It's the question that most professional and aspiring-to-be professional writers will get asked at least once a month. The question is also the reason that I stopped telling cab drivers and hairdressers what I did for a living for a little while. However, I recently had to give the idea some serious consideration when I was asked the question by my cousin's son, Alex.
Now, Alex is not your average ten year-old. The kid's a freaking genius. And there is definitely an aspiring writer in there somewhere (in amongst the obsessions with sushi, Doctor Who and Apple Macs). So, it was down to me to give him a serious answer. Not the usual glib "Oh well, you know, sometimes things just come to me". This required some analysis.
Firstly, what constitutes an idea? Scripts and stories don't pop into your head fully formed.
But characters sometimes do and that's often my starting point. I meet, remember or read about someone who I think could have a great story to tell. I think about my family and friends and how they would react in certain situations. My brother is a good source of inspiration. He had the same upbringing as me, so I can often extrapolate how he would think and feel in certain predicaments. He also has really strong moral core. That makes him a good start for a hero, because I know if I send him on a journey, he'll end up doing the right thing. But he's enough of a cheeky bugger that it'll take us at least three acts to get there.
That's why it is so important that writers do actually live a little. You have to meet a wide range of folks and hear their stories to build up your internal library. A lot of the time when you're discussing stories with script editors, producers and in group writing situations, you'll find yourself saying "That actually happened to a friend of mine…" and you'll be telling anecdotes. That's not procrastination, that's sharing research. You just didn't know you were doing the research at the time. There's a lot of oversharing that goes on in those situations too! You find yourself talking about your deepest darkest sexual, emotional, family secrets to justify your story. And you hear some great gossip too! But then, gossip is just another story-telling form and must never be underestimated.
By the way, the moment you know that you've truly become a writer is when a non-writer friend is telling you their deepest, darkest secret. And as they cry on your shoulder and tell you about their gay husband, deviant children or cross-dressing father you're thinking "Hmmm, there's a film in this". When this happens to you, do not feel guilty. Remember what I said about writers being born not made? If you're already turning your best mate's trauma into three-acts you were born to write! I was a terrible trauma magpie when I was on the Emmerdale writing team. Soaps burn through stories; you gotta get 'em from somewhere.
Also, people never recognise the on-screen version of themselves. I had one person tell me that a character I had a created was "an absolute monster". Little did he know that the character was based on him – all l'd dome was change the name!
So, where else should you look for inspiration? A good source of ideas for New Tricks cases has been the 'fab factoid'. That's when some brilliant little titbit of historical, legal or scientific trivia comes my way and I can use it as starting point for cold case investigation. For the uninitiated, New Tricks is a story-of-the-week police procedural show about a Unsolved, Cold and Open Cases squad (UCOS). Each week the team re-open a seemingly unsolvable case, reinvestigate and bring the criminals to justice. And then Dennis Waterman sings. It's brilliant, you should totally watch it.
But cold cases are really hard to plot, especially as we don't use flashbacks. So, there's no crime scene, no pre-amble where we meet the victim and usually very little forensics. The biggest question we have to answer when the UCOS team reopen a case is why can they solve it now when no-one else has managed it for the last ten to twenty years? Fab factoids are usually a good start. For example, homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967. So, perhaps someone witnesses a crime whilst out with their gay lover and they didn't come forward at the time because they were scared of prosecution themselves? One episode written by the mighty Steve Coombs centred on the liver of old dogs having such a high-level of Vitamin A that it is toxic to humans if eaten. And there was a whole Artic explorers aspect to it AND it had Richard Briars in it. Sounds good doesn't it? See? You should totally watch this show (back for a new series in the Autumn).
This is why it's important to expose yourself to lots of different info sources as a writer. Read a newspaper, read books (factual and fiction), read OK magazine in the hairdressers. Also, watch the news, watch your local news – there are some crazy stories out there. Talk to strangers (advice does not apply if you are under 16). Talk to your grandparents if you're lucky enough to still have them. Talk to people about their jobs – taxi drivers, pest controllers, call centre operators – everyone has a story. Increase your stimuli and the stories and characters will follow.
I'll leave you, however, with a cautionary tale. Recently I read a brilliant book of about the Home Guard in World War Two and there was a chapter about how they would have protected the UK in the event of a German invasion. They would have become a guerrilla fighting force, sabotaging the Nazis and risking their lives. It gave me brilliant idea. What if the occupying force were aliens and the human race had to become the saboteurs and guerrillas? I was over the moon! It was brilliant idea!
It was also the basic premise of "V".
Ideas are fickle bitches.