Tips for Brainstorming — or Why I Don’t Believe in Writer’s Block
Besides being one of our friendly STC! Forum moderators, Mike Rinaldi completed the prestigious Act One writing program and has consequently been mentored by some of Hollywood’s top writers and directors. He’s done production work on five feature films as well as commercials and a music video, working with talent including Jessica Biel, Ingrid Michaelson, and Randy Travis. Mike is currently a script doctor and screenwriter developing feature films and web series as well as several original projects. In between he manages to make time to write freelance entertainment and theology articles for publication and ghost writes for standup comedian ____ _______.
In one of my favorite books, Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas, the U2 singer tells a story from his youth of unfairly getting into trouble for sarcasm. His school teacher spoke of a time when the poet William Butler Yeats suffered terrible writers block, unable to write a word. Young Bono sincerely asked, “Well, why didn’t he write about that?”
Professional screenwriters don’t have the luxury of waiting for the elusive muse. If you’re employed to write, you’re probably contracted to meet your deadline whether you feel inspired or not. You want to tell a compelling story and creativity often doesn’t arrive when the muse has the accuracy of my neighborhood’s substitute postman.
Here are some tips for cracking your story and maintaining productivity during scheduled writing hours:
1. Free Writing. I did this in junior high English and hated it. But I rediscovered free writing in the Act One program and found that continuous writing does exercise the right side of your brain. Write about anything or everything. Give yourself a topic if that helps. Who am I to criticize Yeats’ work ethic, but the aggravation of so-called writer’s block for a poet seems like a topic for endless exposition. Schedule yourself a minimum of 10 to 15 minutes of free writing as a warm-up before you work. The key is to not stop writing and free your mind to wander.
2. Write, Don’t Type. Typing is a left-brained activity. Handwriting stimulates your creative side. If you’re an organizationally minded person, you can always retype your brainstorming lists later. This goes for free writing and brainstorming.
3. Set a Timer. This accomplishes two goals: to make sure you don’t stop working until your time is up and also enabling you to ignore your clock. Watching the clock, thinking about your schedule, are left-brain activities that preoccupy your mind. To work effectively in a creative space, do your best to eliminate distractions.
4. Don’t Edit Yet! Editing and quality control are left-brained pursuits. The first objective in brainstorming is quantity. Don’t dismiss any idea because even the bad ideas serve a useful purpose as you’ll read below. You’ll sift and organize your list later.
5. Forecast Audience Expectations. Hopefully, you have at minimum a hook or logline in mind for your screenplay. A good logline instills expectations and you can predict reasonable expectations the audience might have of your film based on the concept. In a time travel movie, it’s reasonable to expect different time periods or alternate realities as well as an event that alters history or endangers the existence of the time traveler. Any reasonable audience expectation must be met or exceeded. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl delivers on all the Ps of a pirate movie: peg leg, patch, plank, plunder, and parrot. The parrot expectation is exceeded because the writers gave the villain a cursed monkey, which is way cooler than a parrot! A Star Wars sequel that doesn’t include a lightsaber duel would defeat expectations. Deliver foreseeable expectations and don’t let down your audience.
6. Trailer Moments. Try to visualize the trailer for your movie. Now imagine it even more exciting! Make it the Old Spice Guy of movie trailers. Now your movie has abs! Now its abs have abs! Now it’s on a horse! Push yourself to visualize the set pieces and hear the quotable catch phrases and add them to your list! In his book, The Comic Toolbox, John Vorhaus includes many brilliant brainstorming exercises. Writer/producer Dean Batali (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, That ‘70s Show) recommended this book to me and I put it off for two years because comedy is my strength. One of my friends put it off because she writes drama, not comedy. Had we known this book wasn’t just about comedy and was really tools for structure and writing conflict and irony, we would have read it immediately. Read the book and be sure to do all of Vorhaus’ exercises!
7. List What Doesn’t Work! You don’t only want the good ideas, you want the bad ideas too. Once I’m satisfied with the number of pages I filled, I list everything in three categories: my A list, my B list, and my F list. The great ideas, so-so ideas, and horrible ideas. The A list is ideas that feel unique, creative, not overused. The B list is traditional conventions of the genre I consider unimaginative or possibly overused. After all, I want to write a new twist on the familiar that we’ve not seen before! The F list is elements that are clichéd or just plain stupid. And this is often my most useful list. A bad idea usually won’t work for a specific reason… and that reason usually has an opposite. Identify that opposite! Sometimes the opposite of a bad idea turns out to be the creative solution I’m looking for! “The enemy of your enemy is your friend.” Why doesn’t the race to the airport satisfy us in a rom-com? It’s clichéd. But does it suddenly work if an astronaut must get back to Earth to win the woman he loves? You bet it does! Race to the spaceport, baby!
8. Examine Your Theme From Every Angle. Have you considered ways your theme manifests in different scenes? How do your supporting characters wrestle with the theme? In the movie Doubt, the theme is more than doubting the guilt or innocence of the priest. The priest doubts if the nun is bluffing. One of the nuns doubts the integrity of her sister. Another nun doubts her faith in God. How do your characters interact with the theme differently and what new plot points result?
9. Mental Mapping and Inspiration. To make your time productive, list everything that inspires you to write your story. Favorite movies, particular songs, a life experience, etc. Make a soundtrack for your screenplay and listen to it while you work. Writing quirky, offbeat comedy? Listen to Barenaked Ladies or They Might Be Giants. When I write action/comedy, I listen to Cake. Inspired by your high school football games and fondly remember the aroma of pear blossoms blooming near the field on cool October nights? Put pear blossoms on your desk. This is called mental mapping and it works like a bookmark for the right side of your brain, enabling you to return to that creative head space right where you left off.
10. Push Yourself to Fill Two More Pages! Try not to fall out of your chair, but I used to be in amazing shape. As recently as 15 years ago, I didn’t own a car, so I bicycled to school and to each of my three jobs, and to the gym. I bicycled between 50 and 100 miles each week and bench pressed twice my weight. (I don’t look like that now because I’m gaining weight for a role: Onlooker #4.) I found a consistent difference between the guys who were at the gym to look cool or meet girls and the guys who were there to get stronger and build muscle. The difference was the cool guys didn’t really use their spotter. If you really want to build muscle, you don’t stop pumping iron when it gets too heavy to complete the rep easily. Use your spotter. It’s called “working to failure” when you can’t get the barbell all the way up and your spotter has to help you. Don’t stop yet. Push through the burn and do two or three more reps that require your spotter to pull the weight up. That’s where the real work is done!
The same goes for brainstorming. I began work on a feature western by brainstorming a list of traditional western conventions. In my notebook I wrote down every image, cliché, character, and motif I could think of that might be found in the classic westerns. Six pages! The first three pages were easy and often mundane: bank robbery, runaway stagecoach, poker cheat, a pretty schoolmarm, etc. I filled two pages in mere minutes. Page three took longer. Page four was real work and once I filled it, I actually started to think I was done. But I realized the elements of a good western were still ahead of me and I had to push further. It took some time to fill pages five and six. I brainstormed story gold — a shameful town secret — as well as a few yawns, such as raping sheep. Now that I look again, that must have been roping sheep. Hey, you work late into the night and see if your handwriting doesn’t become indiscernible.
11. Mix and Match Your Ideas. Work the clichés to your advantage and turn them upside down, putting a new twist on familiar ideas, delighting your audience! When I was a kid, I had a superhero mix and match book that worked like a flip chart. You could combine Batman’s torso with Aquaman’s legs and it was funny. Combine Superman’s torso with Wonder Woman’s legs and frankly, I found that a bit confusing as a young boy. The point is to mix and match and achieve a fresh comic perspective or ironic contrast. Desperado avenging his father’s death? Seen it. Avenging his brother’s death? Seen it. Accountant avenging his client’s death because the deceased has a really cute sister? Haven’t seen that one! Combine tired ideas to find a new combination. Wonderful tools were included in Blake’s third book, like the T-Bar. If you’ve only read Blake’s first two books, order Save the Cat!® Strikes Back and equip yourself for productive brainstorming and screenwriting success!