a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Process

So the screenplay I'm writing now is the first new one I've actually gotten immersed in in several years. My Nicholl script was an old script that I tweaked, while my supernatural thriller was the latest rewrite of a script I first wrote 2 or 3 years ago.

I did start several other scripts last year, only to get sidetracked and ultimately set them aside. I wrote about 40 pages of a horror movie rife with sex and violence; I wrote about 15 pages of a supernatural comedy that I had done a pretty full treatment of. Both are scripts I'd like to finish sometime this year.

But now I'm immersed in the new thing, and trying to refine my writing process, which is something that I know all writers wrestle with, and something that by its nature is different for everyone.

I used to dive into the actual writing process way, way too early. I'd come up with some interesting characters and a basic situation, and just jump right in. I dig the actual writing process much more than the sitting-around-and-thinking-about-it process, and I wasn't mature enough to rein myself in.

The good thing with this is that I'm the kind of writer who gets a lot of ideas while actually writing scenes, more so than in the pure-brainstorming process, so there's a method to my madness.

The very bad thing is that this process tends to take a long time, because in the course of finding the best story (which often had little resemblance to the story I started out with, while probably neither was actually the "best" story) I would write draft after draft after draft after draft.

I'd like to say that I'm such a genius writer that I knocked out my Nicholl semi script on the first pass. The truth is that it took about 20 drafts, during which a LOT of different storylines came and went.

But as I kept setting that script aside, and writing other stuff, I refined my process more. Some scripts came easier than others. My frozen time script somehow blew into my head fairly fully-formed; I wrote out an extended treatment of it, and then knocked out a first draft. It still took a few more passes and a couple of story shifts to get it right, but it was a lot less work than my Nicholl script was, while quality-wise they are fairly similar.

Still, the essential quandary for me (and, I'm guessing, a lot of other writers), is this:

A) The more I brainstorm ahead of time, the more I think out and figure out, the easier the actual physical writing process is going to be. But...

B) It is through the actual writing process that I generally discover most of the real meat of my story, as well as the shadings of my characters, and the journey they are going through.

Complicating things for me is that, as a professional reader, I'm constantly reading and analyzing other people's stories. Which is good in developing analytical skills, but bad if I am actually trying to hold my script, and whatever aspect I am working on, in my head, while someone else's plot is pushing it off the ledge.

With this new script, I decided on a process that mixed A and B in what is hopefully the most workable way possible. I figured out the story, and brainstormed it to the point that I knew the first act in some detail. The rest was somewhat vague, though I knew the ending, and had a lot of scenes and ideas that could fit in. I knew (I thought I knew) what the characters' journeys were, and how the story was going to reveal this.

And then I sat down, and tackled the first act.

And as expected, my characters started talking back. The story started to mutate, to change, to get better, but also to become different. To define itself in ways that I didn't expect.

But it's okay, because that's built into this process. Because the second half of the script isn't fixed in stone, there is enough flexibility for the tale to shift in ways that it needs to, without my feeling locked into something that I endlessly brainstormed.

That's not to say that I haven't embraced the thinking-about-the-script-a-lot aspect. I'm mixing getting-into-the-scene writing with brainstorming what's ahead. Some of the scenes doesn't work, or is rendered unworkable by later scenes, but I've gone back in and spun things a different way, or cut them.

Saturday I had a moment where I was concerned it all wasn't working. I had written a bunch of new scenes, but the script now felt unfocused and off, a jumble of good ideas and muddy structure.

Then I realized that the first part of the second act needed better juggling. Where the sequences should be A-B-C-D, I had it A-D-B-C. Things were happening too soon, that was throwing the tale off. I had a talk with D, moved him to a better location, thought about the implications of A-B-C-D in terms of the rest of the script, wrote several legal pad pages of notes, and suddenly it all clicked. Boo-yah.

Right now I'm benefitting from a lack of paying work, which is enabling me to give the attention to the script that I want to. But still, the time issue is something that needs to be finessed. If I write too fast, I'm not thinking things out enough; things need to simmer, not boil over. If I write too slow, the ideas in my head are losing their freshness, while I'm also risking losing this window of opportunity that the inevitable pile o' work is going to bring crashing down.

Still, I'm enjoying the experience. My decision to exercise my analytical skills more (via my $60 notes) over the last 15 months has definitely paid dividends; I now feel much stronger in analyzing my own work in progress, something that I had often struggled with in the past.

45 pages so far. Some of it is raw, a lot of it needs polishing, but I think it's on the right track. Feels good.

Anyone out there want to share their processes, go right ahead.


At 8:55 AM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

I know I'm no authority on process having gone from not outlining enough to outlining the hell out of my story.

It's good to have a document to work with that will allow you to write your first draft as quickly as possible.

I think you need the guts to diverge from your plans when it is merited and the faith to stick with the story you've spent a lot of time crafting and resist the urge to run with every tangential idea that leaks out of your mind while you are writing.

I think that, in the end, my goal is to be able to see the story so clearly during the outlining/treatment phase that these ideas hit you while you are writing the treatment instead of relying on them becoming visible only while drafting.

It seems like you might be onto the process that works for you.

I'm still searching for mine.

At 10:04 AM, Blogger Brett said...

I actually try not to fret so much over process.

"Find an idea and some characters I like, toy with them in my head until a story starts to coalesce and then refuse to not be written, then outline it in rough beats and make sure I have the opening, the finale, and the act 1 and act 2 endings fairly clear, and then start by nailing down the first and last scenes, and then start picking scens from the outline and penning them. When all the beats have been accounted for, go back and read and see where something seems off or missing, adjust seasoning, re-read, consider some readers, set aside and work on something else, then come back a few weeks later and see if it all still makes sense, adjust, repoeat. etc."

I've not made a dime yet, but it's fun and reasonably low-cost.

At 4:02 PM, Blogger Nathan said...

Still looking for my method.

Tried flashcards, didn't stick with them. seems like I'm better at letting my characters tell me what to do next instead of the other way round. Gonna try a mirrored family tree type layout where you have things that spawn things then trickle back down into the ending. Who knows might work.

Also I know what you mean about the timing thing. (not to fast not to slow) I came up with a little saying in art class. "Know your medium". kind of works two ways and can apply almost anywhere. Theres always that point where its not finished and the point when you've went to far.

Hardest thing for me is to know when to stop.

At 8:43 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

My first draft is my outline. Sadly, I can't do it any other way.

At 9:37 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

I just write.

At 9:49 PM, Anonymous Blair said...

BTW, Sir, check out the Nicholl page... they updated, and our names can finally be seen. Not a Earth-shattering, wonderous event, but fun nonetheless.

At 6:58 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Yeah, that's very cool.

At 2:11 PM, Blogger Stefan Avalos said...

The Script is the easy part for me. :)
It's the outline, then the treatment that kills me.

For me, writing a screenplay with no map is a deadly exercise. Gotta have the ending or I'm a dead man. I learned that the hard way. first the pin board, then an outline, then a treatment, then a script.

Then rewriting
and rewriting...

Having said that, I'm reading this blog because I'm absolutely blank on how the final scene will play in the screenplay I'm just finishing -- not an outline or treatment -- the screenplay.


Good luck with yours.

At 1:25 PM, Anonymous David said...

I have dived in too early often, getting much better at preparing, don't do any one thing. Lately I've been doodling storyboards, drawing diagrams of characters with various kinds of lines connecting them together (A strongly connected to B, has a tenuous connection to C and D, etc...), playing with action figures and toys, and standing in a hot shower for minutes on end...which actually seems to work really well. Just tends to drive up the gas bill.


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