ridiculous ones I could think of.  Here are my “sequels” to TWELVE ANGRY MEN and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD:

“Twenty-Four Angry Men” – In a future society, when someone is on trial for murder, they have a team of twelve legal gladiators and the prosecution has a team of twelve, and the two teams battle to the death.  Whichever side wins determines whether the man is convicted or set free.

 “To Kill More Mockingbirds” — It’s 2012 and an elderly Boo Radley learns that Scout has grown up and had success as a novelist, writing a hugely bestselling book about her childhood.  Only problem is that it’s been fifty years since she’s written another word and she’s become a hermit in her Manhattan apartment.  So Boo forces himself out of his own isolation in Macomb and heads on an odyssey to the Big Apple, to find Miss Scout Finch and free her from the prison she herself has made.  In the end, a most unusual love story blossoms into being… one neither party ever expected in their wildest imaginings, whether cooked up in the deepest South or most rarified heights of New York City.
I wouldn’t mind seeing either of those movies, actually.
Once you prime the pump, ideas keep coming all the time.  And if you commit to finishing what you start, you get a career out of it.
All good thoughts your way,

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