So an interesting thing happened to me today. After working for MONTHS on end on my first real full-length feature I had a major breakthrough. I’ve been breaking and re-breaking this particular story on and off since May, but due to some personal issues and the sudden announcement of a major deadline, I’ve been working 12-14 hour days for the past two weeks trying to hammer out the newest incarnation of my tale from page-freaking-one.
As of today, upon waking, I only had ten solid, usable pages of writing. These ten pages were the best ten pages of screenwriting I’ve ever accomplished in my life, and for a very insecure
writer person – that is quite a statement. Along with those ten pages I had the vaguest idea of my first act break, a hope for a mid-point, and a dream that I would figure out act break two and the climax along the way. I was screwed. Let’s just say before I went to bed the previous night (well, morning, the days are blending together at this point) I had my very own “dark night of the soul.” Tonight, however, I’m going to bed one step closer…
This is what I realized. My very own writing process. I’m documenting my creative epiphany on this blog because, well, I need an excuse to just write it somewhere, and as Joseph Campbell once said, the role of a journalist in a society is to “educate themselves in public.” Well here you go public, this is the education of yours truly. A lot of this is pulled from ideas and advice from so many other more accomplished writers, but everything is a remix.
So here we go, this is how I broke the story for what will be the first full-length feature I’ve ever wrote (not counting a 300 page just for fun action movie I wrote in 5th grade called The Good and the Bad and a very lazy re-telling of Romeo and Juliet in modern day vernacular called StarCrossed that I wrote my sophomore year of high school).
Let’s start with the brainstorming…
Start out with a vague idea of conflicts to explore. Environment, setting, theme will also be explored here. This is essentially where the genre is determined. When thinking about this, explore the people that touch these concepts. What kind of characters would live in this place, be involved in these situations, find themselves in these predicaments, etc. Then focus more on the…
Out of the people you thought about, what makes them interesting? Who are their allies? What are their obstacles? Start to build their life and their social network, or even their thoughts if they’re loners. Then build their engine: their motivations, their dreams, their flaws, their vices, what makes them happy, how they interact with people, where they are in life when we first meet them, and where they hope to be. Then do this for their allies, their antagonists, hell I even did this for the girlfriend of the guy who gets killed off by page 10 in my story – the girlfriend that doesn’t even show up past the first act. When you have all that, throw shit at them…
The Conflict Engine:
This part broke me, then made me, broke me again, and now I’m here. My story deals with some tech-savy hombres, and the initial (very elementary) concept was that they were hackers. Because of this they ended up just hacking when the story hit a lull. They need to get to this certain point to advance them in the story, what should they do? They hack their way there. Then what happens? They get raided. Hack and raid, hack and raid. It all got so boring and repetitive. What did I try to do to get out of this? Oh, they do this dumb thing but we find out that they meant to do it.
Okay this is a really bad way of explaining the process of what made me realize that a lot of those outlining seminars, articles, and forums on r/screenwriting were trying to tell me all along. A lot of the other, previously mentioned, elements (most notably character) were too under developed in order for me to get a true sense of conflict. Then a couple of things really stuck with me. The first was something that Aaron Sorkin repeats anytime he’s asked about his process. Intention and Obstacle. So in brainstorming my plot I just drew a table with two columns: intention and obstacle. I would decide what one character would want, and then what was standing in their way. The next row would be their result, followed by their next intention. This got me a bit of the way and gave me rough (very, very rough) ideas of possible conflicts. This in turned helped me build my antagonists based on what would be the hardest thing I could throw at my protagonists. After having all those rough ideas floating around on Google Drive, notepads, index cards, and my Notes app on my iPhone I was ready for…
Woo. This was so crucial. Like. Seriously. I’ve gotten as far as 75 pages just trying to straight write my screenplay from the beginning. I would get mad, bored, and hate myself for even wanting to ever be a writing, because for the most part a lot of it was SHIT. SHITTY SHITTY SHIT.
Trust me. I know Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. I have my own hand-drawn version of Dan Harmon’s story circle in the room of my apartment. I just thought that those were more guidelines. Well, they kind of are, but man do they really help guide ME on my way. I had to know my ending, like really know my ending. Oh I had some fun images floating around in my head: the end would see the protagonist thinking he won the day, enjoying a glass of whiskey on a roof in Belize when BOOM gunshot from a sniper right through the head – then cut to black (no spoilers, this isn’t happening anymore). OH CRAP MYKE, sequel! What did he miss? Where did that come from? Let’s watch the movie again – said the audience. Yeah, it’s a fun concept, but that’s like all I really had. To give a better picture of my shitty outline for my third act: every index card I had for plot points in my first act were almost 100 words each. My second act cards had like, half that. Third act? “So and So dies.” “They turn the tables.” “So and so performs a thrilling getaway.” Awesome! It’s outlined, I can write it! Two months and over 200 deleted pages later, back to square one.
Here’s where I spam a bunch of links that helped me get instill the necessity for all the previous work in my head.
This well written re-explanation of a professional screenplay reader’s suggestion on where beats in a screenplay should go.
Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling (<<AMAZING)
Joss Whedon’s Rules of Storytelling (worth a read)
There are TONS more, r/screenwriting is a great source for discussion, idea exchange, and resource sharing.
Alright, alright. Blah blah blah, we get it, we’ve heard it before – it took you long enough!
I knnooooow, I’m in the future, too [totally stolen from Mike Birbiglia (p.s. Sleepwalk With Me and his one-man show on Netflix My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend are great examples of personal storytelling)]
So here’s my own personal advice (mainly to myself, whaddup future Myke?!):
- Use some sort of index card/large post it system. Whatever you can separate ideas on. These are mainly plot points, story points, whatever. If you can remove it from a table of other ideas then great. This helps to rearrange things, visually see points next to character development, rearrange events in the story to discover new tension, suspense or whatever. You can use more cards to elaborate on cards that already exist if you rearrange things. I put little asterisks on cards that should be elaborated on in the future. Whatever. It helped way more than an outline on Word or on my notepad – these things I generally just brainstorm on.
- Know thy ending. Then build up the beginning, then revisit the idea for the ending, then see where you can set things up in the middle to make the climax sweeter, then throw some things in the beginning to set-up that middle thing that was for the climax, then throw away some middle things because it can be a twist reveal in the climax, then find out when you read through your cards that the twist-ending was a bad idea, then cut the first cards from the beginning because you need to cut to the chase, but way you need to set something up, put those cards in the middle for a flashback, wait is a flashback hoakey? You get the point. All things are always changing until you register that bitch at the WGA.
- Find your act breaks. This makes you realize things like “when does my character start reacting, then start doing,” or “when does he accept the call to adventure,” or “what crazy thing can I have happen in the middle of my story so the first act doesn’t get repeated in the second,” there’s a lot more to it, but my fatigue is beating my willingness to elaborate.
- Figure out the fun stuff, make them funner. This kind of goes along with the last thing, but concepts like “the dark night of the soul” when your characters are at their lowest point, or the catalyst which gets the plot going – these need to be thought of. Duh.
- Try this new thing I haven’t tested out but I’m writing on here because I want to keep a note of it. The idea basically is a stronger outline. Scene by scene. I start with location then what has to happen in the scene. Intention and obstacle definitely always taken into consideration. Dialogue beats. Plot beats. This why I’m making sure I don’t get all flow-y with the dialogue because I’m too lazy to find a good end point or transition to a scene. In – out. That’s what a screenplay is all about. Is it? Maybe, we’ll see.
So fatigue is winning and I’m missing a lot of the details here. Here’s where I get all bullet point crazy so I don’t have to figure out some flowery language to tie all these last random thoughts together.
- If your story is centered around a government conspiracy – map out that damn conspiracy, no seriously – add depth to your damn macguffins
- Don’t write a conspiracy, political, government, espionage thriller because you think there needs to be better ones out there – they’re hard. So much research. Wait, you like research? Good on you! Go for it then, if not, write what you know
- Really, just write what you know when you can. Your alien character that gained human-like emotions after transferring souls with an Earthling because you both touched the same magical faucet? – yeah if that dude’s brother died, imagine when you lost someone who really meant something to you. This always pissed me off in film-school, teachers who said write like you know and took it literally. I wrote my short story about a collegiate under-achiever who resorts to taking adderall in order to stop stalling in his life – now what?
- Read scripts, novels, short stories, whatever you’re trying to write. Like, duh.
- If you’re stuck on a scene, write another one that’s further on in the story
- Hate beginnings? Write the middle, write the first act break, whatever – you’ll get back to the scene having chagned.
- “Write drunk, edit sober” – Ernest Hemmingway .. I think, is that just an internet rumor?
- If you can find someone who is interested, for whatever reason, in telling this particular story – trick them into helping you break the damn thing. No seriously. Anyone. Handle the heavy lifting when it comes to writer’s knowledge and actually formatting the damn thing but god does it help (this maybe more for myself). They don’t even have to be a writer! I was finally able to break my story with a computer programmer. Maybe that’s the advice actually. Work with developers/programmers/designers. Either that or maybe I just have dope friends.
- Don’t waste a bunch of time on a 2000+ word blog about your process…. ahhhh jk. okay the jokes are getting bad, let’s end this.
- Shit, I forgot my closing point – seriously, it was actually relevant and tied everything together
- Oh, if you do start to get to a point with a certain person where you’re getting interested in working together, of if you both have a good idea for something and you want to write it out, explain to them your process and what works for you. I get writer’s rooms now, and I have a better understanding on why a showrunner would say that working with someone you get along with is one of the most important factors in bringing a writer into the room, because if you just figure out how to work and they have good taste and are pragmatic it makes the process super-happy-fun-time
Alright folks, thanks if you’re still reading this, and if you are – why? Sorry for the gradual breakdown in structure, grammar, and wit, like I said – this was mostly for me. See you on the other side, where I write a super-emo post about how shitty my script became.
Please, please, please, if you have other personal tips – I’d love to hear them!