Welcome back! I may talk more about the return of the blog and other changes soon, but for now let’s just dive right in:
So, as you may know, I took this summer off from this blog to force myself to actually write some movies. Naturally enough, I decided to follow as much of my own advice as possible at every step of the way. And, inevitably, I discovered when I tried to road test everything for the first time that not all of it worked quite as well as I was hoping it would.
Let’s start with my How to Generate an Idea series. The bad news is that I tried all nine methods that I had suggested and none of them came through for me. I came up with lots of lists of ideas based off of each one, but nothing excited me. I wanted some high-concept ideas, which means I needed something big. Nothing I came up with was big enough.
Then I started looking at various successful high-concept franchises and trying to figure out how they did it: were they successful because of the neat little details of the franchise or because of the core of the idea? I realized that this was a hard question to answer, because a lot of these franchises had been around a while, and the details now bore little relation to their conception. The original stories about this character had been metaphors about an emotion, but now they were just writing stories that were about previous stories.
So I got an idea: I listed every franchise I could think of, over a hundred in all, mostly old, forgotten superheroes or pulp heroes, and I tried to figure out what the original core metaphor was behind that character, either consciously or subconsciously in the mind of the original creator. Then I threw away all the accumulated details that had crusted up over the years, leaving just the core metaphor. Then for each one I tried to create a new franchise based on that core. Soon the high-concept ideas were flowing.
Of course, once I’d had my brilliant idea, I started to notice that everybody else had been doing it for a long time. Here’s Suzanne Collins on the origin of her billion-dollar Hunger Games franchise:
- “A significant influence would have to be the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The myth tells how in punishment for past deeds, Athens periodically had to send seven youths and seven maidens to Crete, where they were thrown in the Labyrinth and devoured by the monstrous Minotaur.
- Even as a kid, I could appreciate how ruthless this was. Crete was sending a very clear message: “Mess with us and we’ll do something worse than kill you. We’ll kill your children.” And the thing is, it was allowed; the parents sat by powerless to stop it. Theseus, who was the son of the king, volunteered to go. I guess in her own way, Katniss is a futuristic Theseus.
- In keeping with the classical roots, I send my tributes into an updated version of the Roman gladiator games, which entails a ruthless government forcing people to fight to the death as popular entertainment.”
Of course, Collins could have just written a series of books about Theseus, who is, after all, in the public domain, and since she was already an established writer she probably could have sold them and made a nice living off that. In fact this might have been an easier sell to publishers, since “Theseus” was already an existing property. Mythology-loving kids were already going to libraries asking for books about Theseus or the Minotaur, whereas nobody was asking for books about Katniss Everdeen yet.
But instead of locking herself into the specific characters and details of that story, she merely borrowed its metaphorical core. She went to the old, overgrown, dormant tree that was the Theseus myth, chopped it apart, found a living seed in the heart of it, then replanted that seed in modern soil and grew a new tree. A money tree, as it turns out.
Of course, the best thing about this method is that it works even if the franchise is not in the public domain. You can identify the core metaphor behind Superman and then grow a new story from that seed, and DC Comics can’t do a damn thing about it!