Where do Ideas Come From?

Posted by on May 1, 2014 in Blog


With a zillion thoughts streaming continuously through our minds, what makes us latch on to a singular thought and say, “Ooh, this will make a great story!” Obviously, ideas come from many places, but I’ll focus on three:

1. High concept ideas
2. Ideas based on existing material
3. Ideas from our subconscious

I won’t assume that everyone reading this blog knows what ‘high concept’ is, so, I’ll define it as an idea, usually in a brief sentence or phrase, that is structured to sell itself. What do I mean by sell itself? Well, consider this:

It’s “Jaws” meets “Twister”.

Now, pitching this idea to someone assumes, of course, that they have seen both films. And if you have, you can immediately imagine in your mind’s eye what such a film might look like. (The idea refers to Sharknado FYI.) You might then become fascinated by what you just heard. Or maybe not. The point being, high concept ideas are designed to cut to the chase, get someone excited about the possibilities of making millions on such a great idea, and have them cut you a check to go off and write the story. Coming up with high concept ideas is good practice, btw, because it helps one to distill whether or not a kernel of an idea is interesting enough to develop further.

Other ideas come from existing material: novels, short stories, plays, newspaper articles, blogs, YouTube videos, etc. And if you think this is cheating, sort of like piggy backing on someone else’s heavy lifting, just remember that most of The Bard of Avon’s immortal plays were based on other material. The truth is that great storytellers, since the dawn of man, used original material as a jumping off point, before riffing onward and making it their own. An excellent example of this is in the original art form of Jazz. Here we have “The Great American Songbook,” a collection of show and pop tunes, some famous in their own right, some long forgotten, all adapted and immortalized as jazz standards. So, there’s Charlie Parker’s rendition of April in Paris, which is now more famous than what was sung in a 1932 Broadway musical. As for film, of course there are the Godfather movies, based on the novel by Mario Puzo. And then there is Adaptation. The film’s screenplay was adapted by Charlie Kaufman from a book about orchids, which itself was adapted from a New Yorker article. “Adaptation” takes the concept of adapting original material to the extreme, but it’s a great example of riffing on an idea from existing material, and turning that material into something new. Here at The Bridge, one of the projects we are working on is an adaptation of a science fiction novel, but the direction we are taking the story is very different from the original. More on that in a later blog.

And then there are the ideas that come from our subconscious: our thoughts, dreams, hopes and fears. We like to imagine that we come up with the most amazing and original ideas, and that if we put one of them down on paper, in Final Draft, or simply tell it verbally, others will marvel at our genius. This is silly, of course, because as the saying goes, “ideas are a dime a dozen.” We have a million thoughts streaming through our minds every day, all part of the collective unconsciousness of the history of the human race. Many of these thoughts are internalized, deep in our psyche, perhaps even fused into our DNA. A woman with anxiety learns through therapy that her mother had the same fears. Alcoholism is oftentimes passed down through family generations – just a coincidence? The idea that one is superior to others… or inferior…. Where do we get these thoughts from, really? They’re passed to us generationally, culturally, historically, and most are not original. Is the concept of slavery original? How about the fantasy of traveling to the stars? Or a quest to a strange land that ultimately makes a man a king, or a woman a queen? Or falling in love with your best friend’s husband? And yes, occasionally someone – those few individuals we call geniuses – figures out how to create something truly original. The rest of us, well, we have to rely on craft.

Because it is craft (the ability to create something skillfully using ones hands—in this case writing) that makes it okay that our thoughts are not original. Craft is something we can all perfect, if we work hard at it, and the craft of great storytelling demands a very long apprenticeship. A story is not great because of its idea, but because of how the storyteller shapes it from her own viewpoint of the world. And so, trust that that great idea you just thought up is probably not very original, but if you stay with it, craft it, you just might end with a story that astounds through the ages.

And so, how do we take our ideas and craft them into… Just what do we craft them into? Before we get into that, I suggest starting simply, by writing an idea down as one sentence.

A story about two women who used to be best friends, but are now arch rivals, who accidentally end up in the same cooking class.

The above idea is from a dream I had last night, hazy at best, all gumbo-ed up, probably because of the movie I watched–Francis Ha which I loved–as well as the current screenplay I’ve been working on (forever it seems), and the anxiety around whether or not I can get the script to work. I woke up in the middle of the night, having just dreamed this fledgling idea. Were the women at odds with each other? I don’t remember. But I immediately, instinctively, made it more dramatic by imagining them at odds; perhaps they had been best friends at some point (A riff off “France Ha”). And so I grabbed my phone and texted the above sentence to myself.

Is it a good idea? Who knows? It doesn’t really matter; I have hundreds of such sentences, and most die on the vine. Perhaps this one will too. But I am thinking as I write this that it might make sense to try to develop the above idea, just for kicks, through this blog. Maybe someone will get something out of it. Hell, maybe I’ll get something out of it and end up with a decent story. So, from time to time, in future blogs, we’ll revisit the above idea, perhaps shape it up a bit and see if it will develop a life of its own. And if you’re like most of us, you too come up with these ideas all the time.

So, do you have an idea? Write it down. One sentence.

Later we will talk about the hard part, which is also when the fun begins: crafting the idea into a dramatic story, one worthy of the telling.