Yet another rant on the importance of prep-writing

June 13th, 2013 by

I am going to keep hammering this point because… well… it deserves hammering.

From a recent post, a comment from Cyd:

I go back and forth with prep and diving head first into the shallow end. I think that could be called prep work for the prep work :-) Whatever it is, I’ve got to get something happening in Final Draft to hear them talk and discover how they move. At some point, I do end up with what looks like prep work. It just takes some time getting there.

My response:

Cyd, per your first paragraph, I think that’s a dynamic tension for all writers. We have an itch to get into the page-writing, which is great because that can help overcome the single greatest challenge of writing: depositing one’s ass onto one’s chair to actually write.

However we have to balance that out with with finding the story.

Now some writers absolutely loathe and can’t handle any sort of prep. They simply HAVE to type FADE IN (or if a novel, crack open that file) and have a go at it. Nothing wrong with that… if it works.

Standing on the front line of aspiring screenwriter-to-pro-screenwriter as I do, having worked with literally hundreds of writers and interfaced through my blog with THOUSANDS, I can assert with some confidence that the single biggest hurdle there is not doing the prep.

First, a writer is MUCH more likely to NEVER finish a script if they haven’t figured it out before they type FADE IN. That enthusiasm to start wanes over time if they are NOT finding the story. At some point, frustration enters, then bitterness, then rejection.

Second, even if they DO manage to get to FADE OUT – and acknowledging that a first draft is always going to be rough – unless they do 10-15 drafts, I doubt they will ever find the story they could have found if they had fully immersed themselves in it in prep. Brainstorming and character development especially, giving yourself the freedom to explore, test out a wide variety of narrative options as opposed to narrowing the field of choices BEFORE finding out other possibilities.

Third, if a writer wants to have a realistic chance at SUCCEEDING as a professional writer, they have to be able to turn around stories in an efficient manner. You sign a contract on a writing assignment giving you 10 weeks to deliver, you’d better be prepared to do precisely that. Having figured out whatever sort of approach to prep you use is a big plus in that regard rather than watching the ink dry on your contract, then going, “Uh, what do I do now?”

So different strokes for different folks and all that. And yes, we all want and need to leave room for the mysteries and surprises of stories to reveal themselves. If a full outline stifles your creativity, don’t do a full outline.

However you’re going to figure out the story somehow. Why NOT do it in prep? Then you can concern yourself in page-writing with all the fun stuff of writing — scene description, character interaction, scene construction, transitions, atmospherics — rather than desperately attempting to figure out what goes where, does this work, oh my god I’m lost.

Here endeth yet another rant on the importance of prep-writing!

Okay, I swear I won’t harp on this point for another month or so. But I’ll be back on it. Oh yes, I will. Because if there is one definitive difference between aspiring screenwriters and professional screenwriters — apart from talent — it’s prep-writing. Pros embrace it. Non-pros, very spotty. Some do, many don’t. It’s apparent in the quality [or lack thereof] of their scripts.

To wit, a famous novelist [I forget who] was asked once how did he know he had done enough work preparing a story before he knew he was ready to plunge into actual page-writing. His reply: “When I know the favorite color of my characters’ socks.”

There’s a lesson there somewhere…

UPDATE: I had an exchange on Twitter with screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe (Going the Distance) and he makes a necessary point to correct my bit of hyperbole in which I said:

Because if there is one definitive difference between aspiring screenwriters and professional screenwriters — apart from talent — it’s prep-writing. Pros embrace it. Non-pros, very spotty. Some do, many don’t. It’s apparent in the quality [or lack thereof] of their scripts.

Geoff’s tweets:

Going to take issue here. But first, let me say this: I believe that MOST writers do, indeed, benefit from prepping.

HOWEVER, I believe that there are MANY writers out there who – like me – are creatively hampered by the process.

What I would argue is this: try it both ways (or one of the many in between) and see what works for YOU. I always think… dangerous to push (or even nudge) writers one way or the other. it leaves some feeling there’s a way it HAS to be.

Geoff is right and I should have said “many pros embrace it,” so I’ve given my hyperbole machine a time-out.

Let me offer my own corrective, one uttered on this blog countless time: There is no right way to write. And that includes prep.

My experience is many aspiring screenwriters’ script suffer from not digging deeply enough into the story. However they do that, lots of prep, little prep, no prep, doesn’t matter as long as they do the work they need to do to find the story.

You may – and should – follow Geoff on Twitter: @DrGMLaTulippe

UDPATE: Geoff has followed up with this excellent post on this subject. If you are a prepper or a non-prepper, you should read Geoff’s post as he provides a needed perspective on the matter.

14 thoughts on “Yet another rant on the importance of prep-writing

  1. Half_Robot says:

    I’m very new to screenwriting but I can agree that prep is key. In my limited (2 months) of learning the craft, my true allies have been my whiteboard and cork board/3×5″ cards (along with books I’ve picked up). I’ve spent many a night coming up with my outline and filling out my beat sheet. While not as fun as writing, I know it will make my writing more fluid and personal.

    I can’t wait to start writing but I didn’t want to stumble half way through and give up. I feel confident now that my story is in my place and it is up to me to make it come to life.

  2. Cyd Madsen says:

    Hi Scott. I didn’t even know you’d responded to this. Very cool. I do extensive prep work and don’t disagree with your suggestion screenwriters use it. Not at all. In fact, I just came across Lew Hunter’s book he signed for me over a very informative dinner (first edition!). A friend of mine has a very popular book using some of his suggestions, especially beat sheets, and I routinely recommend her book to other novelists. Jumping into FD and taking a whack at scenes and some dialogue is no different than writing those things down on a piece of paper. Testing, seeing if I’m close to the different voices, but not for structure or finding the story. I do use the trusty note cards, a corkboard, a white board, and until it disappeared, rolls of butcher paper. A lot of what is written in FD (I used to use a different software) is printed with a laser printer, cut up, marked up, noted, and put on something as big as I can find to see the script unfolding (I miss the butcher paper). I think seeing the script is critical, and that can’t be done by just sitting there and writing. Scriptwriting is physical, at least for me.

    Finding the story and the theme are very difficult. I always start with an idea of the theme, but it’s through the prep work that I discover what’s really there. This was a lesson learned very early as a writer. After finishing three major works, acquiring an agent, a publisher, and then moving on to screenplays, it struck me that there was a theme running through all the works I had never once thought of in my daily life as a human being. It was an issue I thought was a non-issue. I was lucky enough to participate in a Q&A with Robert Stone at the height of his career and asked him if he’d ever discovered anything about himself through his writing that surprised him. His reaction was as if he’d been punched in the stomach. He took a moment, gathered himself, and simply said, “Yes. Next question.” There’s magic in writing, but as any good magician knows, it takes a tremendous amount of practice and hard work to pull off that magic without showing your hand. And I do believe we can do our prep work, dig down for theme and human connection and universal truths, yet still be riding on the surface of our own story. It’s something, if we’re lucky, that unfolds with a body of work. Something we can’t stop from coming out.

    I don’t disagree with prep work at all, but I do believe that prep is different for different people. Oh, my goodness. I’m such a believer in prep and structure and the freedom of form that a producer from New Zealand ripped me to shreds in a scriptwriting group on Facebook. She went for blood and wasn’t shy about doing it at all, saying if I were in *her* room on a project and suggested prep and beats and structure, she’d throw me out. Despite having most of the people in the group asking me to come back, I just knew I was in the wrong place and have stayed away since then.

  3. I’m prep-guy myself. As far as I know, prep is relly differ for each of us. Whould you consider numerous of drafts a prep writing?

    I think even for the ones who don’t do prep, there’s still prep somewhere :)

    I remeber also this scene from Kevin Smith’s somewhere:

    Banky: “I just want you to know that I respect your work as an artist. I’m something of an artist myself. I… I was the inker on the comic book.”

    Then Chris Rock goes: “Yo, man, you a tracer, okay? Nobody else got the heart to tell you. You trace. You go around the lines. You are a tracer, okay? You think Fat Albert had a tracer? No! Bill Cosby did the whole thing with a roller, and it was excellent!”

    This “tracer” makes me laugh ). I hope some will enjoy as well, and others will reconsider their creative process.


  4. Cyd Madsen says:

    Yay, Jerry. Thanks. I should’ve known Amazon had it :-)

  5. Debbie Moon says:

    If there was one thing I wish I could impress on newbie writers, it would be: do your prep! Find the way that works for you, sure (my process is probably looser than some people’s, and more rigorous than others, but it works for me), but do it.
    That said, there are bound to be a few writers for whom prep just doesn’t work. But claiming you’re one of them can also be an easy excuse for shirking the tough part of writing – so have a good go at prep on a couple of projects before dismissing it.

  6. hobbs001 says:

    As a cautionary tale, I can attest to the fact that insufficient Prep can cause you problems many months and pages later. Due to the nature of my employment, and attempting to meet deadlines, I did not do thorough Prep and this began to cause me problems while writing the first draft. Now, during rewriting, many months later, I still find problems which are directly traceable to that rushed Prep. My biggest lesson – by a long, long way – on this current script : Do Proper Prep!
    It’ll be different next time…

  7. One of my favorite methods of sating that weird ‘itchy trigger finger’ we writers have is to write the first 10 pages. Always. Write your opening. What’s nice is that it gets that ‘I gots ta’ write me some pages’ urge out of the way AND more often than not, every single problem and issue your story has will come spilling out before you hit page 10. Dozens of questions, both character and plot related, will present themselves and you simply will not have the answer.

    And why didn’t you have the answer kiddies?

    Say it with me…

    “I didn’t do my prep work.”

    This method has worked great for me for some time now. Reduces every cocky and cavalier “I’m too good for prep writing” attitude to a humble “get me to my notecards ASAP, I want to hide behind my wipe board…”

    1. Scott says:

      Despina, I actually agree with most of what Gallo says here. Outlines SHOULD be malleable. When you move into page-writing, you need to follow the contours of the path the STORY takes you on. And the single biggest key here, for me, is to ground everything in CHARACTERS. That is the single most important part of the prep-writing process as far as I’m concerned, the way I approach in my Prep workshop, and how I work with my own stories. If the plot emerges from your work with characters, it’s their instincts, motivations, actions, and reactions that inform and evolve the structure of the story.

      I believe what Gallo is critiquing is the surface level approach to outlining which focuses primarily on structure, and by structure, they almost always mean plot. But plot divorced from or not grounded in character comes across as a formula, lifeless, and can restrict the creative flow.

      I’ll probably do a follow-up post on this. My harping on prep-writing ought not be confused with me promulgating writers ending up with an outline that has in effect squashed their creativity. Rather it should be precisely the opposite, again at least the way I approach it with my Prep process: By going through it, you engage your characters, spend a huge amount of time sitting with them, interviewing them, writing bios, digging into their core essence, and most importantly determining your Protagonist’s narrative destiny and how the other characters fit into that in an organic, natural, and supportive way. All of that is about the vitality and life-force of your story, not some thin, stifling outline.

      More later. Thanks for the link. Gallo’s premise is one of those things where it seems like it might contradict my take, but it’s actually quite the opposite. And it all comes from working with your characters.

  8. BOY, do I have a ton to say about this. Thanks, Scott, for the Update and just the article in general. As per normal, this is vital advice for writers.

    Will tackle this on my blog a little later today – I think we mostly agree, though I have a couple of things to add 😉

  9. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand here’s my meandering response:

  10. […] And if one Apocalypse isn’t enough, we’ve got another in the form of comments made by Steven Spielberg about the inevitable “meltdown” of the Hollywood studio system. Geoff and I get our hands dirty with that one before appreciating and responding to this screenwriting post by Scott Myers at Go Into the Story. […]

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