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Experience Mining for Screenwriting Ideas

There was an article and an interview recently in the news about an indie screenwriting duo that caught my attention. It was called, “How Two Novice Screenwriters Mined Their Relationship for an Award-Worthy Script” and it really resonated.

It caught my attention not because it was expected to clean up at 2018 awards nights or that the script took three years to finish, but because of its handling of human experience and emotion.

It got me thinking about the how these two screenwriters were more than just perfectly positioned to tell the story—they were the story. I am of course talking about Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon and their film, “The Big Sick.”

What is Experience Mining?

Experience mining is kind of like data mining, except you redirect the hammer and chisel inwardly at yourself. Your relationships, life events and responses to the happenings around you can play a vital part in the cultivation of plots points for a script if you let them.

I am not saying that the story has to be about you or something that has happened to you specifically, but as we have all been told a thousand times before, you should start by writing about what you know.

And although I am an advocate of going against this particular piece of advice in general, I am going to concede here that it does have merit. Check out my other article, “5 Tips to Help You Write What You Don’t Know” for more on that before reading further.

With that out of the way, let me discuss how and why I think our own relationships, life events and responses are invaluable gems we can mine to breathe new life into any screenplay irrespective of genre and budget.

Experience Mining Relationships

Relationships are the cornerstone of human existence, whether they are familial, romantic or otherwise. Within them they contain many nuanced moments that are dramatic, joyful, poignant, painful, and above all, relatable.

Of the three things I’ll mention in this article, experience mining relationships has to be the most accessible. It is a convenient place to start when developing and building character profiles, and can even be a big help if you get stuck later on.

Experience Mining Life Events

People are the sum of their experiences and there are none more important to us than those that have helped define our values, attitudes and beliefs. Think of these like the inciting incidents or plot points in your screenplay.

This can be a great way to generate meaningful ideas as kernels for a script if you are having trouble. The only thing you need to be wary of is ending up with a plot-driven script.

Experience Mining Our Responses

The things people want—money, power, fame, a new tea cosy, etc—are usually what motivates them in their decision making. It can be useful to subvert reader expectations by having characters in your script behave in ways that may not seem in line with their beliefs.

One way you can create drama where there is little or none is by raising the stakes. Reflect on your own past responses to internal and external triggers, pressures and stressors when you’ve been tasked with making a difficult decision. Then use this to inform your character’s actions.

Leverage Your Situation and Go to New Heights

I think the important take away point is that we all have the ability to write a script like, “The Big Sick” within us. We just have to reach down and pull out the right building blocks.

Of course these are just a few of the experiences we can mine to come up with ideas. What are your thoughts? What experiences have you drilled into? Did we leave anything out?

For more articles like this and articles not at all like this one, be sure to follow along on social media (we’re on most of them) and don’t forget to sign up to the Inside Film Pre-Production newsletter.

Thanks for reading!

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