What do you do with your ideas?


November 30, 2009 by jamesessj

Where do you get your ideas?

In my case, sometimes from dreams — the idea for “One More,” the first screenplay in my recent outburst (and I do hate the title but don’t know what else to call it — me, who’s usually so good with titles…) came to me in a dream that was a combination of the story and the outcome of the story:  the dream was basically telling me, here, write this, it’ll sell.  So I wrote it.  It hasn’t sold yet, but I don’t doubt that it will.  Dreams don’t lie.

Except when they do.  Non-writers seem fascinated by the whole concept of “where do you get your ideas,” forgetting that they tell stories themselves all the time, from why they were late to work to where do babies come from to a minister, a priest, and a rabbi walk into a bar.  Writers may (one hopes) be somewhat more skilled at sorting out the wheat from the chaff, but in terms of story ideas — the big picture — we’re not so special.

Because the secret of all literature is this:  It’s the little picture that matters.  Look at the great novels, the great films, the great plays — their big-idea plots are usually nothing terribly unique; soap-opera stuff, in many cases.  Anna Karenina?  Woman has affair with married man.  Lady Chatterly’s Lover?  Married woman has affair with unmarried man.  Madame Bovary?  Married woman has affairs with two unmarried men.  The Scarlet Letter?  Well, you get the point.  Women are whores.

Just kidding.  (Mostly.)  The point is, each of these is a major work of art, and yet their essential plots can be conveyed in the basest of terms.  What matters is what Tolstoy, Lawrence, Flaubert, Hawthorne did with those plots — the language, the setting, the characters, the relationships, the dialogue, the themes, often the very sentences themselves.

It’s one of the things that makes me crazy about Hollywood — the “high concept.”  Which is defined as a movie idea that can be expressed in a single punchy sentence:  “The Mayans were right and the world ends on 12/21/2012.”  “Ugly guy gets pretty girl pregnant.”  “Boy from the Indian slums gets on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”  “The Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks.”

As if the big picture matters.  You could make 2,012 movies about the Mayans being right and the world ending on 12/21/2012, each of which would tell a different story about different characters — some of them could be quiet character studies, some could be high-tension thrillers, some could be sweet and subtle love stories, some could be action/adventure blockbusters.

But in Hollywood, they’d all be pitched the same way:  “The Mayans were right and the world ends on 12/21/2012.”

The standing joke about romantic comedies:  “Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.”  Yet how many romantic comedies does Hollywood churn out, year after year?

You’d think they would have learned by now, after a century or so of making movies.  The question isn’t, “Where do you get your ideas?”, but rather, “What do you do with your ideas?”


2 thoughts on “What do you do with your ideas?

  1. Excellent post and great point about the same ideas being used endlessly.

  2. xavier says:

    Dreams don’t like except when they do. Ain’t that the truth!

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