As screenwriters, it's always so frustrating when our wellsprings of ideas and creativity dry up, leaving us with nothing more than an unfinished scene, an unrealistic character, or even worse, a blank page. There are a lot of great ideas floating around out there in books, videos, and websites -- I know I've added listening to music, watching films, and reading my screenplays aloud to my arsenal. But, I've compiled my own list of methods, some pretty unconventional, that are more or less surefire ways to kickstart my creativity and avoid those dreaded screenwriting dry spells.
When you haven't the words to write, don't write words. Open up your writing program of choice and just start writing anything and everything that comes to mind without stopping, correcting, or deleting/erasing. It sounds dumb, because the first page or two is going to be pretty much useless (I've written a half of page of "j's" before,) but eventually you will start writing some amazing things.
Need an example? Here you go:
I'm just free writing to show you guys what it's all about. I just love writing stuff, and I'm sure you do too. It's like a fountain of thought is just pouring out of my head -- well actually that's not completely accurate, because my hands are doing a lot of the work. Where's the love for the hands? They work so hard to get my thoughts on the page, and my brain gets all the credit. Brains are jerks. Hands are such unsung heroes -- whatever happened to Eddie Vedder -- his hair in the Jeremy video was just excellent. I had that hair when I was 17 and I really truly thought I was cool. Seriously -- I really did.
Get a journal and make it your own
This isn't a new (or unusual) idea, but it's the thing that helped me the most as a screenwriter. Since we've all probably kept journals at one time or another and know how to use them, I'll just say this: just make it your own. When I first started keeping my journal for my latest script, the first 10 or so pages are complete crap. They're full of very carefully organized notes, quotes from books, bullet points, and musings that seemed to be written for someone else other than myself.
No! Be yourself while inside your journal. After I had this realization I filled the pages with drawings, meandering thoughts about story structure, and even dedicated an entire page to explaining how pretty I think Marion Cotillard is.
Take your characters to lunch
Yes -- literally. Go to a restaurant. Order food. Pull out your journal. Have a conversation with your character. Pretend that you're meeting them there for lunch like you would a friend of yours. Ask them questions like, "What are you going to have?" and "Is it just me, or are those people talking way too loud?" Your characters' responses may surprise you and open up new doors to their personalities. I only started doing this about 3 years ago, but I do have to say, my characters have become much more dimensional and unique since I started.
Talk to yourself
And I'm not just talking about reciting lines of dialog from your story. No, no. I mean full-on talking to yourself. This might sound really strange, but it works. If you're new to this, try doing a monologue you want to include your screenplay. Don't write it out, just say it. I cannot count how many times I've stumbled upon a great piece of dialog by doing this. Does trying this make you a weirdo? Yes. Should that stop you? Heck nope. Also -- do accents. That's how I came up with a villainous frenchman once, so try it.
Do bizarre things that make you embarrassed of yourself
This is probably one of my favorite things to do to help my creativity -- and it's simple. The title says it all. If you're stuck on a scene -- it's not flowing well and the dialog feels contrived, then I suggest sitting in your bathtub for a while. Perhaps you should wear wigs and costumes when you're stumped. I do interpretive dance (ironically,) practice my draw with toy revolvers, sing songs from HMS Pinafore and The Mikado (do I love comic operas or what?) -- anything that jump starts my brain creatively is alright by me -- even becoming El Espadachín while I write in my office (as demonstrated below.)
What all of these silly things do, at least for me, is cut any ties I have to my ego, pride, or shred of coolness I might've onee had, and allows me to approach my writing without the added pressure of writing "a great screenplay." Plus, it's fun.
Become a voyeur
This isn't just about watching people when they don't know you're doing it. Finding your creativity shouldn't result in a felony. It's more about learning from other people's interactions. The cliché situations that come to mind are the middle-aged couple in a coffee shop that don't speak or look at each other, or the lonely guy at a bar. However, if you look around a bit more, you might find something new. And when you do, write about it. Whenever I see someone interesting, I write their story. Two women meeting outside a cafe turned into 6 pages of drama in my journal, so keep your eyes and ears open and your pen ready.
Be your characters
If you're unable to imagine who your characters are in your head, perhaps you need to know what it's like to be them. If my script has a scene where my hypothetical outcast goth character goes to a fluorescent grocery store, you better believe I'm getting a trench coat and going shopping. One of my screenplays called for my severely conflicted and hopeless protagonist to give up on her internal and external goals, so I took advantage of a particularly rainy day and sat outside in my yard until I felt what I thought she'd be feeling. You don't need to be an actor to assume a role, you just need to have a certain degree of empathy for your characters.
Take time to just marinate
I'm a huge fan of being still and just -- thinking. Set apart some time for yourself to simply think about your screenplay -- better yet, wonder about it. Try not to hash out the details of your story -- just let it be a relaxing time for you to kick your feet up and let your thoughts meander.
During the summer, I like to do this on my porch with a smee and a coffee in the morning. In the colder months, I like to sit at bars, put on my headphones, have a couple of drinks, and kick random story ideas around in my head. Find a place and time where you can let your mind wander. I'm always pleasantly surprised by the ideas that suddenly pop into my head once I've stopped stressing about structure, pacing, and creating conflict.
There are so many great ways to get your creative juices flowing -- many of which you'll find on your own, but I think it's important to be open to new, sometimes unconventional methods. All of the things I've mentioned have paid incredible dividends to my screenplays, even if, at times, they did cost me a little pride.
What about you? How do you kickstart your creativity? Let us know in the comments.
I just start writing, in character. Pick the first thing i see - on TV, in a book - and let one of my characters comment on it. What does she really think of hair loss products? Why does the work of William Shakespeare leave him cold?
Completely unrelated to the story, yes - now. But often the bits i come up with end of being integrated in, since they reveal character in the most interesting ways...
July 30, 2013 at 6:10AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
free writing has worked for me in the past ... I think one should write dialog (visavis action) mostly ... and I usually do talk to myself ... when I do the overall story arc first ... once I got the dialog memorized, I just keep repeating it and rewriting until it sounds natural ...
July 30, 2013 at 6:36AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
I love how "Do bizarre things that make you embarrassed of yourself" comes under a list of things that are already bizarre and would make me feel embarrassed of myself - as though "Take your characters to lunch," and "Talk to yourself" don't fit into that category :)
July 30, 2013 at 7:49AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Good thing I live in a town full of eccentric weirdos, eh? I fit right in!
July 30, 2013 at 11:31AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
If you think thats weird, wait until you introduce your character to your family lol
July 30, 2013 at 6:37PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
I know Koo has said this before but writing characters before where the script takes place. I was stuck on how this monster was going to act in my story so I wrote up how and when it was born. The creature's intentions came clear and I just let the characters tell the story. It became a more genuine script because of it.
July 30, 2013 at 9:37AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
awesome, already worked while reading! :)
July 31, 2013 at 3:28AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
I've been working on a new screenplay since Saturday and feel that, after I am done with the story arc, it won't be longer than ~ 60 pages. Now, I am not sure if the addition to the story line itself will take away from it, so I am thinking of "widening" the story by spending more time with supporting characters (that are nonetheless have to be shedding light on the main themes of the script). Have to think about that more.
July 31, 2013 at 4:53PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
DLD, what are you writing? A feature? Short? Genre? (genuinely interested here!) Spending more time with supporting characters is great -- developing them more so they're multidimensional and interesting. However, as the old adage goes, add something to the page only if it adds to your story. Also, if you're looking to add more to your story, subplots subplots subplots! (There's my unsolicited advice for the day.)
August 1, 2013 at 2:33AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
It's a rom-com but I haven't added a page in four days. My theory is that a rom-com should mainly be about the two main characters (unless there are more that two like in "He's just that not into you") but I am not sure if my plot support both the twists and the character development (or character realization, to be more accurate) for the two leads. In that case, I am thinking of slightly altering the main theme and including the travails of the supporting characters, who would then represent the alternative point of view on the same themes with their own minor story lines. In general though, as I mentioned earlier, I prefer to spend time with the "stars of the show", as it were. I'll just have to think about these options. While writing. Without having the mental block of doing anything but.
August 4, 2013 at 2:14PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
I had a theater director tell me she watches people at restaurants and imagines what they are talking about. She said she's getting good a figuring it out. It was an experiment in the communication of body language. And if she got caught staring, she would continue and not respond to them and see what they did.
August 1, 2013 at 7:11AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
I was at a stand still creatively on a script I'm writing. Then, I went to Walmart and watched the people in front of me as I walked in. From their outfits I imagined and created an entire world. It was amazing how it just happened. It changed the pace of the story(In a good way). I guess all I could add to this would be to simply be prepared because inspiration can happen anywhere at anytime.
Really enjoyed the article.
August 1, 2013 at 3:00PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
What really works for me is talking about the project as if I was being interviewed about it.
I imagine myself at a big film festival where the resulting movie has received the main price and I talk about it. I'm in my room or under the shower and I talk about how i came up with the idea, what is really important about the story, about each character, etc and it has really helped me to come up with new details i haven't thought about before, or going back to the essence and purpose of my work.
And it also gives you great energy cos you visualize your script being a success.
Interesting to see other people's tricks!
August 4, 2013 at 9:12AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
I start conversations with random people in bars and restaurants and buses and, well, pretty much anywhere. Then I write them down in my journal - the next day. That allows all the uninteresting stuff to filter out and I'm left with some great material. I find this is particularly useful when I'm having a hard time writing in different "voices."
August 4, 2013 at 1:51PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Arthur, do you "cast" your characters? I do. It's easier to have a Hugh Grant-Julia Roberts exchange than a Joe Schmoe-Jeana Schmoe. Richard Curtis was voicing Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in his "Four Weddings and a Funeral" (as a side note, I thought that was a very shallow script, interspersed with some great comedic bits) all the way from "To Catch a Thief". In his case, having an Englishman and a female Yank made tons of sense, however.
August 4, 2013 at 2:22PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
All excellent advice to get you out of the mundane and predictable way of thinking and committing ideas to page. Storytelling is unconventional creativity!
August 4, 2013 at 2:30PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Hi, I enjoyed reading ur article..its good n really unusual piece...at present am writing a script..its political thriller kind of....protagonist, who,otherwise not interested in family politics , entering into active politics...any suggestions for me?
gaurish S Akki
August 12, 2013 at 3:43AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM
Great advice. I do most of these already but I never thought of taking my character to dinner before. But my main reason for commenting is: What in nine hells is Smee?
July 15, 2014 at 3:50AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
A smee is a cigarette... Just a fancy way to say it.
July 15, 2014 at 1:01PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
tell them to take a set and let them talk about their hobbys...
July 15, 2014 at 4:35AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
July 15, 2014 at 6:26AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
I wrote an entire sequence of scenes based off an observance in a coffee shop once. Observing people is such a great way to get the creative juices going. However, lately I have been getting stumped when I reach the second act. It keeps happening and I genuinely fear I may never get past the second act ever again. Maybe I'll try some of these methods and see what happens.
July 15, 2014 at 7:37AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
Great photos V Renee! Some of those look a little familiar...
July 15, 2014 at 12:57PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
actors do that a lot. write a "backstory".
July 16, 2014 at 3:43AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
I find this very helpful indeed. So helpful in fact, that is feels like cheating. Though I don't think it is.
July 16, 2014 at 3:47AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM
I love the idea of taking your characters to lunch and who didn't love Rear Window and doing a little spying on your neighbors? One thing I do is drive around messier parts of the city and take pictures of old store fronts or kooky interactions on the streets. Later, when I go through the photos, it always helps inspire new ideas.
March 10, 2015 at 4:35PM
Im a huge Self-talker... Its a way to never really stop working on the script. I'll do it while cooking, cleaning, in the bathroom, driving... I've had huge ideas mumbling with my toothbrush. Loved the article :D
August 24, 2015 at 6:06AM
My essentials are a cup of coffee, a pen, a journal and of course staying away from my phone.
October 3, 2015 at 12:41PM
Do anything alone. You wont have anything to take note,and will forget that nice idea.
I met the actors, and after that I adjusted the characters to fit the better. (amateurs)
October 30, 2017 at 9:43AM