Where do you get your ideas?
This is a question filmmakers are often asked. And it's a valid one. If audiences see a film that moves or inspires them in some way, they want to know the backstory. They want to pull back the curtain on the process to learn something about the filmmaker, about the process in general, and maybe a little bit about themselves and humanity.
Answering the question can be difficult, however, because inspiration comes in many different ways and takes on many different forms. When it comes to tackling the question, I can only speak for what has worked for me on my own short film projects. So, if you're interested in writing a screenplay, whether for a short or feature, here are a few tips on how to get the creative juices flowing.
Inspiration is everywhere. You have to be open to it.
This is a mindset you have to develop if you want to do anything creative - writing, painting, photography, etc. You have to be observant to the world around you. Get outside of your own personal circle. Put down your smartphone. Learn to watch, listen, and observe everything that doesn't directly affect you. Got it? Good. Next...
Keep a notebook for jotting down anything.
Moleskine notebooks are my preference, but whatever you select, maintain some kind of creator's notebook where you can jot down anything like bits of dialogue, scenes, situations, random thoughts, etc. I've written before about the importance of keeping a notebook, even if you don't use those ideas right away. It quickly becomes a repository that you can visit later, reviewing old ones and perhaps re-mixing them with something new. There's great value in physically writing things down, but if you need something digital, use Evernote. It's a great tool for getting your ideas organized. It also syncs across all your devices and everything you enter becomes searchable, making retrieval of old ideas quick and easy.
Write from your own experiences.
Everyone has a story. Think back on your own life experiences. Is there anything that happened to you that might be a good jumping off point for a script?
Keep a dream journal.
Dreams can be absolutely crazy and non-sensical, but they may be a good source for material. "But I never remember my dreams!" Try this: After waking up, but before getting out of bed, relax and let your mind wander for a few minutes. You'll be surprised to find out that you can remember more about your dreams than you first thought. When you're up and getting ready for the day, your brain is focused on those tasks, not on the dreams. That's when you tend to forget them.
Watch other films.
What genres do you like? What type of story would you like to tell? With these answers in mind, start watching other films that fit within that mold. See what works well and what doesn't. Are there any themes found within these works that you would like to expand upon? Any narrative structure you would like to try? When you're first starting out, you will often imitate what you know. The more you develop your skills you will take these ideas from other sources and re-mix them and make them into something completely different.
Listen to people as they talk with each other. What kinds of stories do they tell? How do the listeners respond? People that know how to tell a good story are engaging and fun to be around. Why? Use these moments as inspiration for your own plots and story structures.
Also, listen to music. Sometimes a certain melody will spark an emotion. Sometimes a specific lyric will make you think of a time or a place, or maybe a relationship or a conflict.
Whether it's jogging, hiking, cycling, or something else entirely, physical activity is a great way to generate ideas.
This one comes from an article I read a few years ago in which Lorne Michaels talks about how the grueling and tiring schedule at Saturday Night Live actually helps the writers come up with great ideas. And there's scientific research to back up the claim. Go read it for yourself. It's very interesting.
Finally, just start writing.
Discipline yourself to spend 15-20 minutes just writing things down in your notebook. It doesn't matter what it is. Talk about your day, your anxieties, what makes you happy or sad, your fears, your relationships, anything. The point is this: put pen to paper and put it all on the page.
Hopefully these ideas will help you as you try to find the next big idea for a great new screenplay. If you have anything to add, please share it in the Comments section.