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Starting From The Beginning – Where Do Your Story Ideas Come From?

Starting From The Beginning - Where Do Your Story Ideas Come From?

Recalling my recent interview with Ernest Dickerson, and the part of the conversation about black filmmakers dipping into a broader pool of stories as well as genres, taking risks, tackling material that’s off the beaten path, instead of following to the so-called path of least resistance when it comes to what Hollywood expects of black cinema (assuming Hollywood is your eventual goal)…

It all got me thinking about how we (black filmmakers) settle on the stories that we want to tell; what inspires them; where we look to find them, etc…

It’s been about 10 years since I last directed a film, and I plan to finally get behind the camera again this year, and make another film after so long. I have an idea of what I want to do that I’m working on currently.

So, speaking for myself, in answering the question about how I come up with stories that I’d like to tell, this is how it usually goes for me…

What happens most often is that I have a theme or a specific subject that I’d like to tackle on film. That’s usually where it starts. For example, I’d tell myself that I’d like to tell a story about greed (which is central to one of the scripts I’m working on right now). And then I’d build a story around that, which I think is where the fun really begins for me, because the story you come up with can be as imaginative as you allow your imagination to run.

Why be restricting – especially at the very start? When I sit and begin to think up the story that I want to tell based on the theme/subject that I initially choose, I let my imagination run wild, and, no matter how crazy, absurd or fantastical an idea might seem, I write it down anyway. And I keep writing, and writing, and writing every single thought down, without really worrying about shaping anything – at least, initially. I like to tell myself that I’m just vomiting onto the page – not literally of course – and not cleaning anything up.

But the key is to, again, let my imagination run free. Don’t put myself in a box right from the start. An example for me, as I sit here looking at early notes from one of the scripts I’m working on, there are absurd sentences like, “a man with an gigantic head who can’t sleep,” or “a chicken that eats dog food, and dances in the moonlight,” or “the tree outside my living room window is really watching me and knows all my in-home secrets, which means, at some point, I’ll have to kill it…”

And on and on…

I literally just dump the first things that come to mind. Usually I see something that inspires a thought, and I write it down, no matter how ridiculous it is.

This happens over a period of time. It’s not set. I just know when I’ve done enough “vomiting” to stop, and look over what I have, and, just about every single time, I find connections between ideas, which is often a lot of fun. It’s actually quite uncanny. I sit there and, first, I laugh over what I’ve written down over time, because a lot of it I won’t remember; and then the connections between ideas some times happens effortlessly.

And when I feel like I have some base to build on, after putting different strands together, then I start building from there.

I don’t really settle on genre right away, because, often, the genre starts to reveal itself as I move along in my process. And, at some point, I realize what that genre is, and I typically don’t fight whatever it is. But I don’t start off telling myself that I’m going to make a thriller, or a rom-com, or a sci-fi film. It could end being a mix of genres, which could also be fun, and make for a really interesting movie, when it works well.

But really, for me, it starts off with just allowing myself the freedom to be recklessly imaginative, if you will. When I say “recklessly,” I mean, some of the early notes I have written down for other projects I can’t even repeat here, because they’ll likely offend some people. But that’s kind of the *beauty* of it, if I can say that. That early stream of consciousness can reveal things about yourself that you may not have ever given much consideration to. But I think those can result in some truly fascinating *original* ideas and concepts which will make for some good cinema.

Other things that influence my thoughts when I’m writing down ideas: Reading – Novels (fiction and non-fiction), articles in newspapers, magazines; watching as many movies as I can, from all over the world, all genres, all styles; asking questions, satisfying my curiosity (I’m very curious about everything, and I think that’s paramount to the process of creating), listening to other people, and more.

What about you – all you artists (of all kinds) reading this? Where do your ideas come from? When you’re about to embark on a new project, starting with the idea, how do you decide what story you want to tell – whether it’s cinematically, musically, literary, etc? Take me back to that moment when you first say to yourself, “I want to make create a [whatever the platform is], but I have absolutely no idea what it is going to be…

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Dankwa Brooks

As I find "truth to be weirder than fiction", my stories often start THERE!

I might hear or read an interesting weird story and think "what would happen if they was black?" or "wow if a certain type of person had to deal with that…"

Like AVA said I often think of how to retell that story on a "somewhat intimate level". My next film HYMNAL was born out of "What if…" and I then chose a way to to tell that story and make it interesting.

I also do A LOT of supplemental research to flesh out the story. Most times the research is just to give the characters more depth i.e. occupation etc. You have no idea how easy it is to write a character if you know what they do. It also adds layers, it adds depth.

My MOST EXTENSIVE research was for my award winning "based on a true story" script 'Down with the King'. DWTK was a fictional story based around the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King (I wrote more about DWTK under "Dr. Martin Luther King & Me").

I wanted the story to be part history lesson about Dr. King and the time in which he was assassinated. (My script revolved around one of the first black FBI agents). I devoured many details of the assassination and incorporated them into my script…also adding a "level of intimacy".

I'm often asked what kind of stories I wrote, in various ways my reply is always that my goal in telling stories, since I was a kid writing and drawing my own comic books, was to tell good, complex, INTELLIGENT stories involving black folk. As simple as that.


Although when I first began writing, I already had ideas that I was chomping at the bit to write (and I still do), I find that now some of my ideas come from things I've read– I have a voracious appetite for reading.
I've read stories in the newspaper and it may inspire me to want to write a screenplay or a stage play (depending on how the visual element of the story manifests itself in my mind) but when an idea grabs me from something I've read in, say a newspaper, I generally gravitate to a story that can be told on a somewhat intimate level. When I say intimate, I usually mean a main character, with a few other characters, in a location where a piece of a town or a city can be carved out to tell that story. For better or for worse, I don't generally gravitate toward telling a story that occurs in a big sweeping landscape (although I enjoy watching them) but I prefer offering a window into a world that perhaps is under the radar, so to speak and these tend to be more intimate narratives.
My favorite way to get inspiration is with Overheard Conversations. Yeah, that's right, people. I am a writer and I am listening to your conversation and many writers do this. Of course a snippet of a conversation, however juicy or entertaining, is usually not enough to sustain an entire full-length piece but that's where an imagination comes into play. You'd be amazed at how a creative writer can use a sentence or two as a starting point to tell an intricately told story with characters that multi-dimensional and drama/conflict that feels relatable.

Melissa Kyeyune

I am a writer who wants to enter film-making (screenplay writing) and I will say that my ideas usually start with: 1.Black person. 2.Place black person in very far flung, not stereo-typically Black situation. 3.Think of a twist that will throw everyone for a loop the write towards that twist 4.Fill the plot with hints of Black history, facts about countries of African descent 5.Re-draft the story to make it less preachy and more fun.

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