I can’t speak for most jobs nor for everyone, but I do know this: When I broke into the business as a screenwriter, it became an all consuming activity. For the better part of twenty-five years since I’ve been doing this, there is hardly any minute of any day where at least some part of who I am isn’t engaged in screenwriting.
Of course, there are the obvious times. Brainstorming, research, character development, plotting, and all the rest that comes with prepping a story. Writing the script, line by line, scene by scene, day after day. Rewriting the script — again — line by line, scene by scene, day after day.
That’s butt-on-chair, what we typically think of as ‘writing.’ But when you are a screenwriter, it’s much more than that.
When you go out to eat, any stray conversation of diners at a nearby table becomes an opportunity to snatch a potential line of dialogue.
When you stand at the end of the line in a grocery store, those ten minutes spent shuffling toward check-out allow you to glance at the tabloid headlines and see if there’s a story concept waiting to be found.
In fact any time you read a magazine, newspaper, website, book — anything! — part of your brain invariably thinks, “Is this a story? A scene? A theme? A character I can use?”
Same with TV, radio, web videos, any sort of electronic media has the potential at any given moment to present to you the Greatest Idea Ever.
Writing infuses your life. If you are working on a story about a cop, everywhere you drive, you see police cars. If you are writing a story about a pregnant woman, suddenly your world seems to be filled with waddling mamas-to-be. If you are pounding out a story about aliens from outer space, you start to study the night sky a little more closely.
Even your dreams become a tableau in which your stories play out. When I’m deep into a project, I oftentimes dream in screenplay form. Seriously. I see the characters in my dream on one side, a script on the other. And as the characters talk, their dialogue magically appears on the other side of my dreamscape. They move and the scene description appears. Sometimes I even edit the script in my dreams.
Conversation with your friends, your family, your lover… your mind drifts and you are back with your story’s characters… until your friends, your family, your lover call you on it… then you listen to them, nodding your head… until your mind drifts away to your story universe again…
The story universe. That is the secret to all this. When you write a story, you create a fictional realm. But because it is not bound by the laws of physics that this universe is, the story universe has the power to appear anywhere and anyhow it damn well pleases.
Which is to say that our story universe exists 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year over there. But even as we go on with our lives over here in this the ‘real’ universe, the story universe seeps into our consciousness, unconsciousness, and subconsciousness.
So in a way, a screenwriter is never not writing. We are always at work creating at some level of our being.
And that’s the way it should be. Because perhaps the most fundamental responsibility we have as writers is to immerse ourselves in our story universe. Become a part of that place. Know those characters. Dig into what’s happening there. All the better to craft a script that is compelling, vibrant, and authentic.
Perhaps we should think about it this way: In the ‘real’ universe, we are just visitors, guests for the relative nanosecond of our Earthly existence.
With our story universe, we are its creators. That’s an awesome responsibility… and a wondrous adventure.
And whether we know it or not, we are creating that story universe… 24/7/365.
The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.