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Joz Norris

  • Tape 77: Idea Generation

How To Come Up With A New Idea – Making The Philosophical Literal

I’m back with a quick creative prompt this week, which might be of interest to the fellow writers out there. As I’ve been documenting in these newsletters lately, I have been spending the last few weeks:

A. Winding down from a period of intense productivity into a period of reflection/exploration

B. Feeling very blocked and stuck when it comes to that reflection and exploration, and stressed about where the next big project is going to come from.

So it’s been a pleasure this week to stumble across an idea which feels like the first new thought I’ve been genuinely excited to work up into something bigger since I started earnestly working on Blink and The Dream Factory last year. My method for finding it happened to mirror the exact same process by which I came up with the idea for the last spec script I wrote that I was really proud of, a high-concept metaphysical comedy-drama called False WorldThe prompt, in a nutshell, goes like this:

What philosophical, social, interpersonal or abstract idea can you not stop thinking about at the moment? Can you think of a concept that is the most literal possible representation of that idea?

When I wrote False World, it was in the middle of the first lockdown and I kept circling around the thought that my life felt like a performance, like a pantomime in which I did my best impression of a human being while losing all sense of what actual intimacy or friendship or closeness felt like, and losing track of which of my relationships were real and which of them were performances or impressions of relationships, performed by people who couldn’t really remember who or what they were. Maybe that’s something other people felt during that time as well. Those feelings of alienation found their way into a script about a world in which nobody knows which of their closest friends or family are real and which of them are actors, because the entire world is an elaborate performance art piece being performed by half the population for the benefit of the other half, scripted and directed by a mysterious group of writers and producers. It was a simple case of taking the thing that kept knocking around my head and, rather than trying to conceive of a grounded, relatable story that let me explore those themes in subtle ways, instead deciding to turn the theme into the concept. What I ended up with was by far the most imaginative and competent script I’d written up to that point, and it opened a lot of doors for me, although ultimately most producers considered it too expensive and too similar to The Truman Show to actually get made. But I was very proud of what I achieved with it. Since then, outside of the two big projects I pulled off this year, I’d struggled to land on an idea that got me as excited.

So, this week, I tried to figure out in words a simple theme or idea that my own thoughts about life – not necessarily about comedy, or art, or creativity – kept turning towards. What I ended up with was this:

I’m worried at the moment that the one thing everybody seems least concerned with is who they actually are, in this moment, right now. People are so preoccupied with who they COULD be, or who they’d LIKE to be, or who they FEAR they are, or who everybody ELSE is, or what everybody ELSE is doing, or how much better things will be when THIS happens. People are so fixated on their reputations, their careers, their outrage, their resentments, their persona, their image, that the one question they seem to give almost no thought to is – who am I NOW? Who is THIS? What am I doing NOW? Who am I, really? And how can I find comfort in that? How can I internalise the idea that that, whatever it is, might be enough?

These are all ideas cribbed from the stuff I’ve been reading this year – Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks, Cal Newport’s Deep Work, Ernest Becker’s The Denial Of Death, and so on, and has only become more acute in the last few days with the manufactured hysteria and dismay over Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and the likely subsequent decline of the platform. As far as I’m concerned, one less “platform” in the world for us to invest our attention and self-esteem into, the better, but it’s pushed these ideas back to the forefront of our minds – we are overwhelmingly concerned with things that are not ourselves. With things that are a version of ourselves.

So the creative process then became exactly the same as with False World – answering the question What am I getting at here, literally? What would be a totally blatant representation of this idea? The answer, when I conjured up an image of it, made me laugh. And making yourself laugh is always the best starting point for anything. I’m now tentatively walking towards the idea of writing another spec script for this idea, because it feels surprising and silly and original and strange but has something bigger and more fundamental underpinning it that I care and think about a lot. I’ll keep you all updated with where that process might lead me!

In the meantime, I’d love to hear what sort of results that creative prompt might produce in the writing of any of my readers! At the first Dinner Time scratch night/sharing last week, Ben and Miranda and I discovered the value in sharing a half-formed idea and bouncing it back and forth with an audience of engaged and imaginative listeners. I’d love it if any subscribers wanted to do the same! Is there a theme you keep wanting to work into your writing but you’re not sure what the right story is to go about it? What would happen if the story was simply a literalised version of the theme? Would that leave you with something unforgivably clunky and obvious? If so, does that clunky, obvious version of the idea at least point you in the direction of something more nuanced and interesting? Or, on the other hand, does literalising your theme and pushing it to the foreground actually give you a high-concept setting that suddenly suggests a story to you? I’d love to hear how this approach works for any other writers, as I’ve found it a great way to kickstart ideas a few times now!

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – The Horne Section TV Show is out, and I’m incredibly excited about it. Alex Horne is a genius, the concept is brilliant and the cast is incredible. Can’t wait to watch it.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Trying to sneak around the set of Guessable wearing a suit of armour without making any noise for the studio mics to pick up. Impossible.

Book Of The Week – Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor. Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things was the book that made me fall in love with reading for the second time, and start reading outside of fantasy when I was 13. I always read every new book of his, and this one’s excellent so far. It’s about a team of technicians at a base in the Antarctic, one of whom suffers a stroke in the middle of an ice-storm. It’s intense.

Album Of The Week – Pretty Hate Machine by Nine Inch Nails. I’ll be honest, this wasn’t really my thing (I think The Downward Spiral is not tooooo bad, so I tried this, but it’s a bit much), so I feel reluctant to actively recommend it. I liked it a tiny bit because it reminded me of Bowie’s amazing ‘95 album Outside, on which he actively ripped off (and significantly improved upon) Trent Reznor’s work.

Film Of The Week – The Banshees Of Inisherin. This is great, and easily Martin McDonagh’s most mature film. I’ve not seen Three Billboards, but this felt like the first film of his where he wasn’t partially winking at the camera about how cool everything was. It’s fairly unremittingly bleak – never in a way that makes it actively grim to sit through, but certainly in a way that makes you leave the cinema thinking “Wow, life is tough.”

That’s all for this week! As ever, if you’ve enjoyed the newsletter, I’d love it if you could share it with a friend or encourage others to subscribe. Catch you all next week, and take care of yourselves in the meantime,

Joz xx

PS Here’s me in that suit of amour I found it so hard to be quiet in. Thanks as ever to the good folks at Guessable for letting me come in and do a couple of dumb cameos.

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