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]