“Melodrama is the easiest thing in the world to do … and it is the cheapest thing to do, too… Far more difficult, more complicated, and thus more artistically challenging is to make a film that reflects the true rhythms of life.“Michelangelo Antonioni
Taking the words as a source of inspiration – i.e. novels, newspapers, magazines, fairytales or myths – is an obvious and common practice. In the end a finished script is a piece of literature too! It can happen that sometimes the story is already completely laid out in front of your eyes – by adapting a short story for instance. But sometimes all you’ve got is just a headline in a newspaper.
When I was young I was spending a lot of time in a bookstore next to my place. For hours I could forget what was going on around me while each book I held in my hands opened up a new world. Years later, when I was reading Sven Birkerts >The Gutenberg Elegies< I remembered many of these books and what impact they had in those years (for instance Hermann Hesses’s >Siddartha<). In these days there was no internet, no Google, no Youtube, no Wikipedia, no Facebook.
Using myths, fairytales and literary models to brainstorm ideas for a film has two main advantages:
- The story is already plotted, with all the structure.
- The story is tried and true, i.e. it works.
Whether we take
- >The Bible<, >The Koran<, >The Talmud<, James Frazer’s >The Golden Bough<, >The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology< or Grimm’s >Fairy Tales<;
- Facebook, Twitter or any other social media;
- the Yellow Pages or some other business directory (open it at a random point and try to think of a strange thing that could happen to a person working at that business);
- the most common conspiracy theories;
- old magazines and newspapers;
- Google (you can even type a combination of random characters like “cfghbj“ to get inspired);
- three random sentences that have nothing to do with each other
– all of these sources can help you to find new ideas. On top of that by combining the inspiration you get from these sources with some of the techniques mentioned in this book, in the end you even will have more possibilities and forks in the road. Always remember:
“The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills. The more familiar the parts, the more striking the new whole.“ (Arthur Koestler)
A great source of inspiration when it comes to writing is Rust Hills’ >Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular<. There is a lot of good advice and insight in this book. They help us to better understand the principles of structure and set-up when it comes to writing. I will just speak about two ’strategies’ he mentions: the fork in the road and the three basic techniques of suspense.
Fork in the road
In his opinion in every short story a fork in the road is encountered. I.e. we see a character taking a new road or we see him passing by. A choice has to be made. And afterwards there is one possibility less. One alternative has not been taken into consideration with all its consequences.
“Of course what happens in life isn’t just due to taking one big fork in the road instead of another; it is due to a series of small choices and small pressures that cumulatively determine personality and situation, which in turn causes choices and pressures — a constant interaction between behavior and personality and circumstance that eventually becomes your life history.“ (Rust Hills)
The three basic techniques of suspense
They are often used in combination. First we have mystery, which evokes curiosity. The writer enters into competition with the reader instead of partnership. In the end we have an explanation to resolve it. Second conflict, which implies uncertainty in relation to the outcome. The reader doesn’t know whether a character will or won’t commit an act, decide a matter, do a deed. A decision resolves this scenario. And third we have tension, which evokes anticipation. Some sort of fulfillment resolves it. Tension is the most effective technique to create suspense!
1. Get a collection of myths, fables and fairytales. They are an excellent source for triggering ideas. How could an adapted and updated version look like?
2. Get the >Writer Emergency Pack< by John August. Although this deck of cards is meant to be for scriptwriting, it also can be used to trigger ideas by adapting the structures, mechanisms and models he recommends.
3. Write a little 50 to 100 words story containing one fact and three fictitious elements (you can write about anything you like). Then do the same with three facts and one fictitious element.
4. Get a book with all the short stories of Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger’s >Nine Stories< or Jorge Luis Borges >Collected Fictions<. Choose a short story and try to outline an adaptation. You don’t have to be literally true to every aspect of the original story.
5. Start collecting articles from old magazines and newspapers (newspaper headlines can be useful in many ways), little ideas you can extract from lyrics, novels and historical essays. For the beginning focus on quantity, not quality.
6. Copy the main idea and structure of original scripts. Now make the story your own by changing the genre, the context, the time, the locations, the characters, the ending …
7. Pick your favorite story, a book, a film or an anecdote. Now simplify and generalize the story by rewriting it in 50 words. Then make it more complex again.
8. Practice telling stories by going backwards! Thinking backwards as a strategy to solve problems.
9. A saying goes two ideas come from connecting at least two dots together. The encounter of two ideas or two images, but more often an image and a story can lead to something unexpected. Experiment with combining unusual photos and news.
10. Get into storytelling groups, partner with storytelling groups. For instance:
12. Michael Crichton is said to use this technique:
– Find an interesting field.
– Study it relentlessly over a period of time.
– Invent a story set in the field.
Try it out!
Films to watch
- The Long Goodbye (1973) IMDB
- The Conformist (1970) IMDB
- The Sweet Hereafter (1997) IMDB
- La Haine (1995) IMDB
- Le Havre (2011) IMDB
- The Mirror (1975) IMDB
- Torremolinos 73 (2003) IMDB
- The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1982) IMDB
- Why not! (1977) IMDB
Gus van Sant
- Elephant (2003) IMDB