Perhaps the two most powerful words in the creative process.
Screenwriter James V. Hart (Dracula, Contact, Tuck Everlasting) recounts the creative inspiration behind the movie Hook:
“The secret, the great key to writing Hook, came from my son. When he was six, he asked the question, ‘What if Peter Pan grew up?’ I had been trying to find a new way into the famous ‘boy who wouldn’t grow up’ tale, and our son gave me the key.”
What if Peter Pan grew up?
The power of two little words spawned the production of a hit movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams, directed by Stephen Spielberg, and written by Hart.
What. If. These may be the single most important words in the creative process. Behind them lies a pair of intertwined dynamics:
- Assessing a common pattern, current type, conventional idea. That represents the What, the object of consideration.
- Positing a different approach, divergent concept, distinctive take. That represents the If, the vision of the object becoming something new.
Sometimes the moment of what if inspiration can emerge out of the blue, even out of the “mouths of babes” like the movie Hook. Sometimes, however, it takes work. Here is another movie anecdote, this one involving screenwriter Marc Norman (The Aviator, Cutthroat Island):
The SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE screenplay was written by Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard, although the original idea was rooted in a third creative mind — one of Norman’s son’s, Zachary. It was in 1989, while studying Elizabethan drama at Boston University, that the younger Norman phoned his father with a sudden brainstorm of a movie concept — the young William Shakespeare in the Elizabethan theater. The elder Norman agreed it was a terrific idea, but he hadn’t a clue what to do with it. Two years later, with bits of time stolen from other projects, the notion had formed — what if Shakespeare had writer’s block while writing his timeless classic, “Romeo and Juliet”?
What if Shakespeare had writer’s block?
From that distinctive take on a classic literary character arose the movie Shakespeare in Love, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, directed by John Madden, and co-written by Norman and Tom Stoppard. It took a few years from identifying the subject matter (Shakespeare) to the moment of creative inspiration (writer’s block), but the film’s seven Academy Awards suggests it was well worth the time it took for Norman to hit on that particular what if.
One maddening reality for creative types is that the object of consideration is often sitting right there in plain view. Someone looked at a pencil and said, “What if we could put an eraser on one end?” Someone looked at a bar of chocolate and asked, “What if I broke it up into chocolate chips?” Someone looked at modeling clay and thought, “What if we made play ‘dough’ for children?”
Thus a big part of what if success is simply opening our eyes to what’s around us… and imagining new possibilities.
A third Hollywood story reflects this point. From screenwriter Bob Gale (I Want to Hold Your Hand, Used Cars):
The inspiration for making the movie, for coming up with the story [Back to the Future] is that I was visiting my parents in the summer of 1980, from St. Louis Missouri, and I found my father’s high-school yearbook in the basement. I’m thumbing through it and I find out that my father was the president of his graduating class, which I was completely unaware of. So there’s a picture of my dad, 18-years-old, and I’m thinking about the president of my graduating class, who was someone I would have had nothing to do with. He was one of these “Ra-Ra” political guys, he was probably Al Gore or something. Captain of the debate team, all this stuff. So the question came up in my head, ‘gee, if I had gone to school with my dad would I have been friends with him?’ That was where the light bulb went off.”
Looking at his father’s old high school yearbook, then thinking… What if I had gone to school with my dad?
That concept was the basis for the hit movie Back to the Future, starring Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, directed by Robert Zemeckis, co-written by Gale and Zemeckis. Gale could have just as easily flipped through the pages, then set aside the yearbook as a momentary diversion, but something clicked in his mind to think what if, and one of the most beloved movie franchise’s was born.
These examples from Hollywood writers serve as a reminder to all of us: We may tend to think of creativity as this rather transcendent, grandiose thing when in actuality inspiration can come from assessing an everyday object and coming up with a new take on it, all by using two powerful little words…
Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.
For more Writing and the Creative Life articles, go here.