The other 20% is knowing your fundamental characters, places, sequences and milestones well enough that they are real to you. Simply put, it’s making your story’s world second nature.
While the 20% never really ends, it can certainly take a backseat to the 80%, once you begin on the script itself.
These percentages represent the time you put in, not the amount of work they each require. If the 20% is as fully imagined as possible before you sit down and begin writing, the entire process can be far more fluid and rewarding.
No two writers have the same methodology. I consume a lot of interviews with writers and my ever-evolving “method” is a hybrid of many common approaches.
I hear writers discuss outlining their scripts, versus not outlining. Some create a master document—much like a short story—and pull their script from that. The best approach must really be discovered by each individual writer.
My hope is that this post will clarify something I wanted to hear for a long time: you don’t need to pick one approach and adhere to it ad infinitum. I’ve struggled with what I thought was writer’s block, believing I should be writing the way I had in the past.
It was only in breaking free of this narrow concept that I was able to begin writing successfully again, and enter one of the most productive screenwriting periods of my life!
HOW TO BECOME A SCREENWRITER, THE 20%
When I was just beginning to write screenplays, the world was my oyster. No story could intimidate me, and over-thinking never prevailed. I finished many feature and short screenplays between ages 14 and 19.
Quality of these scripts aside, there was a time when I could sit down with little preparation and stories would pour out. I would complete these scripts and either make them, or move on.
Youthful angst and curiosity that pump uninhibited creative juice through our veins. Grow a little older, get jaded a little, get a bit more career oriented, and suddenly the words just don’t flow like they used to.
This is why it’s important to learn where your ideas come from and what form they take?
Training your brain to answer its own questions about the world is a writer’s best friend. Answering these questions daily is how we form beliefs, philosophies, and construct deeper questions to ask.
I’ve never had an idea for a film that didn’t come from some burning question. Sometimes it’s a question of life, and sometimes I’m curious about a genre of film, why it’s never taken a certain turn, or how far it can be pushed in a challenging direction? If I’m lucky, life and genre questions merge, then I’m off to the races!
Tapping into this investigative voice ensures you’ll rarely hit creative block. Recording or writing down at least 1 inspiration per day keeps you fresh and curious.
Whether I’m researching a topic of interest, or zoning out in the car, the “whys” and “what-ifs” that pop up between pursuing answers, and finding them are where stories come from.
Most professional writers are very regimented about this process. For me, it’s always been pretty informal, and that’s where it needs to stay. Any time I’ve tried forcing it, I’m let down by the results.
The most valuable tool in my arsenal is talking to myself. I do this daily, and constantly. I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying if I’ll be heard or seen having a lone conversation.
Externalizing my internal dialogue allows me to hear it, and respond.
A few months back I watched a film I hadn’t seen in years, which inspired my most recently completed script. I spent a couple days after viewing the film talking out loud to myself about the spark of an idea, until it was clear that there was quite a bit to explore.
Hearing myself discuss the the world of the story out loud crystallized it; the environment, inhabitants, and motivations became palpable and it became something I could transcribe, instead of invent at a desk.
They say you should “write what you know.” Well, thinking aloud is how I get to know the “whys” and “what-ifs.” Thus (pretentious voice), drama is born.
They come from almost anywhere: people you know, other characters in films you’ve seen, or the embodiment of the best and worst versions of yourself. They could be a little bit of each.
It’s been helpful to observe and compile traits I find interesting, whether physical or personality. When combined in different ways, these collected traits form whole individuals that I have the pleasure of knowing and understanding.
Good writing is empathy. I have trouble sitting down to write a single page without having a fairly good idea of who my films characters are, to their core. What have they dealt with in their lives? What are their biggest preoccupations? Do they enjoy their work and relationships? Are they close with their families? How old are they and what world did they grow up in?
I can occasionally find these things by writing dialogue, but then I often return to the drawing board to learn more about these people I’m meeting for the first time.
Sometimes I write all this down, and sometimes it lives in my head. I talk to myself as much about my characters as I do about stories and general ideas, often recording these sessions on my phone to catalogue for later.
I have a series of twenty-minute recordings, each delving into the lives of six characters in an ensemble piece I’ve dabbled with. These recordings chronicle each journey: from birth, to the day the script begins, and in some cases, after the story has ended. Every time I pick up this story again, I go back and listen to whichever recording covers a particular character I’m focusing on.
The ultimate question to ask when looking for character inspiration is: who fascinates you and begs to be understood in a deeper way?
Record the intriguing qualities of others and when you’re looking for someone to occupy the world you’ve invented, you can construct them from the ground up!
If you really know the world you’ve created and those inhabiting it, scenes can evolve with some ease. Scenes arise from placing your characters under the most dramatic circumstances (comically, thrillingly, horrifically, etc) that your story’s world can house.
For me, scenes materialize organically as my ideas on story and character converge. Don’t get it twisted: characters should propel the story, as we propel the narratives of our lives.
Imagining scenes can be further assisted by identifying locations. Your locations don’t have to be real, but they need to exist within the context of your film’s world, and your characters’ lives. Giving your scenes a stage helps fuel drama.
Locations and action are the least abstract facets of a filmmaking, so they generally come last in my investigation period.
COLLECTING THE FRAGMENTS
I keep a series of digital notebooks in Evernote. In them I track new character ideas, locations, dialogue/lines, and scenes that come to mind. Each is its own note and is generally not associated with a specific story. They are pools of disjointed fragments I can draw from later when constructing a narrative, character, or when I’m at a loss for where a story should go.
I add an entry one or more of these notebooks daily. This is my primary protection against writer’s block, and an all-around great exercise for staying fresh and sharp.
TO OUTLINE, OR NOT TO OUTLINE?
Some writers say “always,” while others say “never.” I generally lean toward “never,” but I suppose I outline in my own way: with psychological traps!
Any time I’ve written out a scene-by-scene outline of a story, I lose interest and never complete a full draft. I need a sense of anticipating what’s to come next for my characters?
However, starting at page one with no idea whatsoever of what’s on the horizon has never worked for either. I spend a huge amount of time thinking before ever sitting down to write. This serves two purposes:
- If I quickly lose interest in an idea, I may never have stuck with the writing, or the concept might not be ready for me to explore. It will continue living in Evernote.
- If the idea grown in scope and depth without me writing, I have a bigger and more solidified foundation to build from.
I’ll wait anywhere between a week and month before starting something new. I won’t start page one of a script before allowing it to gestate. I’ll read, watch movies, research, or occasionally I’ll do broad writing before starting a screenplay: character biographies, related philosophical rants, relevant lines of dialogue, or even location descriptions.
The bottom line is, I won’t start the script until I can’t wait any more. Waiting doesn’t always lead to a finished draft either; sometimes I stop at ten pages, or sometimes sixty. No guarantees, but it’s the best form of preparation I’ve found for myself.
My time thinking is mostly spent focusing on the 20% information: who are the characters, what is the world, and what issues are being dealt with? The longer I hold out and make way for these dialogues, the more coalesced the concepts will be when I sit down to start writing.
While I don’t outline scene-by-scene, I have found having sequences to look forward to hugely helpful. These are milestones in my story, placed throughout the script that give me something to work toward. If I’m stuck on a certain scene, I’ll always have it in the back of my mind that a sequence I’m anticipating is just around the corner.
In line with this anticipation, I hate knowing how a film will end before starting to write. I much prefer not knowing the end until I reach it in the writing process. However, I do like to know what happens just before the end.
I like to have some idea what that resolve (if any) will be, but not know completely how the audience should leave feeling. So, I enjoy knowing what will broadly happen, but not what the last scene will be.
As an example: were I writing The Godfather, I would ideally know that I’m building toward the “mass-murder/christening” scene, while not fully knowing what would come next.
Once the big finale is written, it’s tough to turn back. You’ll find a way to end your film.
A caveat to this approach is, if you adopt it, you must also accept that your second draft may change drastically from the first. Your ending may negate or change a good deal of your first draft’s structure and events. This is a risk I’m willing to take, in favor of organically discovering an ending.
SURRENDER INHIBITIONS: THERE WILL BE DRAFTS
Before sitting down to start my script, I have to go through some self-talk to let go of my need to control every element in the equation. When I’m filled with trepidation over starting or continuing, I need to remind myself of this quote:
“The first draft of anything is s**t!” -Ernest Hemingway
I think most writers need that reminder, once in awhile. First drafts are for word-vomiting every concept to the page.
I think of first drafts like Kerouac’s scroll. Jack Kerouac is known to have written his seminal book, On The Road, on a 120ft scroll of typing paper. He kept going and going until he stopped.
First drafts are my scroll. They should be far longer than I want the film to be, and should have every imaginable subplot, unnecesary character, and gratuitous idea. They should be overhaul, with overlong dialogue scenes, excruciatingly prosed expositions, and a mess of redundancies.
My scroll should be everything and nothing, all at once. I commit to this: no one has to read it but me. I remind myself of this whenever I’m worried about how the film will ultimately turn out. That turnout will not be indicated by the first draft.
COMMIT TO A SCHEDULE
Unless you’re a full time screenwriter, a specific due date for your script can be difficult to commit to. However, simple commitments can be achievable, keep you on track, and help drive progress.
I like to set reminders for myself on my phone. I’ve sent a permanent reminder to go off once a day, at 1pm. It simply says, “Write.” While I don’t always accomplish this, when I do, I generally complete five or more pages.
This reminder enforces my accountability. Once per day I have to answer to whether or not I’ll be putting time into a script. If you have an iPhone and have never used reminders, here’s a helpful tutorial:
A writing session can last a few minutes or a few hours. It’s important to write something daily. With reminders keeping writing on my mind, even if I’m not writing, I can be building scene or set of scenes in my head. This way I have a specific goal when I finally find some time.
While deadlines are challenging for part-timers, they can be helpful. I generally like to give myself one month to complete a full first draft. This time takes into account my many obligations, and is realistic given my propensity to write 5 to 10 pages in a few hour sitting.
Committing to a broad schedule where I’ll complete a draft in a realistic time frame at regular and reasonable intervals is my key to completion.
THE 80%: A** IN CHAIR
“The secret to writing a screenplay is keeping your a** in the chair. (A** + CHAIR = PAGES)” -Oliver Stone
Once I’ve given myself time to flesh out the story’s world, and I’ve committed to progress, it’s time to do the work.
This 80% takes the most time and encompasses more than just the first draft. It houses the entirety of the actual writing process, from the first word of your script you write, to the moment the finished pages are ready to be produced.
I generally type my scripts in Final Draft. I used to hand-write, and sometimes still do, but I type faster than I can write by hand, and Final Draft makes formatting mindless. Its the industry standard screenwriting software for a reason. While a bit spendy, it does last forever, and if you’re a student there’s a pretty steep discount here!
Admittedly, I don’t toy with a lot of Final Draft’s features, beyond the basics. The main additional features I employ are:
- Changing Character names: If a character’s name or gender changes in a later draft, you can command Final Draft to change that name throughout the script with one step. It’s a very handy feature as screenplays evolve. Here’s a tutorial!
- ScriptNotes: I find this helpful for everything from reminding myself to make edits, to making more specific tonal or character notes in pre-production. Check out this video tutorial if you haven’t yet used ScriptNotes!
Irrelevant of your software or tools, every day after you start is an exciting and cathartic journey into a world that you get to build and tour.
Stick to your time commitments. Keep a myopic focus on fleshing out every possible moment, line, sequence, and outcome, until you have your Kerouac scroll. Don’t overthink this: just stay in the chair (or standing up at your desk, as I often do).
When you move through the middle, celebrate. When you complete a scene you’ve been anticipating, celebrate. Then celebrate completing your first draft.
AFTER YOUR FIRST DRAFT
Before busting out the red pen to cut my scroll apart, I try taking time away from my script. Gaining some distance allows me to edit more objectively. If there’s nothing pressing me to get the film made soon, I’ll sometimes set aside a first draft for years. If I am in a hurry, I’ll take a week or so and come back fresh.
I like to print out the first draft and, red pen in hand, thrash my way through dialogue, action, and even full scenes or characters that seem unnecessary. The red pen is key for me: I like to see a lot of marks on every page.
Just as a final film is made in the editing bay, editing your script is where the true writing happens. Be as brutal as possible and take no prisoners. If you’re not sure, cut it out and see if you miss it later.
This process generally takes longer than writing a first draft. It can take months, depending on how prepared you were when you began? I’m sure those who write with outlines suffer less over editing story mechanics. For me, editing investigates the gambit: from dialogue to scene progression.
Once I’m finished with the red pen, and before beginning my typed script edits, I duplicate the digital script file! This is crucial, so I never lose things that I’ve cut; I may decide to re-add them in a future draft.
I add the following extension to my scripts file name: “_v2,” “_v3,” or whichever version I’m working on, at that point. Example:
I create as many drafts as I need to feel confident that this is the story I want to tell!
THE TAKEAWAY: THE SCRIPT IS NEVER FINISHED
I try to remember, at all times, that the script is just a blueprint for a film that has not yet been made. As collaborators enter the equation and the limitations of shooting come into play, so much will change.
In many ways, a script is a completely different film. If you love your script and it’s going to get made, it’s important to know that the time you spend alone with it when it’s done will likely be the last time you see it as it was in your head. I’ve struggled with this, for better and worse.
But remember: your blueprint can grow into something beautiful and every bit as transfixing for an audience as it was for you while you initially created and explored this world of your own creation, alone, in a room, with your computer screen. Every story starts with a blank page; find your most effective method and go fill it!
Do you have a different method? Tell me in the comments, below!