In this screenwriting lesson, I talk about inspiration. Where to find it, how to harness it creatively, and what are some different outlets you can use to get the ideas flowing.
Where to Find Inspiration
This is easily the most forward advice I could give to any writer. The easiest way to find inspiration is to simply to go out into the world and experience things. Get out of your comfort zones. Say yes to the world. Learn new things.
One of the biggest problems I find with new writers isn’t that they don’t have something to say, it’s that they don’t know how to say it. They’d like to express the words or the emotions, but they just haven’t experienced enough of the world yet.
I Think Robin Williams summarizes it best in ‘Good Will Hunting’
There’s only one way around this: do things. Write that first draft, travel to new places, taste that exquisite new dish, and ask that person you like out on a date. Do things, because inspiration only comes through living.
How to Harness Inspiration Creatively
When I first began writing this I had done so by hand. My computer was in the repair shop because I had accidentally broken an internal cooling fan when dusting inside with a can of compressed air. It initially seemed to have worked. At least, until my laptop started sounding like a jet engine when I turned it on. Apparently, spinning the fan too quickly, or worse in the wrong direction, you can ruin it. As a result, I started writing this lesson on a napkin – over some fast food, crying about how expensive my laptop repairs were going to cost (turned out, it wasn’t so bad).
Now, getting away from writing on a laptop has several benefits. For starters, you google search and second guess things a lot less. I can’t tell you how much time I waste researching and rewriting mid-progress – a nasty habit I don’t recommend, as writers should really try and bang out the first draft before overthinking things. But one of the niftiest things I learned about while handwriting is that it forces you to slow down and think about your words carefully.
I can type on average, ninety-five words per minute. When I hand write, I’m lucky if I can move at a fifth of that speed. Writing on loose leaf paper and on sticky notes and in moleskin notebooks, allows me to take a more calculated approach. To be more present and in the moment.
Which is important, because often the biggest problem I have after finding inspiration, is never allowing myself the time to actually feel inspired. Which is to say, I do these amazing wonderful things, yet never really give it the time to process in my head. It’s always onto the next big thing.
Sometimes you need the laptop to break. Sometimes it’s better to step back and really look at the bigger picture. And yes, I understand, we live in a digital age of instant access. I myself, am usually micromanaging several projects at a time, all while looking for possible writing opportunities. Query letters, meetings, and e-mails all need replying to – the hustle is never enough. What’s worse, is that I’m part of a generation conditioned to feel this way, or else admonish in the guilt that we’re missing out on something bigger.
Let me ask, when is the last time you spent a day doing absolutely nothing? Where you spent a weekend with no plans, no schedule, and no responsibility? One of my favorite quotes is by A.A. Milne, author of Winnie The Pooh:
“People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.” – Pooh Bear
There is magic in doing nothing. In turning yourself off and becoming receptive to the universe. It is in these quiet moments, in mindfulness and the mundane, in-between of things, where we process: life.
If experiences are how you find inspiration, reflection is how to harness it. But you can only do that if you allow yourself to disengage. You can only reflect, if you give it your time and attention.
Then, once you’ve embraced the memories of all these amazing experiences: write that down. It doesn’t even have to be a full-on project – just be in that moment. Get inspired by the different elements of your life. Share what you’ve learned to your audience using words.
What Are Some Different Outlets?
Not everyone has the time, money, or resources to get out and try doing new things. After all, people have responsibilities. Mortgages to pay. Children to raise. In this section, I’ll talk a bit about different outlets people use to get inspired that you can do on a budget.
If I’m gonna be blunt about it, just about every creative field involving art has had some sort of drug exposure in my experience. It’s an easy outlet, and a great way to trigger a lot of the same neurotransmitters you feel during novel experiences – particularly, dopamine.
Am I advocating drug usage over doing something like taking that lifelong desired trip to Italy? No, but I am admitting it is an outlet for inspiration. And when I say drugs, I’m not talking about just the hard ones, like heroin or cocaine. I’m including caffeine from coffee, or nicotine from vaping or cigarettes as well, vitamin supplements like B12 in excess, and even herbal remedies.
I count all of those as drugs too. Obviously, it’s not in the same classification as opioids or LSD, but nevertheless, these are all artificial ways of stimulation. And though the highs can be very high, they also never last – which can lead to a lot of different health problems. Including lifelong addictions.
An easy, and much more practical source of inspiration is through music. You can cover your music bases through itunes, spotify, and even amazon prime – all at affordable subscription plans, some of them even free.
I once even had a writing partner who listened to Hans Zimmer compositions, and only Hans Zimmer compositions, to get hyped up before starting a project. He believed that if the voice God could be heard without it blowing our minds into nothingness than it would probably sound like Hans Zimmer’s music. Though he was also very crazy, and if there was a voice of God, I’d imagine he’d sound something more like James Earl Jones, though that’s just my opinion.
This is hands down one of the best things to get into and a great foot-in-the-door towards the industry, and I’m not just saying this to plug TheWorkprint podcast, as I’ve been listening to podcasts for years.
Some great podcasts I recommend for Screenwriters:
Pillar Alexandra’s On The Page podcast interviews different industry professionals working in Hollywood. She’s also a great script consultant and analyst herself, and her book The Coffee Break Screenwriter is just as good of a starting point as any for any up and coming screenwriters.
Scriptnotes by John August and Craig Mazin, is probably the premiere screenwriting podcast in the industry (if there is one). They’re both incredibly insightful, and talk about almost every situation a professional screenwriter will eventually face – with guest appearances from industry producers, and hours of content analyzing structure and industry history. This is probably the gold standard for script podcasts.
Draft Zero, by Chas Fisher and Stuart Willis, is a newer podcast that takes a much more down-to-earth approach with screenplays. Both are screenwriters that haven’t officially really blown-up just yet, but still remain to have a large, and growing, following. Together, they look at what makes screenplays work and share some wisdom about what it’s like being in the industry at their level.
Again, I highly recommend podcasts and I 100% recommend all three of these, personally, as they contain great gems of screenwriting and industry knowledge.
Probably the best thing you can do as a screenwriter is watch movies. Or as I’ve shown here time and time again, even read screenplays of a favorite film that inspired you.
I used to watch the movies Fight Club, Annie Hall, and Casablanca – once a year, every year, because they were my favorite films. To be honest though, I’m a sentimental person who has a hard time letting go of the past. So now I stopped rewatching a lot of things I’ve seen before, and the only movie I occasionally replay now is It’s Such a Beautiful Day, by Don Hertzfeldt. Mostly, because it’s a movie so bizarre yet also… beautiful. I sort of see a reflection of myself in that work and I highly recommend it if you haven’t had a chance to watch it.
When all else fails, read a book. The public library is free. Most also have graphic novels now, and some even stream audiobook collections and e-books online. Reading is also a great way to discover style, voice, and tone. Plus, if you’ve been paying attention: a lot of young adult authors have been getting their book series adapted for screenplays and movies.
So, find an author that you like and read their works. Then pick a genre of style of literature that’s the exact opposite and maybe even read that too.
I’ll leave you with some advice that my favorite author, Neil Gaiman (Author of The Sandman comics, and whose upcoming TV series, Good Omens, we covered back in NYCC 2018) said during one of the Masterclass lectures that I’ve been listening to:
Try This: Finding Inspiration
- Go out and Experience Something.
- Shut up and write down your experience somewhere. Be sure to add sensory details, like how something felt or what colors and hints of lighting were there. You can even take notice of the smells and the sounds in the air. Just be in the moment.
- Find a new inspirational outlet that you like. I’d go with podcast or book, personally.