Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Writing Process: Part 1


(Who writes long hand anymore? Actually, I have a notebook and a beautiful Mont Blanc fountain pen that I use constantly when I'm jotting down ideas and writing out my thoughts on a project. But...I don't write scripts long hand. I just thought this picture fit the blogger "public domain" cliche nicely.)

Nothing better than starting off a post with parentheses.

Anyway! Since Travis and I have started working on a new script, and this new script happens to be an assignment-like situation, where we're developing the project with a production company, I thought it would be interesting to provide you, my loyal readers, with a look at the process Travis and I will go through developing this script. How does something like this happen? What steps do we take before writing the script? Do we outline? Do we treatment? Things like that. So, why not take you along with us?

I've read numerous books on screenwriting but they're all a little bit academic. "All you do is write out your story using action and dialogue. Done!" Easy, right? That's the thing. Because there's so many different ways to actually write a screenplay, it's hard to write a book about it. The other thing is that it's kind of boring. Who wants to read a whole book on how someone wrote a script? Maybe this will be just as boring...but you didn't have to buy it and it will be much shorter.

So, you know how the fairy tale begins. Our script is given to the producer. Producer reads it, really likes it, just not for them. But, BUT! Finally, he goes to himself, "I have an idea and I think these are the guys to write it." So, he calls us in for a meeting. We go in and he pitches us an idea.

"I want to do a comedy about _______." (I can't reveal what it is we're actually working on yet...sorry.) I think this topic is ripe for hilarity, I really love what you guys did with Glory Days and I'd like to develop the project with you, internally, here at our production company."

The rest of the meeting, we toss around some ideas that we're coming up with in the room. Loose ideas, who's our main character, what exactly is the plot, what other movies does this remind us of? What funny things could be in it?

Following the meeting, Travis and I did what we always do when starting a project...we put it off and grabbed something to eat. Then we talked, mostly about the short timeline...which worried us a little bit. And we just settled into the fact that this was a great opportunity and if that means we need to not have a social life for the rest of the year, well...that's what we signed up for when we started this whole journey.

Normally, when Travis and I are writing mode, we work every night, (unless, of course, the Lost season is airing, in which case we take Wednesdays off), however, with this intense deadline, we decided that we'd write weekends as well, if we felt we needed to.

Despite our vow to drop everything, the following week we had some plans that just couldn't be broken. However, the beginning of development is often light. You can only spend so many hours "coming up" with ideas before your brain is fried and that's what we spent the better part of last week doing. Our producer scheduled a meeting with us on November 13th to see what we had and focus in on what we wanted this script to be.

So, Travis and I spent most of our time coming up with the story beat by beat. We use a beat sheet that covers the major turning points of a story: intro, catalyst, first act turn, fun and games, midpoint, bad guys close in, third act turn, climax, and so on (there's a few more sprinkled in there but that pretty much covers it). We do this in order to start figuring out the structure of our story.

Structure really is everything and if you're able to have these major beats written out, then you always know where you're writing to. If you're only on page 27, you don't to be thinking about the end, you have to be thinking about getting to page 50, the midpoint.

We also started developing characters. Who is our main character? Who is the bad guy? Who are the supporting characters?

What we wanted, when we stepped into our meeting, was to be able to say, "here's a few ideas for the story, here's a few character ideas, here's some set pieces" and then use that as a jumping off point for feeling out the producer. Remember, this was his idea, so, he's got something in his head about how this thing is, and we need to be able to tap into that, while at the same time, making it ours...which is probably why he didn't just hand us a scene list and say "Just turn this into a script."

That stuff in hand, we went in for our meeting on Friday. As mentioned, the real purpose of this was to spitball ideas and focus in on the direction and tone of the script. Plot will come, that's not the difficult part. Things like tone (is this a grounded comedy or an absurdist comedy) and character (is our hero have a "hero to zero to hero" arc (like in Glory Days) or is is more "zero to hero?") can totally effect the plot and execution of the script, so that's what we wanted to get a better handle on.

And we did. We had a great meeting, we got a lot of things sorted out and we were off.

Now...the way Travis and I develop and write scripts changes from script to script. When we wrote our first script, the thriller, we had spent the better part of six months, off and on, developing the idea, thinking about the idea, letting it gestate, while we finished up college. I had also been developing it for a year prior to that. When it came time to actually write it, we spent time beating it out, talking about the character and after three weeks of that, we started writing. I wrote the intro. From there, Travis began writing ahead and went back and rewrote what he had just written. By the end of ten days, we had the 2nd draft of the script.

When we wrote Glory Days, the plot was really, really easy. We spent most of our development time coming up with the character and then carding out the script (where you write the scenes on cards). We didn't do a beat sheet or write an outline/treatment. We just knew this character and the world. When it came time to write it, Travis and I actually wrote it together, side by side, one of us throwing ideas or dialogue, the other typing. We still managed to complete a 150 page draft in 10 days, just executed it differently.

When we wrote our third script, a very small indie project called Dig, we actually wrote it using iChat. See, the idea is two characters, one location...that is...one giant conversation. So, to power through all that dialogue we tried something different: Travis played one guy, I played the other and we actually sat down and had a conversation on iChat, which then became the dialogue for the script. In order to do this, however, we had to spend a lot of time really getting to know these characters, so we did a lot of development on it.

For our last comedy script, we did everything. We did a beat sheet, we carded it out, we wrote a treatment, we wrote the script.

Point is, what we end up doing to prepare for the actual writing is usually whatever feels organic to what we're writing.

In this case, I have no idea why, but following the meeting on Friday, I sat down in a coffee shop and started writing, in outline form, the back story. I started with our character and just started pounding out the back story. Travis then started beating out the new version of the story, by scenes, and I kept writing what will become a 20-25 page treatment. (I just started Act II and I'm already on page 8). Why go this route? I have no idea. It just sort of happened.

Because we're developing it with our producer, we don't want to just hand him a beat sheet. We want to give him something of substance, an outline/treatment, that gives him a really good idea of what the script will be. An outline/treatment the best way to do that.

So, as of now, Travis and I meet up every night, where he works on the scene list and I adapt that scene list into an outline.

Stay tuned for The Writing Process: Part 2.

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