Part 1: If you are a beginning screenwriter…

November 11th, 2013 by

Recently I received an email from someone who wants to begin the process of learning the craft of screenwriting. I started my response with the advice to use this blog as a free resource. After all, there are over 13,000 posts in the archives…

Then it dawned on me: How would a new writer even know where to begin going through those archives?

So this week, I will run a daily series aimed at those of you who might consider yourself to be a beginning screenwriter. I will provide links to five sets of resources on the blog you can use to develop a solid foundation in your learning process.

All for free.

Part 1. How I Write A Screenplay

One of the more popular series on GITS (Go Into The Story) is this one, wherein I break down 10 aspects of my own screenwriting process. Here are the links to those posts:

Part 1: Story Concept

Part 2: Brainstorming

Part 3: Research

Part 4: Character Development

Part 5: Plotting

Part 6: Outline

Part 7: Script Diary

Part 8: First Draft

Part 9: Rewriting

Part 10: Editing

A few observations:

* This is my approach. If it works for you, great. If not, no problem. As I am prone to say, there’s no right way to write. Every writer is different and must figure out his/her own process. That said I’m guessing these ten aspects are probably common to most writers’ approaches (with the possible exception of a script diary).

* I am not suggesting these are stages, as if you have to go through them programatically, one by one. Stories are organic, therefore it should not be surprising that an approach to writing would reflect that fact. Moreover some aspects may come naturally to you, others not. Indeed some of these ten may inhibit your creativity. So again, whatever works. If not, feel free to punt.

* A big note: This is not a system or a formula. In fact, these ten posts have virtually nothing to do with any sort of screenplay paradigm or structure. Rather it is what it is: Simply an approach to the process of writing a script. That’s it.

Yet that is of considerable importance. And as a beginning writer, you should grasp this simple fact by noting that 7 of the 10 parts of the series are about prep-writing, everything we do leading up to typing FADE IN and pounding out script pages. Why is this so important?

Perhaps the single biggest flaw with neophyte screenwriters is they do not take the time to go into the story to the depth required to write a great script. Rather they leap into the writing before they look around the story universe and get to know the characters sufficiently enough to understand who they are, what their respective narrative roles are, let alone make them come alive on the page.

Writing is a process. That’s probably as good a place as any for a beginning screenwriter to start their journey. And these 10 posts represent one way to approach that process: How to write a script.

Tomorrow: More GITS resources for beginning screenwriters.

If you have any thoughts or comments, please consider taking a few minutes to post them in comments. If you are a beginning writer, I’d love to hear from you and learn about your background, interests and aspirations.

The path to becoming a professional screenwriter is an arduous one and extremely competitive. To maximize your chances, a new writer needs solid information grounded in the realities of working in Hollywood’s front lines as well as a pragmatic form of inspiration.

You can find both here at Go Into The Story.

“How I Write A Script” [Parts 1-10]

July 6th, 2012 by

It’s one of my most popular series [How I Write A Script], but I have never put all the 10 links together into one post. So here it is:

Part 1: Story Concept

Part 2: Brainstorming

Part 3: Research

Part 4: Character Development

Part 5: Plotting

Part 6: Outline

Part 7: Script Diary

Part 8: First Draft

Part 9: Rewriting

Part 10: Editing

For those of you who have asked, I am expanding this series into an eBook. More on that soon.

How I Write A Script, Part 10: Editing

February 17th, 2012 by

Here is the last in a series of 10 posts about how I approach writing a script. Previous posts:

Part 1: Story Concept

Part 2: Brainstorming

Part 3: Research

Part 4: Character Development

Part 5: Plotting

Part 6: Outline

Part 7: Script Diary

Part 8: First Draft

Part 9: Rewriting

PART 10: Editing

This is the most fun part of the process. I just love printing out a fresh copy of the script, plunked down in my reading chair, Pentel Rolling Writer pen in hand, and just sitting with my story. I mark that draft up but good – page after page after page. I’ve developed my own code system:

AW = “Another word”

AL = “Another line”

BV = “Better verb”

OTT = “Over The Top”

OTN = “On The Nose”

SSS = “Some stupid shit”

There’s also description and dialogue with big X’s through them – as in “cut this out”. I’ll have lines running from one page to the next, telling me to move this scene in front of that one. I’ll have all sorts of notes in the margins about transitions, visual images, and such.

So I go back through the script and make the changes. And I do this same process over and over, each time refining the draft.

As it gets closer to being finished, I get real picky. For instance, I’ll highlight each verb and come up with better, more active verbs. I’ll print out every side of dialogue for each character, then read them back to back to make sure I’m nailing their voice. And I’m constantly cutting description, cutting dialogue. I can get very anal about this as I really want each page to look beautiful, easy on the eyes, a clean read.

And then, one final print-out, where I read the script through aloud. Every word. It’s amazing how hearing your words can expose them in a wholly fresh way. As I read, I write changes on the hard copy of the script. Then it’s one last edit. Save. Print.

The final thing I do is a silly ritual. I stand by the printer as it spits out the pages of my script. Once it’s done printing, I immediately pick up the pages. I feel the warmth of the paper, fresh from the printer. I weigh the heft of the pages in my hands. Then I smell it. That’s right, I smell the script. I have smelled many things in my life, but there is perhaps nothing more satisfying than breathing deep the aroma of a finished script.

And that’s how I write a script.

UPDATE: I’m getting a lot of positive feedback on this series. Makes me think I should expand it into an eBook. The reason I did the posts in the first place was because I hadn’t seen anything with an actual script-writing process. And I have a ton of tips, tools and techniques for each of these 10 steps in the process. So just checking to see if you think people would be interested to have that as a resource.

How I Write A Script, Part 9: Rewriting

February 16th, 2012 by

Here’s another in a series of 10 posts about how I approach writing a script. Previous posts:

Part 1: Story Concept

Part 2: Brainstorming

Part 3: Research

Part 4: Character Development

Part 5: Plotting

Part 6: Outline

Part 7: Script Diary

Part 8: First Draft

PART 9: REWRITING

Writing is rewriting. That’s the old saying. And it’s primarily about fixing story problems. The problems can be manifold, but the typical issues I run into include:

* Story structure: Perhaps the first act is 45 pages long. Two big plot points in Act II feel too close together. The final act feels rushed. I spend a lot of time feeling my way through and reworking the story structure.

* Logic problems: Events happen or characters do things which don’t make sense. If a reader doesn’t buy that one of my characters would logically do something they do, then I’ve got a big problem.

* Lack of focus: This pertains to the plotline, subplots, character functions, themes and transformation arcs. Almost always, in the writing of the first draft, a lot of this stuff emerges, so the issue is really more about digging deeper into what I’ve surfaced, pulling together the various elements.

* Episodic: There will be sections or scenes within the script that feel episodic; this almost always is the result of that scenes not having a strong, direct link to the Plotline or an accompanying subplot.

* Emotion: Is the emotional experience of the storyline working? Do I feel anything? Do I feel the right things? A script reader wants to feel something. What are the points of emotional resonance in my script?

I’m also always on the look-out for callbacks, lines or bits of action which I’ve uncovered in the writing process: Implementing those carefully in the script is a great way to provide both continuity and measure a character’s emotional growth. Plus, I like to kick around themes which emerge, see how I can best use those to tie together the overall story.

I may take as much as 2-3 weeks to break down the first draft. This can require more brainstorming, character work, plotting and the rest. I create a hybrid outline to help steer the writing of the second draft. And then I write the draft.

In some ways, rewriting a second draft is almost more difficult than the first draft because it represents a lot of grunt work, all the while knowing that there may still be story problems lying in wait. This is where I call upon another writing mantra:

“The only way out is through.”

If I allow myself to get caught up in the enormity of the process, that can paralyze me. And so I focus on this scene, this page, and even this side of dialogue.

Again the script diary can be enormously helpful as I go there to complain about things not working. Invariably through that cathartic process, the solutions emerge.

Once I start the actual page-writing part of the rewrite, it typically takes around 3-4 weeks to get to FADE OUT. Obviously that can vary, but I want to make sure to take enough time to iron out the big story problems.

After I get done with the second draft, I will oftentimes give the script to a handful of screenwriters who are my friends for feedback.

Once I finish the second draft, I like to take off a few days. Set it aside. Review. Assess. Rewrite. However many drafts it takes. Remember: “The only way out is through!”

Eventually I get to the point where the only changes are pretty much cosmetic, requiring only some editing. And that is the subject of my last post on the subject which will be available tomorrow.

How I Write A Script, Part 8: First Draft

February 15th, 2012 by

Here’s another in a series of 10 posts about how I approach writing a script. Previous posts:

Part 1: Story Concept

Part 2: Brainstorming

Part 3: Research

Part 4: Character Development

Part 5: Plotting

Part 6: Outline

Part 7: Script Diary

PART 8: FIRST DRAFT

Finally we get to the actual page-writing part of the process. And now that I’ve done all this prep-writing work, the rest of the process is actually quite simple, at least to describe. My goal in the first draft is to get the story stuff out, put it down onto paper, so I can have something to work with.

In the old days, I was wholly committed to pressing on to FADE OUT. So if I hit a scene or scenes which didn’t work, I would do the best I could, then move on. I would use the second draft to fix the script. And normally, I found that in charging ahead, I would discover key narrative elements which would inform what I needed to do with the previous problem scenes.

For my last several screenplays, I’ve taken to stopping and working on the problem scene until I feel satisfied I have solved the issue.

I confess that with mixed feelings because I would never want to give any pretext to aspiring screenwriters to slow their progress from FADE IN to FADE OUT. So let me just say this, when your write your first draft, keep this writing mantra in mind:

“Get the damn thing done”

In fact, why not print that out and stick it well within sight of your work space. Once you’ve written several scripts and you have the confidence to know that no matter what, you will finish the draft, then you can stop your writing to fix problems. But until you’ve reached that point, be forewarned: Those who stop the first draft process are in danger of losing momentum and never finishing their script.

Another question I get is this: “How many pages a day should I expect to write?” Of course, that all depends upon the writer, so there is no universally correct answer. An average scene is one-and-a-half to two-pages in length, so it would seem that at minimum you would try to write one scene / two pages in a day’s writing session. I aim for 5-7 pages per day, which means it’s possible to complete a first draft in a month, assuming you write everyday.

But what if you have a ‘real’ job and you can only write in your off-hours? Even if you can only manage 1 page per day, that means you’ll finish your first draft in 4 months, something I detailed in this post.

When I took up screenwriting, I was doing a stand-up comedy act, traveling back-and-forth from northern to southern California. Being self-employed, I managed my work schedule so that I’d work for 2 or 3 weeks, then take off a week – and during that week, I’d jam out as much of a draft as I could. I must say I really liked and still do the pure intensity of that type of writing — and you can really knock out the pages. In fact, once I moved to LA, whenever I’d be working on a spec script on the side, I’d go up to this little lodge in Lake Arrowhead, always reserving the same room — creature of habit! — getting there Friday at noon and departing Sunday noon. On one spec script, I completed over 60 pages of a first draft in 48 hours. Armed with a comprehensive outline and facing no distractions, no excuses, you can really be productive… especially if you turn off the damn Internet!

One last piece of advice: Once you finish your first draft, I suggest you set aside the script for at least 2 weeks. Part of the reason is you’ve exerted a lot of energy, it’s time to recharge your creative batteries, But the more important thing is to get some distance from what you’ve written. If I start re-writing immediately, I find I am much more prone to approach the material with a less critical eye. With some time and distance, I can be less attached to the experience of writing the pages and more dispassionate — because the re-write is where you want to fix the script’s problems and you can’t do that if you’re not willing to admit the script has problems.

More on that next time as we discuss the second draft.

How I Write A Script, Part 7: Script Diary

February 14th, 2012 by

Here’s another in a series of 10 posts about how I approach writing a script. Previous posts:

Part 1: Story Concept

Part 2: Brainstorming

Part 3: Research

Part 4: Character Development

Part 5: Plotting

Part 6: Outline

Today, Part 7: SCRIPT DIARY

The last thing I do before I type FADE IN is create yet another Word file, which I call Script Diary.

I come to the diary to start every writing session. I visit it when I get stuck. I return to it when I hit on a story revelation. Day after day, I use my script diary to chronicle the writing of the story.

At the start of a writing session, I note the date and time in the script diary, then get my fingers and brain loosened up by typing up my thoughts about the scene I am about to tackle. I’ll remind myself what type of scene it is, which characters are participating in it, what each of their agendas is, who is playing what story function for that scene, how the scene relates to the overall plot, what the central point of the scene is, and so on. As I’m doing that, normally lines of dialogue pop to mind and I’ll put those down — so in essence I’m pre-drafting the scene, and can take that sketch to my script file and use it to write the actual scene.

I also use the script diary to track my emotional connection to the story. For instance, I may be worried about whether the scene I’m about to write will work or not. I may be concerned that one of the characters doesn’t feel quite right. If I’m stuck, I use the diary as a place to express my fears about the story; in fact, if I’m really stuck, I’ll ‘ask’ the characters, right there in my diary, to talk to me, show me what they want or need.

Now you may think I’m crazy — talking to my characters, asking them for help! But ever since I’ve started using a script diary, my experience of my story’s characters has become that much more… real, I suppose is the best way to describe it.

My first experience of this was when I was writing Snowbirds, where something special happened between the use of that script diary and the writing of the script: somehow a sacred space, if you will, came into being. This parallel ‘place’ sort of inside and outside my head – I mean, I would be thinking of it, so part of my experience was inside my head, but I would sense the place off to the side about a foot or two away from me. And in this ‘place,’ I would find my characters.

Abby, Rosa, Emerson, Truman, Bernice, Chuck, Irene, Ed, Sarah, and Lucky. All of them. They emerged with more and more clarity as I pressed further into the script, so that by the time I reached Act II, they were always ‘present’ in a way. They didn’t invade my thoughts, nor did I interfere with them. They weren’t doing what I was writing or imagining, rather they would more or less just kind of shuffle around, not looking at me. But whenever I was stuck – and I got stuck in Act II several critical times – I would start writing in my script diary, and I’d become aware of them, just out ‘there.’ And suddenly, one of them would turn and halfway glance at me or motion, and I’d ‘follow’ them. The two most critical story twists I could never have foreseen in the prep-writing phase occurred in this way – first, following Ed, and another time following Abby.

What I am saying is that my characters led me deeper into my story. They showed me the way. And the script diary was a crucial part of that experience because, I think, I was opening myself up to my characters, creating a ‘dialogue’ with them on those diary pages.

And there’s something else that very cool about a script diary: when you’re done with the project, you’ve got this journal of the entire writing process. You can go back to see and feel the actual moments where you found a breakthrough, where you busted through a story block, where your characters spoke to you.

Like everything else in this succession of posts, a script diary may not work for you. However, I encourage you to try it at least once. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

And now after all of that, our next post will finally get to the page-writing process, beginning naturally enough with the first draft.

How I Write A Script, Part 6: Outline

February 13th, 2012 by

Here’s another in a series of posts about how I approach writing a script. Previous posts:

Part 1: Story Concept

Part 2: Brainstorming

Part 3: Research

Part 4: Character Development

Part 5: Plotting

Today Part 6: Outline

I start by transcribing the content of the cards into a new Word file called Story Outline.I generally will have written down notes and ideas on the cards related to each scene or beat, so that information goes into the outline as well.

[Note: There are many software programs that exist nowadays that are built for outlining.]

The goal here is to create a blueprint with Scene 1, followed by Scene 2, Scene 3, all the way to the last scene and FADE OUT.The hard work here is to make sure as best as I can that the story tracks and handles all the subplots.A final consideration is to think about the transitions, how to make each shift from one scene and sequence to the next is as smooth and seamless as possible.

Apart from locking down the story’s structure, I also think about every scene, asking a series of questions:

* What is the point of the scene?

* What is the scene’s Beginning, Middle, and Ending?

* What characters should be in the scene and why?

* What is the conflict in the scene?

* How do I enter / exit the scene?

That can change in the actual writing of the script – as well as scene order – but I like thinking through my scenes in advance.

My outlines can be quite long. I just pulled out one from my files that is 32 single-spaced pages. But then, I like to throw in everything I dredge up for each scene: images, bits of dialogue, Internal World dynamics, transitions, and so on.

Okay, now I want you to take a deep breath and realize something: All that — story concept, brainstorming, research, character development, plotting, and outline — and I haven’t written one word of the actual script. I have found doing the hard work up front — prep-writing — gives me more room for creative thinking in my page-writing process.

Let’s me be clear: I am not saying that every writer has to work this way. Each writer has to find the approach that works for them. For example, Neil Simon eschews outlines:

When I started, I got out the yellow legal pads and I outlined the entire play. Then I started to write the play, and the characters started to want to drift off where they wanted to go. So I pushed them back into the outline, and they say, We don’t like it in this outline, we want to get on another yellow pad. This yellow pad stinks. So I just kept trying to force them there, and I realized I couldn’t do that.

At this point, I don’t make outlines at all. I make an outline only in my mind. If I can say two or three sentences about the play, then I have a play.

That’s as much of an outline as I need, because when I write something I want to be as surprised — and this goes for screenwriting too in terms of the original screenplay — I want to be as surprised as the audience is. If I know everything beforehand, it becomes a job. Just let it happen and see where it takes me.

Okay, that’s one extreme. Conversely, there’s writer-director Paul Schrader, who is known to craft such extensive outlines that he can predict within a quarter-page how long each scene is before he writes it. His take:

Question: Do you still outline it in one page?

PS: Yeah. And then re-outline it. On this one I went right from the outline to the script. But usually, if I have any concerns about whether the idea is really going to work, I then go into a sequential breakdown.

All a sequential breakdown is…. let’s say in an average movie there are anywhere 45 – 55 – 60 things happening. That’s your outline, the list of things that happen. That’s not the list of shots, or the list of scenes and drive-ups, just the things that happen. Like, they meet at the Chelsea Hotel, returns to office, make phone calls, whatever.

So you take each one of those items on your outline and make it into a paragraph. So now you’re starting to include dialogue.

Question: 5 – 8 lines?

PS: Yeah. So now, instead of a one page outline, you have about a 15 page, single-spaced breakdown. And if your idea still survives all of that, then there’s a pretty good chance it ll work. I’ve had idea that have worked at an outline stage, but died at the breakdown stage.

And when an idea dies on you it is, in fact, one of the best things that can happen. Because you’ve just saved yourself an enormous amount of time and grief. Some ideas just don’t want to be written. They don t want to be written by you. Some ideas have fooled you into thinking that they have more power than they, in fact, do. If you find that out after writing a first draft, you’ve wasted a lot of time and you’ve also lost faith in yourself because you believed in something and you couldn’t pull it off.

So two extremes. And a writer must find their own approach, there is no “right” or “wrong,” just what works for you.

That said, I do encourage all aspiring screenwriters to try an immersive prep-writing approach, like the one I’ve laid out so far in these 6 posts, at least once. If it works, great. If not, you’re free to track down Neil Simon and kick it free-style with him.

You can read the complete interview with Paul Schrader here.

Tomorrow Part 7: Script Diary.

How I Write A Script, Part 5: Plotting

February 10th, 2012 by

Here’s another in a series of posts about how I approach writing a script. Previous posts:

Part 1: Story Concept

Part 2: Brainstorming

Part 3: Research

Part 4: Character Development

Today Part 5: PLOTTING

This is another part of the process that happens while I’m brainstorming, doing research, and developing characters. Again, I just follow my instinct – where do I feel like I should go today. If I have an itch to work on the plot, that’s what I’ll do. And a stack of 3×5 cards can be an invaluable part of the plotting process.

I go to my brainstorming list, which has been augmented by scenes and moments which arise as I’m generating the characters, and I write down what I think are interesting beats, scenes or dynamics – one per card. I engage in some critical analysis here, starting to separate the wheat from the chaff – obviously, I have to or else all the story ‘stuff’ I’ve churned up would translate into a 10 hour mini-series. But if I’m on the cusp with a beat – in or out – I write it down and put it in: Better to chuck it later than not to consider it at all.

After I’ve written all the beats, scenes, and dynamics onto individual cards, I divide them into three stacks: Act I, Act II, and Act III. Having written screenplays for 25 years, I have a pretty intuitive sense of what goes where. Basically if it feels like something that has to do with setting up the story, that goes in the first stack. If it feels like something that has to do with the final struggle, that goes in the third stack. And everything else goes into the second stack.

I take special care to see if I can find four major plot points. This goes back to some advice I received from a veteran writer while picketing the 20th Century Fox lot during the WGA strike in 1988 (I used those events to grill other writers about the craft). This old dude told me, “You gotta know four things before you start to write a script. What’s the beginning? What’s the end of Act One? What’s the end of Act Two? And what’s the ending? If you know those four things, you can write a script. If you don’t know the answers to those four questions, you got dick.”

I think that’s pretty sage advice. After all, those are four of the most important plot points in a screenplay. Once I know the answers to those four questions, it not only gives me confidence about where I’m going, it can also help with the rest of the plotting process.

Then I go through the three card stacks, sorting and re-sorting the cards. I’ll read through the beats to get a sense if a narrative flow is starting to emerge. If I’ve done my job right, really brainstormed, really researched the story world, really dug into my characters, then the plotting process can be a pretty smooth one. I pay particularly close attention to the Protagonist’s metamorphosis [assuming the story has one], what I look at as four movements Disunity (Act 1 – Deconstruction (Act 2A) – Reconstruction (Act 2B) – Unity (Act 3), as that almost always provides an emotional spine to the story.

Every screenplay paradigm seems to have a certain number of “plot points”: My own approach (Narrative Throughline) has ten. Before I move on, I want to identify those ten major events. If I know I need to have a major plot point, but haven’t come up with the specifics, then I just write “Something Happens Here” on a card, and include it in the stack. Of course, I have to do some brainstorming to try to come up with a great sequence to serve that narrative function, maybe more research or spending time with characters, but eventually I try to uncover those 10 plot points.

Then I like to tack the cards up on a wall, so I see the plot unfolding left to right. I may shift cards around as the story can feel different when looked at in a linear fashion. When I feel comfortable with the plot, I know I’m ready to go to the next step — outline. And that’s the subject of our next post.

How I Write A Script, Part 4: Character Development

February 9th, 2012 by

People asked me how I write a script, so here we go with Part 4. This is a follow up to Part 1, which focused on story concept, Part 2, where we looked at brainstorming, and Part 3, which talked about research.

PART 4: CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

I’m compartmentalizing my creative process, which is misleading. Because as I’m brainstorming and doing research, characters emerge, plot ideas pop up, themes evolve. So do not think of it like, first I do brainstorming for 2 weeks, then I move into research for another 2 weeks, then into characters. No, it’s best, I think, to follow one’s instincts. And at some point, you will have accumulated enough story ‘stuff’ that key characters will spring to life. Then it’s time to dig into them.

I create individual files (in my computer) for the primary characters. I spend time with each of them, ‘sitting’ with them, my fingers on the keyboard as I try to with engage them. Sometimes I’ll take a walk with them, imagining us in conversation. As with brainstorming, I try not to pre-judge; here my task is to let the stuff flow. This allows the characters to be free to evolve into what they are to become.

Think on that word: evolve. It had never occurred to me until recently, but it’s implied in the word “development,” isn’t it? So as we develop our characters, in the best of all creative worlds, we’re letting them evolve into being.

The single biggest key I find about working with characters is to be curious about them. Ask them questions. Interview them. Talk with them. That works for some characters; others I find myself writing a narrative of their past. I don’t know why that is – again, I just follow my instinct.

Whenever an attitude, action, or line of dialogue pops up associated with one of my characters, I’ll follow my curiosity: Why do you think that? Why do you believe that? Why do you act that way?

At some point, I apply seven questions to my characters to try to see what narrative functions each might play in the story:

* Who is my Protagonist?
* What do they want(External Goal)?
* What do they need (Internal Goal)?
* Who is keeping them from it? (Nemesis)
* Who is connected to the Protagonist’s emotional growth? (Attractor)
* Who is connected to the P’s intellectual growth (Mentor)?
* Who tests the P by switching allegiances from ally to enemy (Trickster)?

I believe that these five narrative functions represented by this group of primary archetypes — Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster — occur in most every movie. Once I can identify the core function for each character, I can use that as a lens through which to interpret each of them, thereby tying them directly and intimately to the Protagonist’s journey.

In Part 5, we explore the plotting.

How I Write A Script, Part 3: Research

February 8th, 2012 by

People asked me how I write a script, so here we go with Part 3. This is a follow up to Part 1 where we considered the importance of story concept in the script-writing process, and Part 2 where we discussed brainstorming.

PART 3: RESEARCH

This generally goes hand-in-hand with brainstorming as research feeds that process. I love to go to libraries. I’ve done a ton of research at the Beverly Hill library and at UCLA. But of course, there’s the Internet which is absolutely indispensable.

When I was researching an original screenplay “Snowbirds” which is set in the RV subculture, I signed up for RV email newsletters, joined RV message boards, and swapped emails with RVers from all around the country. Likewise, when I researched “Tully’s War” which took place during the Berlin Airlift, I must have read 20 books on the subject. In both cases, anecdotes I picked up along the way ended up inspiring scenes in my scripts. You’ll also find great lines and dialogue in research. In “Snowbirds,” I feature the bumpers of all three RVs early on, to give the reader a sense of who the respective couples are. One had a bumper sticker on their RV: “Home Is Where You Park It.” Got that from research.

As great as books and the Internet are, there is nothing better than talking to actual human beings. For a comedy I wrote called “Hand Jive,” which was set at Venice High School in LA, I visited the campus just to talk with teenagers. Most of them didn’t mind me taping our conversations, once I explained that I wanted to hear their lingo and catch the rhythm of their conversation. Added benefit: This is how you can generate dialogue, riffing off what you discover in interviews.

Almost invariably, what you discover in your research will fuel your brainstorming. I take copious notes from books I read, and highlight anecdotes or stories which I think I can use in the script. Then I type that information into my main brainstorming file. While that may seem laborious, I find something about it that helps to get me ‘into’ the story world.

Word of warning: You can get lost doing research. I’ve known people who would tell me they’ve got this fantastic concept for a screenplay, they can’t wait to get started, then see them 6 months later, only to find out, “I’m still doing research.” Unless you’re writing a 4-hour historical epic, you should need no more than 2-3 months to brainstorm and research and if you can devote full-time to the project, you can likely accomplish what you need in 4-6 weeks. But if you find yourself using research as an excuse to keep from typing FADE IN, that’s time to stop hitting the books and start hitting your keyboard!

An anecdote about research. At one point, I worked on a project with Howard Gottfried, who produced the Paddy Chayefsky movies The Hospital (1971), Network (1976), and Altered States (1980). I remember a conversation in which I asked Howard about how Chayefsky had researched Altered States and in particular the native hallucinatory drug rituals in Central and South America. How much time had Chayefsky spent with locals learning their ways. Howard said, “None,” then went on to explain that Chayefsky did most of his research using the collection of “National Geographic” magazines he had in his writer’s office. That and his imagination was all he needed.

I wonder what Chayefsky would have thought of Google!

Bottom line, research is a critical aspect of the script-writing process, hugely important for you to go into your story, immerse yourself in that universe, and write pages that convey a sense of verisimilitude to the reader. It’s not a documentary, it doesn’t have to 100% factually true, rather your goal is to make the story feel authentic.

In Part 4, we’ll look at character development.