Monday, September 22, 2008

The Write Idea Redux

I posted this a while back but have re-written it and added a bit.

You would really like to write a novel, a short story, a play or something but are really not sure where to start or how to go about it. Well, there are endless "How To" books and some great College Courses you could take to get you started. Some of the books and the classes will have you sit down with a piece of paper and just start writing. Others may have you write a detailed outline before you start. The bottom line is there are countless ways you can learn about writing and the creative process. But one of the first things you need before you sit down and write, or even outline, is an idea.

What's The Big Idea

For example; In order to write on this subject, I had an idea. You see, I write Murder mystery plays and many times, after the productions, people have come up to me and asked questions such as:
"Where do you get your ideas?"
"How did you come up with that?"
Each time I hear those questions, I try to provide an easy answer, but the truth is, I really don't know how to explain it in an easy way. In the simplest terms, I get ideas and they become stories or plays. But to really explain the whole creative process of how an idea pops in my head, the transformation it goes through until it makes it onto paper, would take a while.

Over the years, the more that people asked me about my ideas, the more I was forced to actually think about the ideas and the process I go through. I've thought about the "where I get ideas" and the "how I get ideas" and the deeper I thought about it, I realized there are probably an infinite number of answers, just as there are an infinite number of "How To" books and methods learning to be creative and get ideas.

I also noticed that the same people who posed the "where do you get your ideas?" question, would inevitably go on to tell me about an idea they had for a story or a play, so it was clear they were able to get ideas, in much the same way I did. I also noticed that most of the time the questions turn from the "creative" to the "technical". The question "where do you get your ideas?" was really an icebreaker that leads to:
"Do you write in morning or the evening?"
"Do you use a pencil and paper or a computer?" If I used a pencil was it a Number 2 or did I prefer a pen.
"What kind of pen?" If I used the computer, "what software did I use and which is best?"
I believe every person who starts out writing is eager to know how other writers write. I confess that I asked those same questions and read every book I could on creative writing. You see, writers who are start out , want to know if they are doing it right. I can tell you, after asking all of the usual questions and reading most of the books, and you may have heard this before: there is no "right way". You simply need to try different methods and find the one you in which you are most comfortable.

I find that writing in the early morning is the best time for me. My brain is not overloaded with the crap of the day. My thoughts are just waking up and are still tainted in dream like state. I'm not thinking about what a lousy day I had at work and the rude guy that cut me off on the highway or that my lunch was dreadful. But maybe the end of the day works for other people when all the events of the day provide a catalyst for their creative process.

I've read that Marcel Proust had a padded sound proof room that he locked himself away in to write. He has issues with outside interference such as people or sounds. He needed it quiet to remember all things past. On the flip side, I read that Charles Dickens was the complete opposite. If there were a dinner party going on at his home, he would simply bring his writing table out into the room and continue to work in the the midst of the party. Two great writers, but two completely separate styles. Again this proves the point, that there is no right way.

On the technical side, I use computer to write most of the time. I don't have a particular brand of software that I use, I've used plain old Notepad and Wordpad. Sometimes I use a pen and whatever I can find to write upon. These writing methods are the habits I have developed and that I am comfortable with. Whatever method you develop will become your habit. The possibilities are endless, however, the basic stories you can come up with are not endless. Only the way you tell it.

What Do You Mean?

As far as ideas for stories or plays, it has been proposed that there are a limited number of plots or formulas that a writer has to choose from. Every book, play, movie etc.. is just a variation of those basic plots. As an example, Murder Mystery: someone gets murdered and someone figures out who did it. Pretty straight forward.

Other genres such as romance has the standard boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. And there's the "Hero's journey" where a common person is suddenly thrust into some type of adventure where maybe he or she has to travel a great distance, over land, sea or even within to overcome an obstacle, solve some problem or defeat a force such as evil. Most fantasy/ adventure books and movies use the hero's journey as it's core: Star Wars, Lord of The Rings, Rambo etc...

So when someone asks, "Where do you get your ideas?" it's pretty safe to say, I get them from the formulas that all ready exist. The trick is taking those ideas and create a variation that is so unique, people won't recognize it right away. An idea is in essence, a method to reinvent a story that has all ready been told. It like taking a cliche and wording it so that it sounds brand new. You can bring your horse over to the creek. But if he's not very thirsty, odds are he will will just look at the water.

Song Remains The Same

I thought about this the other night as they were promoting the new season of "Lost". I made a joke by saying, "I liked this show the first time, when it was called 'Gilligan's Island'". Granted, Lost and Gilligan's Island are completely different TV shows but the basic formula is the same. Take a bunch of different character types, put them through a catastrophic event: ship wreck/plane wreck, throw them onto an island that's cut off from the rest of the world and watch how they interact.

Disaster movies use the same basic formula of throwing different "types" together and have them work toward a common goal which is survival. To make the plot interesting you must have "Conflict". Conflict -which is the 'stuff' that moves the story along and makes it interesting, will come from the different characters as they work toward something. One character want to solve a problem this way, while another wants to do it that way. Conflicting types of characters make it interesting. The Captain and his first mate. A Millionaire and his wife. A movie star. The Professor and Mary Anne...etc.. A key ingredient of any good story is having different types of characters who will interact, clash and argue. If seven people who were all passive vegetarians were shipwrecked on an island, it would get dull after 5 minutes. They may fight over the last coconut but that's about it. Throw in an aggressive meat eater and you create conflict. The conflict is the substance you use to hide the bare fact that the plot has been used a million times.

Building ideas Outside the Building

So, I maintain that the key to creative writing isn't so much in your idea but how you present it. Here is an example of my spin on the murder mystery formula:

I wrote a play called "I'm Getting Murdered In The Morning" and the setting was a wedding reception. I got the idea when I was at a friends wedding reception. I wrote another mystery play called "Stay As Dead As You Are" that was set at a High School Reunion. Any guesses where I got that idea? Ideas are easy.

My Process

For most of the murder mystery plays I write, I get an idea for the "setting" first. The setting can be also thought of as - a plot of land in which I'm going to build a house. The play is my house and I need somewhere to build it: a wedding reception, a corporate meeting, a talk show and so on. Next I need to fill the house with characters. I ask myself what kind of characters would be in this house or setting? For example, a wedding reception of course would have the bride and groom, the best man and maid of honor and so forth. Since it will be a murder mystery play, someone will have to be murdered and someone will figure it out. In this case, my A to B to C is pretty much laid out in advance. My goal is to take the standard formula of a murder mystery and the stock characters that you would find in these settings and shake them into something different so it becomes creative. I need to reword the cliche.

Anyway, while I was at the "real" wedding reception, which was held in a large banquet hall that had 4 or 5 other reception rooms and on this particular night, there were at least 3 or 4 other receptions going on at the same time, I had noticed a funny thing. As you may know, some people at wedding receptions tend to consume various beverages that impair their judgment and if you're impaired and chances of getting lost and ending up in an wrong room at a different reception are very good. This was the funny thing I kept noticing. People at the "Smith Reception" ended up in the "Jones Reception" etc.. So, while the basic idea of Wedding Reception murder mystery entered my mind, so did this idea of people wandering around, getting lost and ending up in the wrong rooms.

Rewording the Cliche

In the script, I had various odd characters walking into the play and realizing they were at the wrong place. I took this idea all the way down to the final "who-done-it payoff at the end. If someone at a large facility could wind up mistaking one room and one reception for the other, why couldn't a murderer mistake one room and one person for another? So at the traditional ending, where we discover the murderer's motive, which are traditionally things such as greed, lust or revenge, the killer in my script admits it was a mistake. Wrong room, wrong person. While I stuck with the basic formula, some one gets murdered and someone does it, I changed up the 'resolution' to make it different.

So the essential answer the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" would be, I take standard formulas and rework them into something that appears different. But then the question that would follow, or at least one I would ask is, how do you do that? How do you take something that has been done a million times and get a an idea on how to mold into something that appears brand new?

Stuck in the Muck

To that question, I will use a old cliche and that is "free your mind". I will explain, a good friend of mine reads every vampire book that comes out. Is a fan of every TV show and movie related to Vampires. He knows all you can know about the subject. He writes stories and screenplays all about vampires, which is fine because right now, there is a huge market for vampire related stuff. Problem is, he knows nothing else. His mind is totally and utterly locked into the Vampire genre. In the vampire genre of story-telling, since there are so many stories, movies etc.. all the really good "spins" are being taken and beaten into the ground. Since that is all he reads and watches, his chances for creating something new are getting smaller and smaller every day.

So what should he do? Simple. Read or watch something other than vampire related material. Something completely 180 degrees the other way. Why? Because new inventive ideas are applied to all genres: drama, comedies, action adventure, romance, sci-fi and so forth. As strange as it may sound, even though I write murder mysteries, I do not read or watch any murder mystery related materials.

Long ago, I have learned to open the creative side of my mind up to all possible sources of input. I became a fan of everything. I rarely watch prime time television or mainstream movies. Instead I watch old foreign films: French, Italian, Swedish, Japanese etc.. New foreign films. Documentaries. I don't listen to popular music. I listen to classical, Jazz, Blues, World Beat, Alternative, experimental.

The basic idea is to absorb everything that is out there. Because everything that is out there is doing the same thing and that is taking cliche idea and reinventing them into something different. Being open to all forms of stories, films, music, whatever, opens you creative channels to new and different possibilities.

Same Old Song and Dance

I remember enjoying the movie "The Magnificent Seven" when I was a kid. I took a film course in college and saw the Akira Kurosawa film, "Shichinin No Samurai" (Seven Samurai) and realized that the "Magnificent Seven" was actually remake of that film. I went on to learn that another Kurosawa film called "Yojimbo" was re-made 3 years later as an "Spagetthi Western" called "Per Un Pugno Di Dollari" or "A FistFul Of Dollars" with Clint Eastwood. And then in 1996, it was re-made yet again as "Last Man Standing".
The funny thing about this, is that the original story of "Yojimbo" was taken from a novel called "Red Harvest" by Dashiell Hammett.
So, here is a case where an old detective novel was read by a great Japanese Film maker who reworked the basic idea into a Samurai film. Granted, Kurosawa has made many Samurai films, but the point is the source for this film had nothing to do with Samurai material.
Seven Samurai was seen by another great film maker from Italy named Sergio Leone. Leone reworked the Samurai idea into a Western. Eventually, the American director Walter Hill reworked the Western idea into a gangster movie.
The same idea, spun three different ways into something new. If Akira Kurosawa hadn't opened himself to other ideas or literature beyond his Japanese heritage and found an American Crime Novel called "Red Harvest" , "Yojimbo" would never had been born. And if Sergio Leone had only stuck with traditional Italian cinema, he never would have seen "Yojimbo" and we may never have heard the term "Spagetthi Western".


Michael Babbish said...

I too am a playwright that specializes in the murder mystery genre. I've learned that plays are not only written, but built through trial and error.

I focus on the characters when I begin a new piece. My style of murder mysteries are about 70% scripted and 30% improv, so having a strong character that can interact with the audience is essential.

I believe that a strong character is bound to create a good plot. It is always interesting to hear other writers' habits and techniques.

Lee Mueller said...

Thanks for the feedback Michael, I must admit that I have too built a plot around characters. I have created them, put them in a situation and just let them go. It gets to a point where it's as if I am not the writer anymore but just an observer. It's also worth pointing out that - at least for me - I can clearly see a character in my mind, but hand it over to an actor and watch them take it in a new direction I had never imagined.