“Make movies not meetings” and “Be prolific” are the advice that we’re getting from prominent indie filmmakers like Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers. But how do you do that if you don’t have a story to tell?
Writer’s block is the greatest hinderance to filmmaking. And, unfortunately, I’m not of the party that can just grab a camera and shoot something. I like to have a plan.
So here are the components of my writer’s block prevention strategy. These are tips I’ve collected from screenwriting classes, books on the subject, and even interviews about the inspiration behind movies I appreciate.
1. Draw from personal experience.
I’ve been told by writing professors to “tell the story only you can tell.” This is probably the best advice out there when it comes to writing, simply because personal stories have a spark to them that pure fabrication often lacks. When you’re drawing from personal experience, you’re already intimately familiar with the story’s emotional arc. This makes believability so much easier to achieve.
There’s also the fact that there are stories out there that you just can’t make up. Mark Twain said that truth is stranger than fiction because the truth isn’t obliged to stick to possibilities. What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you? What’s something that’s changed you? You might just find the beginning of a story by answering these questions.
2. Retell a story you love.
The next best thing to telling your own story is retelling one that you love. And no, I’m not encouraging plagiarism.
The truth is, there are no original stories left to tell. There are just new ways to tell that story.
A professor who works as a producer in Hollywood once told my class that as soon as you make a big hit in the indie world, studios will offer you a directing gig to reboot old content. Maybe that’s why Marc Webb did The Amazing Spider-Man after 500 Days of Summer, who knows. Anyway, from a business perspective, reboots make sense because it’s hard to screw them up at the box office. The movie might be unimaginative and unnecessary (ahem, The Amazing Spider-Man), but there will definitely be a paying audience.
From the creative perspective, every story has a variety of vantage points. You can tell them over and over with a unique lens. That’s why we have so many renditions of Batman and movies like Tangled and Maleficent.
But wait a minute, what about copyright issues? Yes, copyright is definitely something to worry about and often expensive to purchase. If you can’t get clearance to use existing characters and intellectual property, you can tweak significant elements of a story (names, setting, period, etc.) to differentiate from the original source material.
After all, isn’t Avatar just Pocahontas in space?
3. People watch.
Once I missed my stop on the Metra. While I was waiting for my ride, an old man jogged by me. He looked to be in his 60’s and had long rocker hair tied in a low pony tail. Tattoos colored his arms and legs and his sneakers were bright orange, matching his neon safety vest. The sight of him drew my interest, so I immediately wrote down his description on my note app. Why was he running? What did all of his tattoos mean? Why did he wear his hair so long?
If I took the time to come up with fictitious explanations for all these questions, I’d have myself the beginning of a character outline.
There are interesting things happening all around us– actual events, conversations, or simply the way a person dresses. If you can get over the creepiness of people-watching and eavesdropping, you might find some leads for a story in everyday settings.
4. Create an ironic situation.
Conflict is the foundation to every good plot. A reliable way to conjure up conflict is through irony– according to Google’s definition, that’s “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.”
If your protagonist is a cat person, get her stuck working at a dog kennel. If your setting is a beach, tell a story about Santa on vacation. (Okay that’s a horrible suggestion, don’t write that.)
The point is, irony is extremely effective at winning the interest of an audience. The unexpected and contrary nature of this device generates curiosity, so your audience will be asking the important questions of how and why much sooner into the story.
5. Ask a philosophical question.
Philosophical questions plague us all from time to time. They are moral, existential and seemingly always unanswerable. That last quality is what makes them good fuel for story material.
You see, entertainment doesn’t always come in the form of explosions and dramatic romance. It’s also intellectual stimulation. A story that sparks discussions on grey matters are just as important (if not more) than an Avengers movie.
The one thing to avoid is being heavy-handed. I’ve definitely fallen into this trap in past films, so that’s partly why this tip is listed last. If the theme becomes more important than the plot, you may end up with a story that’s half-baked and too on-the-nose.
Making a movie takes no small effort, so your story better be worth the trouble to tell in this medium. In the end, any story can be worth telling if it’s told in the right way. One of the best ways to develop your storytelling skills, though, is by continually consuming them and honing your taste. An inspiring talk from Ira Glass describes this phenomenon as a “gap.” He says that creatives often begin doing their work because they have fantastic taste. However, making something that matches that standard doesn’t happen overnight. But it will happen if you keep working at it.