Over the past year, I’ve been studying the science behind creativity and how it works while conducting a study of my own. Because when you think about it, being creative is one of the fundamental skills required for screenwriters to be wildly successful. The execs aren’t gonna fed ex you buckets of cash unless you’ve some kind of genius who can pitch and write things they’ve never seen before.
For example, let’s take a look at this spec script that sold for mid six-figures:
“Dear Satan: The tale follows a 7-year old girl who accidentally misspells “Santa” in her letter to the North Pole and instead invites Satan to bring her a toy for Christmas.” -Deadline Hollywood. Written by Dan Ewen.
How creative is that?! I mean, wow. Talk about a ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ moment. Well the the good news is that creativity can be learned and honed.
Creativity is broken up into two parts: convergent thinking (the process of combining and sorting out the best ideas) and divergent thinking (the process of creating ideas). Of the two, divergent thinking can be substantially improved, whereas convergent thinking is more crystallized. The activities mentioned in this article focus on improving divergent thinking skills through cognitive fluency exercises. Exercises such as freewriting or using thinking maps have been popularized by Howard Gardner, who is the psychologist who came up with the theory of multiple intelligences. He’s also completed some notable studies dealing with the improvement of divergent thinking. E. Paul Torrance, the creator of the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, has also done extensive tests into divergent thinking improvement. In his paper, “Teaching For Creativity” for the University of Georgia he mentions freewriting and several other freewriting variations as effective tools for improving creativity.
Now for the approaches:
After going through my research, I’ve compiled a list of 9 ways we can approach screenwriting in order to become more creative:
1. Freewriting. Here’s what you do: set a timer for twenty minutes, sit down, and start writing. Don’t stop until you hit the timer. Just write. A scene, a character bio, a car chase, just do it! You’ll be surprised what kinds of things you come up with. You can also use Write Or Die to help you with this– when you stop typing, it starts deleting what you’ve written. Talk about motivation!
2. Use visual brainstorming tools. Thinking map creators such as this one are so helpful for the brainstorming process. Bubble maps may sound old school, but they’re very effective. (Especially for those of us who are visual thinkers!)
3. Don’t write and edit at the same time. When you rewrite and revise your work, you are engaging the left side of your brain. When you write, you’re using the right side. When you try to do both at once, your right brain doesn’t have the chance to come up with all those crazy awesome ideas that your left brain can trim and fix later. Single task, people! Writing is like making pottery. Go wild with the first draft and come up with more than enough clay that you can shape and improve later. Give yourself permission to fail.
4. The “quick 20” exercise. Let’s say you’re about to start a new scene and you’ve got writer’s block, or you’re revising and trying to figure out how to improve a fight scene. Whip out a sheet of paper, and write down twenty different ways that scene could go. Do not stop until you reach twenty! You might come up with a good idea on idea #9 or #10, but what if you come up with an even better idea at #19? This exercise uses the same principle as freewriting, but it’s more focused and taps into your divergent thinking skills.
5. Work in a coffeeshop. According to this study published in the Journal of Consumer research, writing in a coffeeshop improves your creativity! And not only because the ambient noise “induces processing disfluency, which leads to abstract cognition and consequently enhances creativity,” but also because caffeine has been shown to improve your creative processes as well.
6. Photo osmosis. If you’re writing a scene that’s set in another country, pull up as many photos as you can. Something in those photos might spark more ideas and help you write the scene. For example, I was writing this scene that was set in Ciudad Juarez, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Drug war related homicides have hit a record high there. I was searching through Google Images when I found this photo of a graveyard with pink crosses. Nailed to a tree was a sign that said, “Ni Una Mas” which is Spanish for “not one more.” These images were so haunting, I knew I had to set my scene in this graveyard to show the result of the endlessly violent drug war.
7. Word wars. This is another variation of simple freewriting, except this time you race a friend. I like to call up a writing buddy and bet that I can write ten pages of my latest screenplay before they can. This is a great way to get stuff done if you’re a competitive person!
8. Listen to your favorite music. In a study by Elizabeth Hutton and S. Shyam Sundar from Penn State concerning how videogames affect creativity, they conclude that:
“In practical terms, our study implies that after playing a videogame, those who are happy—and somewhat unexpectedly, those who are sad as well—tend to be more creative than those who are relaxed or angry… the happy mood provides the encouragement to be creative. A negative mood… signals a different kind of energy—one that makes a person more analytical, which is also helpful for creativity.”
It’s also been well documented that when people listen to their favorite song, endorphins are released that simulate the same kind of high that drug users get from cocaine. So if you listen to your favorite music, you’ll become more creative.
9. Edit angry. Once again drawing from the above study, a negative mood appears to be the prime time for revising and editing your work. So get angry and break out the red pen!
Not all of the approaches works for every writer, so pick what works for you.