Adapted from Writers Workshop Script Doctor
Copyright © 1994, 1996, 1997, Dorian Scott Cole
What would you write if you were writing purely for yourself? Romance? High adventure? No one but you would ever see it. Deep science? Sex? What aspect of human nature would you explore? Different relationships? Altered reality? How deeply would you look? A way to become able to write more uniquely is to push the limits of your writing as far as you can. If you can only write stories about honest people, try writing about a den of thieves, and don't let any of your characters be "good guys." If you are limited in scope about people who get high on life, write a story in which that's all people are allowed to do. Explore the entire "high on life" world in depth.
If sex is a hang-up, write a few pages and embarrass yourself, then write a few more pages and make it worse. If all you can let in your mind is adventure, write a story that is all romance. Mark these stories "experimental" or "stretch," and don't let anyone see them. They were never intended for human consumption. But what they will do is make you able to write more fully about human experience.
For example, what is it like to become trapped in a mine shaft? Not exactly a fun filled story. Are the first hours filled with expectation of rescue, and picturing various cave-in scenarios? Is there a burst of hope and an attempt to dig out? Is the failure to reach anywhere followed by a sense of impending doom, and the certain knowledge of the worst case scenario? What are the thoughts of the person separated from loved ones? Does hope change to hopelessness and despair? What role do hunger and thirst play? How do they react when they die, or are rescued? After writing this story, you may never write another story with a character being trapped and gloss it over as just another event in the day - you’ll have a dimension of realism.
Another example: most people have fears. How do these influence their behaviors? In a story about fear of being raped, how does that influence a woman's decisions? Does she walk several blocks on city streets to avoid parking in a dimly lit and isolated parking garage? Does she avoid going out at night? Does she limit her companions to females? Does she restrict her working hours to daylight only? Put yourself in the mind of a fearful person and trace his steps for an entire day - you may never again write a story in which someone just ignores his fears and faces them with no problem - you’ll have another dimension of realism.
Another way to stretch your skills is to carry things to their logical extremes. Take a character you are already familiar with (whose situation and limitations you already know) and confront them with an obstacle. To conquer the obstacle, push them to the farthest extremes you think they would go. What things hold them back? What would they sacrifice to get what they want? This is a way to make things "big" enough for a movie.
Situations can be pushed to their logical extremes by switching to a science fiction or fantasy scenario. The "world" can be adjusted to let just about anything happen. If you want to explore what total freedom does to people, put them in a world where they have total freedom and see what happens when they confront obstacles. Or how do people react when there are no problems to conquer? Is this what life is about - overcoming problems? Put people in a world with no problems and see what they do. Do they get bored and kill each other, or do they go in positive directions, developing new skills to alter the world around them so it is more pleasing? Do they still get bored? What if women ran the government, or people could no longer kill animals, or there was no longer money to steal? When you have explored a scenario, you can bring the characters and situation into a corresponding one in today’s world. Usually there is something in today’s world - the human condition - that corresponds to the situation, and when characters are pulled back into the reality of today’s world, they (you) have the benefit of the old perspective with the constraints of the present.
Another way to gain ideas or develop characters is to take a topic you feel seriously about and debate the opposing side. When you have developed the opposing argument, ask yourself what would make a person feel that way - you now have a character past.