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Choosing the Right Idea for a Film or Book

By Tony Levelle

When Dorothy Fadiman agreed to be a poll watcher in the U.S. presidential elections of 2004, she thought she was only volunteering to work on Election Day. She had no idea that what she saw would trigger the idea of making a movie about U.S. elections. Her documentary, Stealing America: Vote by Vote, has consumed three years of her life and many thousands of dollars. It will soon go into national theatrical release.

Whether you are writing a book or making a movie, choosing the right idea for your project is crucial. Only an idea that truly inspires you will support your getting to the finish line. Dorothy and I wrote the book, Producing With Passion to tell you how you can find your own idea, nurture it and bring it into reality.

The process of finding the right idea begins with finding a subject that truly inspires you. You can then tap into a wellspring of vitality that will communicate itself to the viewer or reader of your work. Audiences react strongly to works that come from true passion.

Finding and recognizing your subject can be difficult. We all tend to minimize our own life experiences and our own passions. We often overlook the most powerful ideas in our lives. Finding your subject begins with a decision to look at your own interests, dreams and enthusiasms.

Finding a Subject that has Life for You

You might begin by using your imagination to explore possibilities. As you fall asleep, fantasize about movies you could make. When you are standing in line in the supermarket or stalled in traffic, brainstorm scenes. Reading the newspaper or a magazine, watching someone else's documentary or a TV show or the news or even a soap opera can generate ideas. Does something click?

As you explore possibilities, several subjects may vie for attention. Some people stop there, because they can't decide! If you want to make a film or write a book, but the right idea is not obvious, or you are having difficulty choosing one to develop, take some time out. You might set aside an hour or two to walk in a park, visit the seashore or sit in meditation. See what bubbles up.

Simply "opening the door" and asking for ideas, will start a process. Fresh ideas will come to mind, until you recognize one that is yours to pursue.

Recognizing Powerful Ideas

Often, your body will give you signals that tell you when you are approaching an idea that is truly yours. These signals register for different people in different ways. For Dorothy, the signal is physical. When an idea moves her deeply, she gets goose bumps. The hairs on her arms stand up. She told me, "When I feel this sensation, I stop whatever I am doing and ask myself, 'Okay. What just happened?' "

Your internal signal to pay attention may be different. Some people notice themselves breathing faster. Other people feel giddy or energized, as if a force is moving through them. Whatever your signal, you will sense that something is calling you. When people talk about finding such an idea they say things like, "It had my name on it."

The catalyst might be a person, a headline, a poem, a dream, a fragrance. There is no one trigger. What these "callings" have in common is that you feel compelled to make something happen.

First-time filmmakers and authors often get caught in the trap of ignoring their own reactions and looking, instead, for "big" ideas. Looking for a big idea can blind you to small ideas which are, paradoxically, often the most universal.

For years, Dorothy had been taking her broken household appliances to a tiny store near her home. She loved the way the repairmen brought toasters and blenders back to life with their tools and attention. Their dedication inspired her to make Fix-It Shops: An Endangered Species, an award-winning short film documenting one shop, just around the corner from where she lives.

Finding an idea is just the beginning. New ideas can be brilliant and powerful--but most often they are like newborn babies. They do not yet have enough strength to make their own way in the world. New ideas usually need to be nurtured and protected. Among the first things they need to be protected from is distraction and doubt.

Dealing With Distractions and Doubt

One of the reasons people lose heart and fail to develop their ideas is that others discourage them. Some people will love your idea, but others will criticize you. People will say things like, "No one wants to talk about that" or, "That's already been done."

Some people just need to play Devil's advocate, because it is their way of being involved. Their criticism is not so much about you or your subject; it's really about them and their way of dealing with the world. The only way to deal with such criticism is to maintain your focus and to consider the source.

When one of Dorothy's relatives heard she was making a film about presidential elections, she cornered Dorothy and said, "You have so much talent. Why waste your time on this? The election's over!"

Dorothy said, "I listened, and almost began to defend myself. Then I realized that she was not politically active, and really didn't understand where I was going with this project. I thanked her for her candid feedback, and dropped the subject. Then we went on to show a work-in-progress of that film to sold-out screenings across the country. When someone tries to discourage me, I consider the input, and then sort through what they've said. If the project still feels right, my resolve deepens."

Unasked-For Attention

The more passionate and committed you become, the more you will find people becoming attracted to you and to your project. There is often a shadow side to this attention, not only at the beginning, but along the way.

Early on, people who are attracted to the project may offer their services--even when you don't want help. Others may try to influence your project because they identify with it, and feel they can add needed input. Yet others recognize the power in what you are doing and want to be part of that for their own reasons.

You will have to decide if you want any of these people working with you, even as volunteers. You must learn to be both selective and protective.

Your Own Doubts

Other common obstacles are fear and doubt. You may find yourself thinking, "I have always dreamed about doing this, but I don't know if I can pull it together." If the idea of making a film or writing a book frightens you, but you still feel drawn to the project, I say "Start!"

You may have doubts about whether you have enough information, or whether you have all the facts you need. The way to overcome this obstacle is to do more research. Learn what you need to know. As you fill in the blanks, you answer your doubts and you can press forward.

Fear of change is another obstacle. As the project begins to move forward you will find that you get new insights and information. Your original idea may be changing. The challenge now is to let the production evolve. The core idea will have a voice of its own, and this voice will tell you in which direction to go.

Getting Stuck, Not Knowing What To Do

You may eventually get stuck. Input about what to do next will come from many sources. If you are making a film, it may come from watching your footage and your edited cuts. If you are writing a book, it may come from putting aside your draft and re-reading it a week later.

Guidance will come from everywhere--what you read, what you see, conversations, and from your own intuition. Make notes about everything--even if it doesn't seem immediately useful. Develop the habit of keeping notebooks and/or files of all your new information.

To take full advantage of guidance, you need to be willing to both hold the reins and to let them go. Sometimes you drive and sometimes you go along for the ride. Stay open to this back-and-forth, and you will learn to both recognize help and to use it well. Being willing to change direction when you get new information is a sign of strength, not weakness.

The final criterion is how the new information affects the work. If it improves the work--accept it. If it weakens the work--reject it.

Finishing the Project

Finishing a project is one of the most difficult parts of both filmmaking and writing. The key thing to remember is that only an idea about which you are truly passionate will carry you through to a completed film or book. Without such an idea, it is almost impossible to sustain the drive you will need to complete your project.

When you are faced with the difficulties of finishing your project, and everything seems hopeless, remember: When you choose an idea that brings you to life, the way you make your film or write your book will be unique. You may even find that you are the only person in the world who can tell a particular story.

Don't be afraid to start. When you find an idea that is truly yours, and take the first steps to turn it into reality, the universe often seems to have a way of responding and matching your efforts. Dorothy has run into this phenomenon so often that she laughingly calls it the "Universal Grant Matching Service."

When in doubt, remember the old saying: "The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer."

Key Points to Remember

* You need passion to make (and finish) your own book or film.
* When you choose a subject with life for you, you tap into a wellspring of energy.
* Trust your intuition
* The films and books that come from your own knowledge, experiences, hopes, and concerns will be of interest to others.
* The strength of the core idea--and your commitment to it--will carry you through the challenges it takes to finish your book or film.

An Exercise

When Dorothy holds Producing With Passion workshops, she often throws out questions to help people find ideas. Here are some questions that you might find useful as you look for your own idea.

* What are some of the most dramatic moments you have you lived through?
* Who are some of the most memorable people you have known?
* Where do you find the greatest beauty?
* What subjects fascinate you?
* What frightens you?
* What angers you?
* What worries you?
* What do you love to do?

Meet the Author: Tony Levelle