I’m working on a new screenplay which is both a time of excitement and fear. Ideas and concepts swirl around like both parties of a blind date going which is going well. But behind the lightheadedness and giddy laughter, the fear looms as does all the long hours of work ahead.
So where to begin? The answer to this question is different for each writer and sometimes different for each script bouncing around in a writer’s mind. I like to let my ideas percolate for a bit. Once a great idea strikes me, I jot down a few notes or free write about the concept, anything and everything I can think of about the concept. What is exciting about the idea? Do I have a title or a great joke for a scene? Who is the story about? I create a folder for this idea and its incubatory document in my Scripts folder and allow it it sit. If other ideas come along for that particular project, I create another doc and so on until this idea becomes the one that is at the forefront of my mind.
One such idea, I recently decided would be my next project. (You’ll have to excuse me if I keep this discussion on the blog a bit vague while in the writing process.) Geared up and ready to go, I began by reacquainting myself with my initial notes just to build up some momentum. Over the next two weeks, I continued to flush out what I could from what jazzed me up about the idea. Again, using stand-alone documents, I free write by simply posing a question to myself about the story and see what comes. No pressure, easy-peasy.
The important thing is to write. I allow myself the freedom of circular logic, to pose questions to myself, and the permission to make bad decisions. That seems to be the key: giving myself the freedom to not have all the answers now, to make what seems like the best decision for the time being, and when utterly stumped to brainstorm out as many ideas and possibilities for later use– it’s easier to work from something that has been written down, than to create everything from scratch. Sometimes even when you don’t get the right idea down, you help yourself by getting some of the bad ideas off your mental desk space.
When I’m in the free writing, flushing out stage, I use as many tools and options I can to keep me engaged with the idea and (hopefully) writing. I’ll write on my laptop for somethings and write in a notebook for others; just to change the feel. I’ll uses notecards for quotes, concepts, scene ideas. I’ll mix them around and shuffle ‘em up. I’ll use beat sheet templates I’ve created for myself, and I’ll go back to some of the screenwriting books I love, like Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! and Pilar Alessandra’s The Coffee Break Screenwriter, combing over exercises or simply pumping myself up for writing with the capital W. The point being, anything to be done that keeps me interested and engaged without putting too much pressure on myself to have it all figured out right now I use. The worst possible thing would be to be too judgmental of myself or the idea when it’s in such a delicate place.
Today is the end of that two weeks working out my thoughts on paper. I have some key scenes, a few of the major beats in place, and a lot of great comedy ideas. (Yes, the script is a comedy. Oh! I’ve said too much.) Going through my notes, I’ve pulled out the scene ideas that are hidden in free verse ramblings and it appears I pretty much have the first act ready to go.
Now there are still some missing elements of the main characters’ personalities and life details, like jobs and favorite color. I’m not quite sure how many supporting characters I want to get my hands dirty with. I know the two main protagonists will each have a best friend character, but do I want to get the families of the protagonists involved? The Fun & Games of the second act is a brainstorming exercise I could do before officially starting the script too. But I feel you need to strike when the iron is hot when it comes to the first draft. There are always excuses to continue planning which could keep you in a development limbo or worse, write yourself into hating the project. So when I get the inkling I might be ready… I write a blog post about it instead of starting! Procrastination-ho!
All in all, I have the start of a blueprint. I have rough notes including scenes for the first act. I am ready to start and that’s all I need. My goal for this first draft is to write it as fast as possible. Write what I have as quickly as possible. It doesn’t have to be good; it doesn’t have to be complete. It just needs to happen. Remember what I wrote about about getting ideas (even bad ones) out of your head because it’s easier to work with something down on paper rather than from scratch. That’s what a first draft is… a draft. Some scenes might just be scene heading and a line of description as to what is supposed to happen here. Some scenes might just be dialog. I’m sure a lot of it will be overwritten and bad. I’m not going to worry about it now.
I always fantasize that after typing the final FADE TO BLACK, the script will be perfect, not a word to be changed. But the reality has always been, after getting the first draft out, I’m finally ready to begin writing the script for real! The first draft becomes a way of getting acquainted with the characters and the story. Some things work out very well and are “keepers,” others will be chucked out freeing up valuable real estate in my mind so other, better ideas can surface.
My goal is to spend a week on each act. (Though I am prepared to give the first and second halves of act two their own weeks if needed.) That will give me a draft in three weeks by mid March. One of my techniques as I write this draft is to write each scene in it’s own Final Draft doc. Some people might fear that methodology, staring at a blank white screen can be daunting, but I find it helps me keep the scenes (or small sequences) self contained. Each one has a title and an agenda of their own – as each scene should have when you’re drafting or outlining. I have a hard time keeping a whole screenplay in my head, especially when it’s all in one document. By keeping the scenes separate, it allows me to look down on my script from it’s folder and see all the moving pieces. I can easily move them around, rearrange them or set them a side.
Sidenote: I’ve found in my writing process, a lot of time I have the right scenes in the wrong places. The strong scene ideas I have at the conceptual stage are usually the main tent posts of the script. Though what I think is the midpoint might be the third act break, my “Dark night of the Soul” is actually my “All is lost” moment. If you haven’t guessed yet, I’m a Save the Cat! fan.
With all my lego-like scene files, I’ll copy & paste them into larger files for the first act, act 2A, 2B, and act three. Taking all the little bits and creating the act files as they become complete is always like a treat for me filling me with a sense of satisfaction and pride. And when all the act files have been made, the only thing left to do is to create one giant First Draft file! T-minus 20 days.
I’ll keep you posted. (pun intended)