“I find that when I am working I become like an antenna, and suddenly, somewhat like a paranoid schizophrenic, everything relates to my screenplay: a mentioned recipe, a joke somebody tells, a billboard that I see. It all becomes grist for whatever screenplay I’m working on.” – Wesley Strick
When we begin working on a new idea we often start by imagining the world of our story. We allow our imagination to wander and we see possibilities for our story all around us. It could be in the way the mailman tips his head when he greets us in the morning, or the way our neighbor averts her eyes when she sees us, making us wonder what secrets she is keeping, or the way a child waves from the sidewalk, pure innocence and exuberance. Everything we see and hear can be refracted through the question: “Where does this live in the world of my story?”
If we seek to pull an exact moment from our real life we will have limited success, but if we can distill a moment to its nature we are going to see possibilities for our story everywhere. If, for example, we are writing a monster movie set on Mars, we can still draw inspiration from the mother in the china shop who admonishes her child for breaking a vase. What is it we notice about this woman and her child? Is the mother blaming the child for something she should have seen coming? Is she angry because she is embarrassed? Does she speak to the child in a positive manner, explaining the importance of respecting other people’s property?
We may ask, “Where does this live in my monster movie?” Even if there is no mother and child in the film, there could be two characters of unequal status, the novice and the master, for example. Does the master get frustrated with his young charge? How does he speak to him? Is there something in the way the mother speaks to her child in the china shop that elicits an “ah-ha” moment for us?
We are exploring the nature of events in order to develop a more specific relationship to our story. Since the desire to tell a story is the desire to resolve a dilemma for ourselves, we are continually drawn to moments that spark our imagination. It takes work to do this. It is sometimes easy to dismiss. From the moment we hear the woman’s admonishment we may notice our curiosity piquing. Make a conscious choice throughout the day to ask yourself where something lives in your story. It is an exercise of making character and theme more important than our idea of the plot.