CATCHING AN IDEA
Where to start? At the beginning, obviously. Ideas are a mysterious thing, and I often wonder where they come from. But I do feel grateful when I catch a good one!
I'm fortunate in that I am an avid daydreamer, because it's where most, if not all, of my ideas come from. Once you open that pandora's box of possibilities, you'll begin to notice over time ideas beginning to surface - and like Pringles, once you start you just can't stop. When I first started writing (which I had to learn how to do, because it wasn't a natural thing, and I'm still learning) my ideas were a lot more basic and cliché than they are now, mostly because my 'idea-vocabulary' was still at a basic level (I'd like to think I've at least reached the level of intermediate now, but perhaps not). As I started to learn more about writing and filmmaking in general, amazingly, my daydreams followed suit (go figure, eh?). I began to see more interesting possibilities and 'what-ifs', moving away from clichés. Once I have that nugget of an idea in my mind's-eye, I follow it down the rabbit hole, in pursuit of hoping it'll show me where to go. I am naturally a visual person (which I'm told most people are) so when I get an idea that intrigues me, I literally sit back and watch it like I'm watching it as a fully-formed film. Unfortunately, most times it hits some sort of roadblock and it gets stuck somewhere along the way - likely because I'll realise I can't afford to hire that many extras, or I can't blow that building up whilst swooping down from a helicopter to get the shot I need... So then I have to concentrate and think about the logistics of the idea and whether it's possible for me to make it, often resulting in me re-working some stuff so that it is more manageable. But occasionally, an idea will just unfold itself to me in the daydream (the idea for my short film Dinner With Mum happened this way), but these ideas arrive very rarely. What you have to certainly do is practise and train yourself well so you're ready to observe and catch the good ideas when they come. Daydream, it's good for you! But be ready with your net.
Sit on the idea for a while
I am a massive advocate of sitting on your ideas for a while. This is because the best ones, or at least, the ones you should pay attention to, are the ones that keep resurfacing. When I first started writing, I was an avid note taker - scared that I'd forget a great idea. David Lynch talks about writing things down (and who am I to disagree?), but my problem is that I'd be forever taking notes because I am constantly in a state of readiness, primed to catch a great idea. So instead, I only pursue an idea once I'm sick of hearing about it in my daydreams. When I talk about ideas, I don't necessarily mean story-ideas either. Sometimes it'll be a insistent nagging to make a web-series or an audio drama (or to write a blog post on ideas!). At this stage, I still don't know what it is yet, but the appeal of making something becomes so intense that I have no choice but to at least pursue it for a while - with no guarantee I'll actually make it or that'll be any good. I would say that I'm quite lucky in that I am constantly thinking of new ideas (although it does get quite bothersome when you're trying to relax, as the list just keeps growing), but I know from experience that if I wait a while, the 'best' ideas are the ones that will keep resurfacing, and naturally, you'll forget the 'bad' ones. So if an idea keeps tapping you on the shoulder, you know it's something you have to deal with.
Look for examples but don't copy
There is (but perhaps was) a culture of 'homage' within the creative arts that found its way into popular culture during my early years as a budding filmmaker. Thanks to Tarantino, it become mandatory for every film student everywhere to copy a scene or idea from an obscure (preferably foreign) film and call it their own as though it was totally original. The problem for them, us, you and me, is that we're not Tarantino. He gets away with it because he's amazing at doing it. But for anyone else, it's considered stealing, and not in a fun, post-modern-ish, type of way. It's also boring and unoriginal. Who wants to see a witty, dialogue-heavy, gangster flick for the 1000th time? To be fair, sign me up, but I wouldn't necessarily want to write it (not unless I could put my own spin on it). It's fine to look at examples, but only to learn, not to copy. Watch plenty of films (especially shorts if that's what you intend to make) and read plenty of books, they will inform your visual language and you'll begin to tell better stories. You'll understand what works, and what doesn't, and then you can use this in your work - and your ideas will become better! I feel this pursuit is endless, and I am always learning new ways of doing something and I'm nowhere near the level of master. If you set out to copy someone, you won't learn, and in turn, you won't improve as a filmmaker. And what's worse, people won't take you seriously. Look at examples but don't copy. Find your own voice.
Think about your characters
When I first started out, most of my ideas were based around concepts (I still do this, but much less frequently), and looking back, I can see that the scripts were lacking something... Character! It's so, so important to think about what character you want to explore, not just the narrative. After all, the character is the vehicle for whom the audience are going to experience your story. If you have an idea, great, but now think about what character is best to explore that idea. Often scripts by beginners lack three-dimensional characters and I think this comes from a lack of experience, because once you've written your 100th script, you'll begin to ache for something a bit different to intrigue you enough to begin writing again. Clichés can be fun if used correctly, but they very rarely work, if ever. This is because the audience are more sophisticated than we know. People nowadays watch hours and hours of content a day, and we're used to seeing all types of people on our screens. If your characters feels flat and 2D, or their motivations feel off because you (the writer) didn't fully understand your characters, your story simply won't work - the audience may not be able to articulate it, but they'll know. Also, give your characters some flaws, some hurdles to overcome, and then watch them struggle - we are perverted, it's what grips us. How they end up will determine whether it's a tragedy or comedy, but make sure you put them through their paces and have fun watching them navigate their way through your story. If you do this correctly, you'll naturally create interesting characters that only enrich your idea.
Brainstorm with someone you trust
This is something that I've never been able to successfully do, but I know that it works for a lot of people. I struggle to think of ideas on the spot, and I'm a much better thinker if I have some alone time so I can daydream a solution. If someone is sat opposite me, staring at me, or worse, talking at me, I can't think of a suitable answer to the potential problem. And let's face it, writing a script is just one problem after the other that you need to solve. However, there are lots of successful writing duos out there, so if you're struggling by yourself, perhaps finding a trustworthy writing partner is the way to go for you. The major benefit of doing this that I can see is that you can bounce ideas off each other. You may have an idea, but they may have a better one. Great! The script benefits if you're able to leave your ego at the door (and likewise, if you have a better one than them). Or, perhaps, one idea triggers another! But it all depends on how you set up the relationship. I've heard of people sending scripts back and forth, so it gets adapted, brick on top of brick, until eventually you end up with a film-able script. So if you're great at structure, but can't write dialogue for toffee, try and find someone who can write great dialogue but struggles to stay on point.
Lastly, read books on creative writing
There's nothing better for your development than making something and learning from how it turns out - I've learnt so much by failing. But in the mean time, I highly recommend reading some books on creative writing and 'how-to' guides (although they don't have to be that cheesy). I absolutely love Stephen King's On Writing, as well as Into The Woods by John Yorke (which I've just re-read for the fifth time or so), as they remind you that there is a craft to pursuing ideas, which can then be honed into something interesting if you have enough knowledge about how to writing. I think there is an illusion (or delusion?) amongst beginner writers (I know, because I was one) that writing and ideas should just come naturally to you and any effort to intellectualise it will only kill it, so that whatever you get down on the page first time around is gold. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong! There is a lot of hard work, and redrafting, that goes into making an idea good. So whilst you may fall in love with your (not-so-original) idea, you've got to understand that it probably needs a lot of work, and it needs to fit into some constraints - I often have great ideas I know I'll never be able to make because I can't afford to. Read some books on creative writing, and you'll see what I mean.
Foot note: Eckhart Tolle once wrote that he can sum-up every story ever written into three words, which are: something goes wrong. To date, I haven't been able to prove him wrong, but I assume that he's not meant to be taken literally. But when you think about it, it's true, no? Learn some stuff, it'll only improve and enrich your ideas.