A screenwriter friend of mine asked me a question yesterday about part of my process, and like the overkilling, writing-machine-monster that I am, I sat down and scribbled out the whole thing. Now, most of you aren't screenwriters, and don't give a rat's left ball-of-earwax how I go about writing a screenplay. It's a very particular skill-set that you'll probably never have occasion to use. Perhaps you'll find it useful, though, in some other way.
And here's the thing:
I've written a script, called PINK, in which I have the absolute, utmost confidence. Not only do I think it's awesome, but two fellow-writers whose story-opinions I value immensely think it's great, and are going to help get it produced. I'm as full of self-doubt and self-loathing as the next writer, but since there's already a Director attached to PINK, and interest from some really great actors... well, it's only a matter of time before the floodgates open and most of the peoples on the internets start flocking to this website to ask how, oh how, I ever did manage to pen such a perfect piece of film history. Consider this my preemptive answer, because when that does finally happen, I'll no doubt be too busy attending awards ceremonies to bother (insert manic, deranged laughter, here).
This is my current process, as I go into writing a new film script:
- First of all, I have a couple notebooks I carry with me at all times, in which I write down movie ideas. I've got one notebook for overarching plot ideas, and one for random bits of dialog, jokes, images, and cetera.
- When I've picked the one film idea I want to focus on, I start a notebook just for it. In it, I write down random ideas as they occur to me. Just anything - dialog, scenes, characters, motivations.
- After that's fattened up, I take all those random bits and I type them up into a document on my digi-box (a.k.a. "computing machine"). That way I can easily move them around a bit, and add more as I think of them. There's a LOT of trial and error at this stage.
- When I've got a good, solid chunk of ideas for scenes and a general idea of where I want the story to go, I move to my cork board. I write a few words on half of a 3"X5" card (Go Eco!) to remind me of each scene-idea, then tack them to a cork board in the general location where I think they're going to happen in the story. Only an insane genius can keep an entire movie in her head the whole time she's writing, so it helps to have something tangible that you can move around and re-envision quickly and easily. I tear up/throw out a LOT of cards in this process, and write a lot of new ones.
- When I think my cork board's generally working, I open a new Word-file and type it all up again. This becomes a roughly five-page document that's basically just a list of scenes. I change the story a LOT during this process, as well - adding scenes and subtracting them. This gives me a rough outline for my story, which I then use to get feedback from people I trust on what's working/not working, without having to ask them for a big time commitment.
- After I'm happy with that document, I turn it into a full treatment - about 14-18 pages. This is a more detailed description of what's happening in each scene, including some dialog, character description, and cetera. When I'm happy with my treatment, I take it back to those few trusted friends for feedback. This collaboration is absolutely essential, and it's also what makes screenwriting fun - it's not just me in my lofty tower, it's a group effort. It's also great because at this stage I've not put too much time into any given scene, so I can kill it with emotional impunity, if necessary.
- When my treatment is the shining star of the entire universe, at that point, I sit down to write the script. Writing a script from a fully-realized treatment is the fun part. Most of the hard work has been done. The skeleton's there, and the rest is just fleshing it out, jolting it with electricity, and bringing it to life. From a full treatment, I can write a script in six days. In fact, that's what I did, at first. I've since cut it back to twenty days, because it helps me bring my best creative self to each page. Here's the crazy thing, though... despite all the steps I've gone through, and how absolutely perfect I think I've gotten my story before actually writing the screenplay - I will still shuffle things around dramatically at this point: shifting scenes, adding new ones, and cutting out others completely. There's no shame in this, and no loss. It's all part of the evolutionary process of film-making, a process that - if I'm fortunate enough to have a script produced and turned into a real-life film - will continue in the pre-production stage, during production, and in the editing room.
- Before I get to a point where I'm taking director's notes and trying really hard to hold onto the essential beating heart of my story, though, there's the re-writing. Oh, the re-writing. Re-writing, re-writing, re-writing. Leaving it for a few months, and then re-writing it some more. Polishing it to a high sheen, staring at it admiringly, then ripping it apart and re-writing it again. Oh. My. Lanta. I could just die.
So that's all there is to it. Well, that and the fact that although it's gotten easier and cheaper to get a film made, it's gotten harder and harder to make a living at it. So to be a successful screenwriter, I'll probably have to be a producer-of-sorts, and continue to dabble in other creative endeavors along the way. Like, say, being a sandwich artist at Subway. Or McDonald's.
[exit stage left, weeping]