James Napoli

You Will Never Run Out Of Screenwriting Ideas If You Keep Killing Them

You Will Never Run Out Of Screenwriting Ideas If You Keep Killing Them
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At some point early in the creation of their screenplays, students I work with need to share their loglines with their fellow screenwriters, and very often the air of unease about this process is palpable. Not so much because these authors are nervous about having written a poor logline, but because once the idea is out there, everyone will know what it is! It’s a deep-seated fear, this nerve-wracking feeling that putting one’s premise into the universe will mean that anyone can then grab it, shape it, mold it into something for their own creative purposes. Often informed by the reputation of Hollywood as a veritable confluence of appropriators fueled by creative people’s general worry about making their inspiration available to strangers, there is yet another layer to the lack of conviction screenwriters can have when it comes to holding tightly to their concepts.

This other layer of insecurity is revealed again in the teaching process when it comes time to go back into a first draft and gut it, revisit as many approaches to the scene writing as one can, and fashion a new entity from what is often delightfully referred to as the vomit draft. Here again, writers will balk. A reluctance to change what they have painstakingly plotted over several months’ time kicks in, and the suggestion that alterations or improvements can be made brings out their defensiveness.

What’s going on underneath all this? After years of encountering these worries in my own process, and now experiencing them through many years of teaching, I was led to an understanding of what was getting under the skin of script writers when, during a notes session with a student, I spontaneously blurted out a truism that never failed to elicit a sigh of relief:

You are never going to run out of ideas.

Even if you have, what you believe is a stellar idea, kill it. That’s right. Move it to the delete folder. Then move it the later folder. The act of your perceived loss will spawn a dozen other ideas. Ideas that would never have been considered if you attached yourself to the hip of your single idea. Kill one idea and many others will be born.

You are entering the most collaborative medium in history. So, the screenplay that won you the competition and got you the agent and eventually got made as a feature film turned out to be the diametric opposite of the one you wrote—so what? You got a foot in the door, and you’ve got plenty more where that came from. Some scripts will be able to line up with every intent you had going into writing them, others will evolve in ways you cannot afford to qualify as good or bad. A screenplay is a blueprint, so goes the oft-repeated adage, and it exists to inspire others to turn it into something visual.  You may be unhappy with the result of that inspiration or you may feel they got it just right. Either way, you are amassing a body of work: keep creating. You win by staying creative—a life choice very few people actually make. You’re already in an exclusive club, just by giving voice to your muses.  

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Allow me to illustrate this by relating to you a story. One in which yours truly nearly screwed up a very good opportunity, all because I thought my entire career rested on a single project. I could not see that I would have a life filled with thoughts waiting to become screenplays, and thus held my notion of the one way to do things tightly in my stubborn fist.

A few years ago, my short film had been well-received in the festival circuit, and through a contact who knew the head of a big theatre chain, who, in turn, knew a well-established independent producer, a screener found its way into their hands and a meeting was set up to discuss turning my short into a feature film, with a budget low enough to ensure that I would be able to direct it. Pretty sweet.

I entered the meeting confident in my vision for how to expand my 25-minute film into a longer story. But, be careful of that term “vision,” and how it can get in the way of collaborative opportunities in the film industry. Having a vision is the same as being afraid to share your ideas with others—it’s a way of being too steadfast about the one artistic entity that you believe is who you are at the time. You see, somewhere inside I was simply playing the role of a brash young filmmaker. The popular image of said personage is that of a driven cultural despot who will follow nothing but the dictates of his or her intellectual conscience. When Orson Welles directed Citizen Kane at 25, he may not have been the first youthful egomaniac to be given the reins on a feature, but he sure set a bar for stubborn independent filmmakers to come. And I was falling right in line, believing my precious idea could only evolve along one set of tracks.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine