Nothing can surpass Alan Moore’s description of where ideas come from in his ‘Behind the Painted Smile’ article that accompanies the V for Vendetta trade paperback. The boys at How to Write Screenplays – Badly have an outrageous methodology which is just begging to be taken up en masse.
But for me, it usually starts with ‘what if?’
What if a bunch of ninjas were to arrive in some suburban kitchen, intent on silent death, but are thwarted by a teenage girl and her grandfather?
What if our story starts with some crazy-eyed guy running down city streets, going faster and faster, until he dead-ends in an alley… and his gasps for breath turn into sobs of despair?
What if… yeah, you know the drill.
For every idea that I explore, countless others don’t make it onto the page. There’s any number of reasons why they don’t get used: it’s a clichÃ©; I’m being lazy (and I know I’ll pay for it later in the story); I’m being wanky; it adds nothing to the story; and whatever other reason I make up at the time.
The cliches and stereotypes I try to forget wholeheartedly. The straight-up stupid ones do a fancy dance and flash a bit of leg before they’re exposed to be straight-up stupid ideas.
And the rest of them, including homage-worthy situations, conventions, archetypes and stereotypes, they go into a holding pattern, waiting for a story for which they’d be the perfect ingredient.
And a few of those morph into ‘what if?’-type ideas. At first they’re patient, pacing back and forth, unwilling to be ignored, until some other ideas attach themselves, elevating their combined mass into A Story.