Week 2 – State of Play

The saying goes:

“How do you come up with good ideas?

By having a lot of ideas.”

Over the last year I’ve been reading countless books on scriptwriting. As I already mentioned earlier, they do not say much about our topic. And even more: when actually examples and strategies are given, they are often all the same. But what do they actually say? Let’s have a look:

Pilar Alessandra – The Coffee Break Screenwriter

What is the “what if” question of the movie?

Put a character into an impossible situation.

Ask yourself and start with: who, what, why, when, where, and how.

Watch trailers for films you haven’t seen yet.

Listen to podcasts, while you’re doing other things.

Use Facebook and other social networking sources.

Linda Aronson – The 21. Century Screenplay

Instead of thinking of as many one-liners as possible, use an external stimulus to make connections and produce ideas. Try for instance to think of film ideas on the topic ‘earthquake’. Then combine ‘earthquake’ with another stimulus.

Brainstorm anecdotes, newspaper snippets, cryptic headlines, personal ads, billboards, the question ‘what if …?’, interesting character types from occupation or social role, characters defined by emotional state; the ‘seven deadly sins’, weddings, funerals, journeys, holidays, war, accidents, divorce, departures, a mission, photographs, music, art works. Throw disparate ideas together.

Steven Barnes – Introduction to Screenwriting

Open a newspaper and find an article upon which to base a story idea.

Play the “what-if” game. There are three basic questions:

What if …  If Only …  If this goes on…

Linda Cowgill – The Art of Plotting

There are only three things you need: Find a character, who will take action to achieve something. Then this character must meet with conflict. When it’s all over, the story must have a meaning. (Business as usual!)

Ken Dancyger & Jeff Rush – Alternative Scriptwriting

They propose a series of so called ‘tropes’, e.g.:

My first serious relationship.

An adventure that turns bad.

Leaving home.

Technology is a threat.

Lisa Dethridge – Writing your screenplay

Interesting stories can be found in our daily experiences, in myth and folklore, the anecdotes of friends, in newspapers and magazines, and in classic tales.

J.M. Evenson – Shakespeare for Screenwriters

Check out your local newspaper.

Take your three favorite movies and set them in a different time and place.

What was your favorite vacation? Use this place you as the setting for a story that could be told nowhere else.

Syd Field – Screenplay

“An idea, while essential, is nothing more than a vague notion. It has no detail, no depth, no dimension. You need a subject to embody and dramatize the idea. A subject is defined as an action and a character. An action is what the story is about, and a character is who the story is about.“

Guy Gallo – Screenwriter’s Compass

We can find stories in history, personal experience, old folk tales, obscure novels, .yesterday’s headlines, a single image or a thematic idea.

Jonathan Gottschall – The Storytelling Animal

Stories are almost always about people with problems.

Story = Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication.

Michael Hauge – Writing Screenplays That Sell

„I strongly recommend keeping a small notebook, a recorder, or a cell phone with a notepad feature with you at all times. Whenever you are confronted with a potential plot idea, character trait, or situation, write it down. The more you develop the habit of regarding all your experiences and all outside information as possible story material, the better you will ultimately be at “creating” story concepts.

Notice that you are not to find and record only good story ideas, but any possible ideas at all. This is the brainstorming phase of story concept, and you’re going for quantity, not quality.“

Claudia Hunter Johnson – Crafting short screenplays that connect

Bring two disparate ideas together -> ’homospatial thinking’.

Good ideas come from a deep place inside us: A passion, an obsession, an emotion, a person, an experience, an image, a perception, a principle.

Millard Kaufman – Plots and characters

See a lot of movies. The ones that inspire you, see them at least twice.

Stephen King – On Writing

“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.“

Lance Lee – A Poetics for Screenwriters

A story can come from a newspaper or magazine article, a news broadcast, a myth, the Bible, history, a biography, other stories or a daydream.

You may overhear someone talking of professional or private problems or you may be inspired to write an adaptation from a novel.

Alexander Mackendrick – On Film-Making

  1. Collecting Data
  2. Organising the Data
  3. Incubating the Material
  4. Preserving the Spark

Robert McKee – Story

There are four dimensions of a story: Period (story’s place in time), duration (a story’s length through time), location (story’s place in space), level of conflict (story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles).

Kenneth Portnoy – Screen Adaptation

Create a protagonist with a problem. Make the problem worse.

Find short stories that have possible dramatic potential.

Skip Press – The complete idiot’s guide to screenwriting

Read your local newspaper.

Dig up famous local stories.

Take an old film and parallel the plot in a new setting.

Blake Snyder – Save the Cat

Pick a drama, thriller, or horror film and turn it into a comedy and vice versa.

Name several pairs of people to be on opposite sides of a burning issue.

Futurelearn: Screenwriting

They propose the Five Finger pitch. In the pinky finger you’ll write the story genre. The ring finger will give us the somebody of our story. The middle finger is for the goal. The index finger describes the obstacles of our story. The thumb is for the reasons why you love the story and why it is different.

Since I am generally a big fan of Asian cinema, this week I would like you to discover the Asian world of storytelling. Don’t give up to fast, this has nothing to do with Hollywood.

Your turn!

1. Play the “What if …?” game: Put a character into an impossible situation.

2. Brainstorm ideas by applying the who-what-why-when-where-how scheme.

3. Watch trailers of films you haven’t seen yet.

4. Use Facebook and other social networks to reach out to people’s stories.

5. Open the newspaper and find an article upon which to base a story idea.

6. Find a character, which will take action to achieve something. Then he or she will meet with conflict. In the end there is a resolution and the story must mean something.

7. Name three places that an agent in the movies has never been sent to solve a crime.

8. Dig up a famous local story. Look it up in old editions at your library.

9. Mirror the plot of an old film into a new setting. Or take your three favorite movies and set them in a different time and place.

10. Check out all of your favorite folk tales, legends, myths, historical figures that have passed into the public domain. Would any of them make for a good screenplay?

11. A screenplay usually begins with a character, a situation, or an incident. Name three setups in three minutes!

12. Adapt a story from >The Bible<. Be inspired by the >Dekalog< of Krzysztof Kieslowski.

13. Almost anything can act to trigger lateral thinking—even a road sign reading ’Wrong Way’. Play with this idea.

14. Try brainstorming job ads and personal ads. Or just think of certain professions as a starting point: A lawyer with an unusual case.

15. Try throwing disparate ideas together and wait for a pattern to form. For instance, throw ‘love story’ together with a word picked at random from a dictionary.

16. Turn on the radio and take note of the first thing that is mentioned. Use it as the basis for either the start of a story or an entire story.

17. Try the Five Finger pitch as an improvisation game with friends (be fast!). Begin with the pinky finger. In there we’ll write the story genre. Then go on to the ring finger, which will give us the somebody of our story. Now, here on the middle finger, that’ll give us the “want something”, or goal. Now, the index finger will describe the obstacles or the “has trouble getting it” of our story. Finally the thumb covers the reasons why you love the story and the reasons why it’s different from all the other stories in the same genre.

Films to watch


Wong Kar-Wai

  • Chungking Express (1994) IMDB

Takeshi Kitano

Hirokazu Koreeda

  • After Life (1998) IMDB

Takashi Miike

  • The Bird People in China (1998) IMDB

Shumin Liu

  • The Familiy (2015) IMDB

Ye Lou

  • Suzhou River (2000) IMDB

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

  • Tropical Malady (2004) IMDB