Black List writers on the craft: Story Prep (Part 3)

August 12th, 2015 by

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I will run a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

Black List logo

This week: What aspects of story prep do you devote the most time and focus to?

I often say this: There’s no right way to write. Every writer is different. Every story is different. Going through these interviews, I doubt there is an area of the story-crafting process where this statement is more apt than in relation to story prep. As we will see this week, there is a big divide between Black List writers who embrace working up a comprehensive outline and those who take a considerably less formalized approach.

Over the next few days, I’m going to present an array of takes from Black List writers about outlines. Today we will explore the thoughts of writers who do not work up outlines as part of their prep process:

Nikole Beckwith: “I’ll take little notes here and there, but I’ve never written an outline or anything like that. I envision my mind as the rock tumbler. I throw these little rocks in and these ideas and I tumble them around and every once in awhile, one of them will get shiny enough for me to take out and really look at. When it’s ready to really look at, that’s when I start writing and I write in sequence from beginning to end. I don’t write out of order. If I’m stuck on a scene, I don’t move on to the next scene. I wait until that scene reveals itself.”

Brian Duffield: “If it was a spec, or now just ideas that I hope to get a chance to direct, I’ll sit on them for as long as I can until they feel cooked. I loathe outlining and like to find my way once I start writing, but by the time I start writing I usually will have had a good six months plus of just thinking about these characters, where I assume they’ll end up and what obstacles they’ll find along the way. It’s really just an internal thought process. I almost never even mention something out loud to anyone until I actually start writing it after all that time.”

Geoff LaTulippe: “Generally, I just start with some scribbled-down notes and a general idea of where I want the story to go and how I want it to end up. Then I just go. I generate my best ideas (or at least the ideas I like the most) on the fly. If I pre-plan too much of a script, I start to feel constricted by what I’ve predetermined and my creativity suffers. Most of the fun of writing, for me, is discovering MYSELF where the story is going to go. Hell, that’s ALL the fun of writing. Getting to be party to that surprise. If I outline, I deprive myself of that. And then writing becomes a job, and it’s less fun and I’m just not as good at it.

Seth Lochhead: “I tend not to write shit down unless it’s requested (and for a job, it’s always requested). I do a lot of my work on the page, within the script, scene by scene. It’s the only way I can ‘see’ it and ‘hear’ it and ‘feel’ it… Research, character… that comes as I move.”

Elijah Bynum: “The problem with me is when I have an idea and I have a character, I get really excited. At first, I go, ‘Well, I’m going to do it right this time. I’m going to outline. I’m going to know exactly what’s going to happen on each page. I’m not going down that path that I did on my other script’. Then I just get too excited and I start writing… I don’t front load everything. I think there are two kinds of people who can know their entire story up front—geniuses and hacks—I don’t think I’m either one.  I’m sure there will be a project some point in the future where I really need to delve into the research and the outlining before I even think about writing one word of the script. But so far it hasn’t been that way.”

Brad Ingelsby: “I’m not really an outline guy. I typically have an idea, a central character, a few secondary characters and a few set pieces in mind. Then I usually just dive into the script. Sometimes that works and sometimes it backfires. I’ve written some god-awful scripts this way. But I’ve found that I’m a terrible outliner. Whenever I outline a story, it invariably changes while I’m writing the script. That’s just the way it goes with characters. They have to be unpredictable. And you have to be open to them pushing back, to them telling you that the direction you thought they would go isn’t really the direction they want to go. They need room and time to grow and change. And you have to listen to them. They don’t always want to say what you want them to say… Outlining makes me feel like a slave to an outline rather than a writer searching and following and listening to a set of characters I want to spend time with.”

Kyle Killen: “I’m really a mess when it comes to process. TV was the first time that something structured and rigorous was demanded of me, and I still tended to start writing before I really knew what I was writing about. I’ve never done outlines because I’m never sure what a scene really is until I try to write it. The flip side of that is that a lot of what I write turns out to be overwritten and unnecessary, to make the same point multiple times, and generally read like I’m working it out as I go, which I am. I hope I’m getting better through the sheer volume of things being asked of me, but only time will tell.”

Kelly Marcel: “Much to some people’s chagrin, I don’t outline, and it drives them nutso. But I don’t. I cause myself a lot more work by doing it the way I do it, but I often let the story tell me what it’s going to do. I am sort of coming round to the idea that outlining might be helpful, and I think I may have to do it on one of my next projects because I am going to write it with someone else and they are a stickler for outlines (because they are boring and anally retentive), but yeah, I’m gonna cave.”

Some takeaways:

* Some writers don’t outline because they “loathe” the process. Some because they aren’t any good at it. Some because their excitement for the story propels them into the writing. But what seems to unify the anti-outline writers is outlines inhibit their creativity. They want to have fun in the writing process and outlining runs counter to that. They want their characters to surprise them and outlines detract from that.

* Notice how some of these writers acknowledge it takes more time and effort to write without an outline. Getting stuck on scenes. Pages which are “overwritten and unnecessary.” Creating a “lot more work” sans outline.

Then there’s this complicating factor:

Brad Ingelsby: “It’s a problem for me actually because when you go up for a studio assignment you’re always asked to write a treatment or an outline and often times when I get to the script, it changes in some ways. Sometimes the story changes in very small ways and sometimes it changes in larger ways. And sometimes people aren’t happy when it changes. And I totally get that. They paid for a certain story and you’re now handing them something a bit different. The frustration is understandable.”

With studios increasingly demanding outlines and treatments before sending writers to draft, it’s becoming more of a challenge for those disinclined to break their story in prep to survive in Hollywood.

However one message is loud and clear: Each of us has to figure out our own way to craft and write stories. If outlining does not facilitate our creative process, indeed, gets in its way, then we have to listen to our gut.

How about you? Are you one of those writers who just cannot outline? If so, how do you go about the prep process?

For Part 1 of the series on story concepts, go here.

Part 2, here.

Tomorrow we’ll hear from Black List writers who have adopted a kind of ‘preliminary’ outline approach to their prep-writing.

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 1)

August 3rd, 2015 by

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I will run a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

Black List logo

This week: How do you come up with story concepts?

In this first set of responses, the writers take a more ‘naturalistic’ approach which is to say they wait for inspiration to strike them:

Aaron Guzikowski: “I don’t have a specific way of doing it. Something occurs to you while you’re driving down the street, and it just seems like a good idea. I think anything that presents itself in my brain as something that I’d like to see on‑screen, and then you just want to make it real so you can see it. It’s all very selfish.”

Michael Werwie: “I think the more observational you can be in the world, the more open you’ll be to ideas in whatever form. I often put ideas together in the shower, or driving, or random moments when I least expect it. I think when an idea has story potential, it’s something that sticks with you. I’ll often carry it in my head, sometimes for a few years before I actually get to breaking a full story.”

James DiLapo: “It hits me. I don’t go looking for them, they come looking for me. I find that the entry point for me typically, is the setting, and the world. Getting a chance to live in that place, and flesh out the characters and story within it, is where I get the most rush.”

Kyle Killen: “I wish I knew where I found things – I’d look there more often. Notions, ideas, thoughts, they just sort of come to you all the time and some stick around long enough that you decide you should try to do something with them.”

Eric Heisserer: “If I could figure that out then I would be able repeat that process ad nauseam until I had a giant library of ideas. I don’t know how they come or where they come from. Sometimes I’m seized by one in the middle of the night. Sometimes it’s a slow accumulation of different little pieces that Voltron up to give me a story. Sometimes it’s during a conversation or an argument. It happens at random times. They can show up in my brain fully formed, or I have to work long and hard at it. The end product is no better or worse, but there doesn’t seem to be one way to map the genesis of an idea. I guess that’s probably good, because if there were then a lot more people would do this, and I don’t need the competition.”

Stephanie Shannon: “I don’t have a set method. I’m trying to be better about actively looking, reading articles and listening to NPR, that sort of thing. I know people do that, and I want to do more of that. I find that if I try to think of ideas like it’s a job, then it’s more difficult. That’s one of the things I want to work on, being more attuned and open to ideas and paying attention to potential stories around me.”

We’ve all been there, I suspect. Standing in a grocery line. Driving in our car. Out for a walk. When suddenly – wham! We get an idea. Perhaps it’s a concept which immediately suggests a story. Or maybe it’s merest seed of an idea which requires reflection to grow into an emerging narrative. But this spontaneous combustion, if you will, is absolutely one way story concepts come into being, a spark of inspiration seemingly out of nowhere.

For some writers, this may be all they need. However in a world of entertainment with so many different narrative platforms — movies, TV, web, books, social media — and a voracious appetite for new stories, the competition for the Next Big Thing is fierce.

What if you are the type of writer who does not naturally come up with story ideas? What if that sudden bolt of illumination is a rare commodity?

Tomorrow and for the rest of this week, we will learn how other Black List writers I have interviewed take a more proactive approach to generating story concepts, and the variety of ways they engage in that practice.

Screenwriting 101: Kyle Killen

February 19th, 2013 by

screenplay“Usually it’s about hiding whatever you wrote. The first time through people tend to tell each other what the scene is about, and in life we don’t really talk that way. We talk around things, at things, and about things, without ever overtly stating them. Life has a subtext. Most first drafts don’t.”

— Kyle Killen on rewriting a first draft [GITS interview, May 10, 2011]

Written Interview: Kyle Killen

November 3rd, 2012 by

An interview with screenwriter and TV writer Kyle Killen:

You’ve spoken before about your approach to pilots. You said that the pilot of “Lone Star” would become clear to viewers in the final moments, but you wanted the pilot for “Awake” to have everything the viewer needed presented in the first ten minutes. How has that trajectory played out with “Influence”?

In network, I think it’s probably pretty important for people not to know everything, but if they understand what kind of show they’re watching before the first commercial break, then you’re probably [better off]. The thing is, all your rope is shorter in network. You’re not gonna get a season, you’re gonna get a certain number of episodes before you’ll get canceled. I would watch Twitter when the shows would premiere, and it’d be like “I watched ‘Lone Star’ for like 30 seconds, I wasn’t really feeling it, so I flipped over to ‘The Event.’” So I get 30 seconds?

You just have to know that people are investing in it differently. A lot of times with a cable show, they’ve made a decision to watch the show, not to sample the pilot briefly but to say, “I’m in for this until something happens that makes me decide I hate it.” People approach network TV differently. So yes, I’m still of the mind that the sooner you can communicate to people what it will be like to watch this show, the better off you are.

For more of the interview, go here

Q&A: Screenwriter & TV writer Kyle Killen (“The Beaver,” “Awake,” “Lone Star”)

March 20th, 2012 by

I have been following the career of Kyle Killen almost since the start of this blog, introduced to his writing with his original screenplay “The Beaver” which topped the 2008 Black List. Therefore I was quite pleased when Kyle agreed to do a GITS Q&A back in May of last year. Some background on Kyle:

Kyle Killen began as a fiction writer, winning the John Steinbeck Award For The Short Story in 2005 and going on to have his work featured in numerous publications including Salon.com, McSweeney’s, and The Mid-American Review.

His script, The Beaver landed on top of “The Black List”, a compilation of the years best liked screenplays and went on to become a Jodie Foster/Mel Gibson feature film. Previously, his series, Lone Star was named the best new series on television by the likes of USA Today, NPR, and Variety.

He is currently working on his new series, “Awake” for NBC. He lives in Austin, TX.

Here is the interview:

Part 1

Part 2

Be sure to watch “Awake” which airs Thursdays at 10PM on NBC.

Series Debut Tonight: “Awake” from creator Kyle Killen

March 1st, 2012 by

Another reminder that the new NBC 1-hour drama “Awake” debuts tonight at 10PM Eastern / Pacific. Here is a THR feature on series creator Kyle Killen. An excerpt:

Raised in a small town outside Dallas by a graphic artist mother and a stock broker-turned-photographer father, a young Killen fancied himself a movie junkie. He was as enthralled by such blockbusters as Back to the Future as he was by small-budget films like Before Sunrise. That his passion could double as a career only became apparent when Killen discovered USC’s film school. But after a series of Hollywood internships at such companies as Disney and Douglas Wick‘s Red Wagon — along with an overnight shift pulling newswire tape at a stock brokerage to pay the bills — Killen soured on Los Angeles and packed up his car.

“It was really hard to want to be a writer in Los Angeles, because every time you opened your laptop anywhere you were aware that every other laptop was potentially generating the world’s most brilliant screenplay,” he says. “You were face to face with your competition in a way that in Texas, or anywhere else, I was the only idiot writing a screenplay, so I just had to beat myself.”

On the advice of a professor, who told him, “Writing is like a heroin addiction — if you can quit, you totally should,” Killen tried to get out. He dabbled in everything from tech support to constructing prison laundry rooms, but with each new gig he’d find a way to write about it, a clear sign quitting wasn’t an option.

An early screenplay titled Taste of a Tuesday, about a severe sleepwalker who is anti-social by day and gifted by night, got him representation; trips to the major agencies disguised as a courier got the script read. (His reps at WME and Anonymous Content are still hopeful the film will get made. In addition to the buddy comedy Scenic Route, starring Josh Duhamel and Dan Fogler, other Killen films in the works include an untitled Daredevil reboot.) A well-received but ultimately passed-over TV pitch about a brilliant 16-year-old college student came next, but it was The Beaver script that in 2008 landed Killen on the industry’s coveted Black List, the annual collection of the best unproduced screenplays.

Here is an interview with Killen and “Awake” co-executive producer Howard Gordon (“24,” “Homeland”).

Here is the series trailer:

TheWrap calls “Awake” “the best new show of the season”.

“Awake”: Thursdays, 10PM on NBC.

You may follow Kyle on Twitter: @killen8.

“Awake”: Full pilot online for screening now!

February 19th, 2012 by

You can watch the entire pilot for the new NBC 1-hour drama “Awake” here.

Created by Kyle Killen, whose screenplay “The Beaver” topped the Black List in 2009.

IMDB site

Official NBC site

Series premise:

After a car accident takes the life of a family member, a police detective lives two alternating parallel lives, one with his wife and one with his son. Is one of his “realities” merely a dream?

Series debut: NBC, March 1 and airs Thursdays at 10PM.

I’ve read the pilot script and screened the pilot, both excellent. You should definitely check out the series.

Video: “Awake,” New NBC series [Thursdays, 10PM]

February 15th, 2012 by

From HuffPo:

NBC’s “Awake” (premiering Thurs., Mar. 1, 10 p.m. EST) is the most ambitious new drama on any network. Even with a complex premise to set up, the pilot is a compelling, well-acted hour of television and HuffPost TV has the exclusive sneak peek at the show’s first seven minutes (and 55 seconds).

Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) is in a tragic car accident with his wife and son that fractures his life into two competing realities. In one, his wife is dead and he has to learn how to be a single father to his teenage son, Rex (Dylan Minnette); when he “wakes up” in what appears to be another reality, his son is dead and he and his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) are dealing with the aftermath.

Hit the link to catch the first nearly 8 minutes of the pilot episode.

The pilot script by Kyle Killen [@killen8] is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. The premise sounds like a fascinating way to bring new life to the rather stale arena of police procedurals.

Watch the video and see for yourself. And mark your calendars:

THURSDAY, MARCH 1, 10PM ON NBC.

Here is a promo for the series:

Update: “Awake”

February 4th, 2012 by

File this under “Blatant Pimping”:

NBC has announced the premiere date for midseason entry Awake.

The dual reality drama starring Jason Isaacs will launch on Thursday, March 1 at 10 p.m., taking over for struggling series The Firm, it was announced Friday by Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment.

Be forewarned. I will be promoting “Awake” over the next month as it’s one of a handful of network pilots I’ve read in the few years that I really liked. In fact I’ve been following the progress of the series since Kyle Killen sold the pilot script he penned [originally titled “REM”], then picked up for series.

Thursdays at 10PM on NBC starting March 1. A tough time slot, so the series has a challenge on its hands. If you’re looking for entertaining TV with a smart premise and compelling characters, you should give “Awake” a shot.

For more of the Hollywood Reporter article, go here.

Audio Interview: Dan Harmon, Kyle Killen, Chris McKenna, Charles Murray

January 22nd, 2012 by

Today’s interview is for all you interested in TV writing. It is a roundtable discussion with: Dan Harmon (Community creator’s return engagement!); Kyle Killen (creator, Lone Star; co-creator Awake); Chris McKenna (Community; American Dad); Charles Murray (Castle; V; Criminal Minds). Recorded October 16, 2011. Presented by Nerdist Writers. You can access the podcast here.

For my exclusive interview with Kyle Killen:

Part 1

Part 2