There’s No Right Way To Write: Part 1

June 30th, 2014 by

There is no right way to write. No one way. No single approach, paradigm, theory or magic formula. No easy path. There is only the writer. Their creativity. Their stories. And lots of hard work.

This week I’ve decided to feature the words of four screenwriters each day to demonstrate the endless varieties of ways to approach the craft of writing:

NEIL SIMON (The Odd Couple, The Goodbye Girl)

“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.”

RON BASS (Rain Man, My Best Friend’s Wedding)

“Everything I write is in three acts, and I actually start with three pieces of paper. I have some notion of where each act begins and ends before I get to this stage. I know my people and I know roughly about how many scenes each act should be. I start from the beginning and end of an act, working forwards and backwards toward the middle. I know that somewhere there’s going to be a moment of this, a moment of that, and it’s like a matrix. I don’t work with cards, just one page per act. When I finish three acts I page budget, I want to know I can tell the story in a distance that’s appropriate. And I’m rarely more than ten pages off.”

GUILLERMO ARRIAGA (Amores Perres, 21 Grams)

“I never outline the story, never. I once went to a seminar of one of these gurus of the screen and this person said you must know everything about your character. I thought, F*ck, there’s no way! I want to have dark parts of my characters’ history so they can surprise me. Also I cannot have an ending because when I don’t know the characters, they can show me the ending as I get to know them. That’s why I don’t like to do research of any kind. I like for the characters to grow up inside of me.

“There are two kinds of people. There are people who do not have any kind of internal way to order things inside themselves so they need structure: page 30, page 60 and so on. I don’t blame or criticize the professors or the writer who has a different kind of approach to structure.

“In 21 Grams, it goes back and forth all the time, and I had a perfect understanding of where it was going. I never got lost and thought that I needed a plot point here or for something to happen in the second act. I never think that way. That’s not to say the other way is bad. It’s just that myself and other writers have a different internal process. It’s intuition.”

CHARLES BENNETT (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps)

“The construction is the most important goddamned thing. It’s like building a house – you have to build the outside properly before you put the bits and pieces inside afterward.

“Get your story, get your architecture right, and you can always add your dialogue afterwards.

“A story starts at the beginning, it develops, it works itself out, and it works up to its finale. The great essence of construction is to know you end before you know your beginning; to know exactly what you’re working up to; and then to work up to that end. To just start off and wander on the way isn’t any good whatever… because you’re wallowing.”

There are essential principles of screenwriting. There are practices professional writers know and use. You can learn these. You can develop your instinct. Your voice. Your connection to the craft. But that path, your writer’s journey, is something you fundamentally do on your own.

You immerse yourself in the world of cinema. Read scripts. Watch movies. Write pages.

You study what others have to say. You absorb. Analyze. Stretch. Test. Fail. Regroup. And strive to get better with each script, each sequence, each scene, each page, each line.

But we must all face this truth: There’s no right way to write.

There is only your way.

Tomorrow: More reflections and four more screenwriters on how they approach the craft.

There’s No Right Way To Write: Part 1

September 3rd, 2012 by

There is no right way to write. No one way. No single approach, paradigm, theory or magic formula. No easy path. There is only the writer. Their creativity. Their stories. And lots of hard work.

This week I’ve decided to feature the words of four screenwriters each day to demonstrate the endless varieties of ways to approach the craft of writing:

NEIL SIMON (The Odd Couple, The Goodbye Girl)

“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.”

RON BASS (Rain Man, My Best Friend’s Wedding)

“Everything I write is in three acts, and I actually start with three pieces of paper. I have some notion of where each act begins and ends before I get to this stage. I know my people and I know roughly about how many scenes each act should be. I start from the beginning and end of an act, working forwards and backwards toward the middle. I know that somewhere there’s going to be a moment of this, a moment of that, and it’s like a matrix. I don’t work with cards, just one page per act. When I finish three acts I page budget, I want to know I can tell the story in a distance that’s appropriate. And I’m rarely more than ten pages off.”

GUILLERMO ARRIAGA (Amores Perres, 21 Grams)

“I never outline the story, never. I once went to a seminar of one of these gurus of the screen and this person said you must know everything about your character. I thought, F*ck, there’s no way! I want to have dark parts of my characters’ history so they can surprise me. Also I cannot have an ending because when I don’t know the characters, they can show me the ending as I get to know them. That’s why I don’t like to do research of any kind. I like for the characters to grow up inside of me.

“There are two kinds of people. There are people who do not have any kind of internal way to order things inside themselves so they need structure: page 30, page 60 and so on. I don’t blame or criticize the professors or the writer who has a different kind of approach to structure.

“In 21 Grams, it goes back and forth all the time, and I had a perfect understanding of where it was going. I never got lost and thought that I needed a plot point here or for something to happen in the second act. I never think that way. That’s not to say the other way is bad. It’s just that myself and other writers have a different internal process. It’s intuition.”

CHARLES BENNETT (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps)

“The construction is the most important goddamned thing. It’s like building a house – you have to build the outside properly before you put the bits and pieces inside afterward.

“Get your story, get your architecture right, and you can always add your dialogue afterwards.

“A story starts at the beginning, it develops, it works itself out, and it works up to its finale. The great essence of construction is to know you end before you know your beginning; to know exactly what you’re working up to; and then to work up to that end. To just start off and wander on the way isn’t any good whatever… because you’re wallowing.”

There are essential principles of screenwriting. There are practices professional writers know and use. You can learn these. You can develop your instinct. Your voice. Your connection to the craft. But that path, your writer’s journey, is something you fundamentally do on your own.

You immerse yourself in the world of cinema. Read scripts. Watch movies. Write pages.

You study what others have to say. You absorb. Analyze. Stretch. Test. Fail. Regroup. And strive to get better with each script, each sequence, each scene, each page, each line.

But we must all face this truth: There’s no right way to write.

There is only your way.

Tomorrow: More reflections and four more screenwriters on how they approach the craft.

[Originally posted February 28, 2011]

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.

The discipline and courage of screenwriting

February 13th, 2012 by

A Tweet today from @carnojoe aka Joe Carnahan:

Start writing ‘Death Wish’ this week. Have the entire thing outlined but that means bupkis if the script starts steering it someplace else.

Another example of what I’ve been saying since about Day 1 of this blog: Professional screenwriters work out the story before they type FADE IN. Well, almost all. Certainly every TV writer.

You break the story in prep.

This is perhaps the single biggest mistake aspiring screenwriters make, not spending enough time with the story before moving into page-writing. And it’s not just about wrangling the story into an outline, it’s also about immersing oneself in that story universe so that the writer knows it and its characters intimately. There is a certain kind of creativity that can only occur between the writer and their story through an intense connectivity to it.

Now as Carnahan says, once you type FADE IN and start writing those pages, the script can start “steering” the story “someplace else.” In this vein, be sure to read Neil Simon’s quote from the upcoming How I Write A Script post later today about how his characters “started to want to drift off where they wanted to go,” away from what he had outlined.

We should be so lucky!

When our characters come to life like that, it can be disconcerting, even scary to have to follow them as they veer away from what we had planned. But follow them we must because, after all, it’s their story.

Besides it doesn’t mean that your outline is somehow wrong, rather that the characters only came to life because you spent the amount of time you did engaged with the story during prep. The script may end up diverging hugely from your outline. Or the characters may simply take a short detour before returning to what you had envisioned.

But when writing a screenplay, we need to have the discipline to figure out the story in prep, resulting in some variation of an outline, and the courage to follow the script wherever it takes us after we type FADE IN.

For more on this subject, check out the next post on outlining.

And good luck to Joe Carnahan, fresh off the success of The Grey, now venturing into Death Wish.