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Habits of Successful Screenwriters: Be Creative and Original

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. -- Marcel Proust

Creativity is an essential skill for the professional writer, especially in screenwriting. Too many aspiring writers don’t understand its importance. Ideas are king in Hollywood. Anyone who has read hundreds of scripts and listened to thousands of pitches could tell you that most of them are derivative of other movies, with familiar characters, uninteresting ideas, and cliched plot twists. Beginners tend to develop the easiest idea that comes to mind, rather than working hard to generate original ones.

Tony Gilroy: Having a great imagination is 98 percent of the work. Originality is the job. It’s what you do. Craft is craft, but it’s imagination that puts you on the map. I’d rather work with someone who’s imaginative with no idea what he’s doing than an experienced writer with a limited imagination.

Derek Haas: You have to be creative and original or you won’t get hired again. Even on sequels, assignments, or remakes, you have to find that original, creative spark. You have to take whatever the project is and make it your own.

Michael Brandt: Derek and I spitball together. We get together and smoke a cigar, usually with our manager, and we talk out the scenes or characters. We’ll constantly call each other on being derivative or common . . . and we challenge each other to be more original or clever. When we hit on an idea that feels unique, we know.

It’s crucial to understand that to be successful inside the studio system, a script has to be centered around a big idea. A big idea doesn’t necessarily mean an expensive one, for the record. Three documentary filmmakers going into the woods to see if the Blair Witch legend is real is a big idea, shot very inexpensively.

Laeta Kalogridis: Original ideas and creative approaches are the heart of successful writing and moviemaking, even within the frame- work of established franchises or recognizable “brands.” You can’t survive in the business unless you’re bringing something original to the table. That said, you can’t make anything if you can’t collaborate and do it well.

Bill Marsilii: The funny thing about Hollywood is that they want you to be original just like some other hit movie. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, “We want something original and edgy, Tim Burton-esque.” And I’d think, “Gee, Tim Burton has already done Tim Burton-esque!” But this is what you will deal with once you break in.

Before this, however, as you work on your spec, it’s crucial to avoid “first draft theater,” where it seems that what you’re reading is literally the first thing that popped into the writer’s head. They didn’t bother to examine it, to make it better, or to find a more clever or orig- inal way of writing it. They just settled for the first thing they could think of.

One of the ways I ensure that I go beyond the cliche? is to go through a process I call, “Doing the 20s.” I’ll be writing a particular moment, and I’ll stop and force myself to list twenty different ways to do it, like twenty cool ways my two characters could meet, or twenty cool chase scenes. The further you get down the list, the better they’ll start to get. If you make yourself write twenty ideas, not worrying about whether they’re any good or not, often the ninth or tenth one will be golden because you didn’t settle for the first thing that popped into your mind.

Tom Schulman: Imagination and originality are crucial traits every- one is looking for in a writer because if someone has already seen what you’ve written, chances are they’ll be bored by it. So when you conceive your story, characters, and plot elements, the key question is, “Is this something I’ve seen before?” and if so, you need to find an original approach to the material.

Excerpt from The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters by Karl Iglesias.