Wood is an award-winning filmmaker at renegade Pictures. Today he’s going to discuss a topic as applicable to novels as it is to screenplays: how to develop an idea, and the importance of research to our writing and our creativity.
This post is one of the longer guest posts I’ve featured, but it’s well worth the read!
Recently I was faced with answering the question, “What is an idea?”
I was working with a first time writer, trying desperately to teach him about the formation of an idea. He told me he had tons of ideas and thought he could write movie scripts and make movies like crazy.
After a painful few weeks, I decided to show–not tell–this would-be writer what an idea really looks like. Here’s what I did and said.
“What you call an idea is really just the spark that may light the fire of an idea. Give me ten minutes and I can give you thirty ideas,” I told him. “All these ideas will also be just sparks. It’s what I do next that creates the idea.
“I take out a yellow legal pad and begin writing what I know about things that surround the spark. With this I start to dig around on the Internet, in books, maybe magazines. Even talk radio shows.
“I look for experts who know things about what I’m thinking about. I’m drawing correlations.
“For example, when I was writing a film called rfi I needed to know more about real pollution disasters.”
rfi was originally about what high power lines, cell tower transmission locations, low frequency transmissions like those used to communicate with submarines and the like, are doing to us. My research led me to an in-depth study of what happened at Love Canal, New York.
“I was stunned by the tragedy and found some moms from that time that had started an organization called ‘Center for Health, Environment & Justice.’ I contacted them about my film idea and was given a lot of information that was extremely useful.”
About now my student was glazing over, so I said, “Now stay with me here. This led me to the military ELF sub communications secret project and what ELF might do to people.
“I also learned about the HAARP (The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) project in Alaska. Now HAARP was a real place, so with a skip and a jump I ran into something called ‘The Montauk Project.’
“Now I was looking at mind control, reality bending, and possible deadly weapons that could be used at a distance to fry a guys brain. The public didn’t know anything about all this.
“This material was rich, and after listening to a radio interview featuring Dr. Nick Begich about HAARP, reading a few books, and poring through the collection of photographs of the abandoned Montauk Air Force Base, I had a box of material: background, notes, and a reality (be it true or not) that gave my spark life.
“An idea was born! This idea, now well documented, was the foundation for the creation of rfi.”
Then I pulled out a two inch thick plastic box full of those bits and pieces so he could see exactly what I was talking about.
I continued, “Here is a bit of what the film is about: People in a small town are dying at the hands of someone – or something – unknown. Somewhere in upstate New York, a janitor is holding a gun to his head for reasons he can’t fathom.
“In ways none of these people understand, they are connected through a plot that threatens human life and human freedom around the world.
“In Pilot Grove, Kansas, residents and even casual visitors are perishing mysteriously and sometimes brutally. The nature of some of the deaths, along with strange events experienced by the still-living members of the community, suggests a malign extraterrestrial cause.
“However, signs also point to a more earthbound source. Could the fatalities be accidents resulting from exposure to extremely low frequency radio waves from a government project uncovered in the area?
“Or could they be the consequences of high levels of radiation from the generation and microwave facilities that are parts of a private power and communications project?
“Now I have a tale of courage with a love story wrapped in layers of mystery; rfi delves into the struggle between the constructive human need to understand the dangers that confront us and the destructive, but equally human desire for absolute power.
“It’s a story uniquely suited to today’s world where we face real threats, not only from those who would destroy us but also from those who would control us for our own good.”
I said, “The log line for the film reads: Two amnesiacs, a UFO investigator and a brain-damaged computer consultant uncover a plot to unleash a deadly mind-control weapon on the world.”
With this I could tell my student was totally lost. He was confused by all this “stuff” I’d collected and he just wanted to get on and write his movie. I gave up.
In the end so did he. He finally realized after creating a 73 page script that had the conflict ending on page 37 that he didn’t have a clue what he was doing.
An idea begins with a spark, “What if…” followed by an exploration into that what if to see if there really is any story there.
Once enough research and fact-finding has been done, I should be able to write in one page what the story is all about. The idea born! Something built on solid ground and ready for developing into a full blow screenplay, novel, TV series, or what ever I need.
I have something I can share with others that either will engender excitement or cat calls. Either way, it is specific enough for a proposal to a producer or book publisher.
Write down every spark that comes your way. I keep a little notebook with me or use my iPhone or iPad. Take the sparks that interest you and develop them into an idea with background support and a foundation.
Sometimes this can happen really fast, and other times you may fight with that spark for years until you get it right. Just don’t confuse the spark with the real deal.
The sparks can come easily but writing is a craft. One that’s learned over time with training and practice just like any other craft. No shortcuts here.
I really love Wood’s emphasis on the importance of research and making sure your ideas are strong enough to carry the story you need them to carry.