Let me begin with this acknowledgement: There is no right way to write. Each writer is different. Each story is different. There is no single universal approach that works for everyone.
However in my view, it is impossible to overstate the importance of prep-writing. Brainstorming. Character development. Research. Plotting. Index cards. Outline. However you do whatever you do leading up to FADE IN, do it and do it an immersive, thoughtful way.
In other words, break your story in prep.
I understand writers have an itch to get into the page-writing, which is great because that can help overcome the single greatest challenge of writing: depositing one’s ass onto one’s chair to actually write.
However we have to balance that out with finding the story.
Some writers absolutely loathe and can’t handle any sort of prep. They simply have to type FADE IN (or if a novel, crack open that file) and have a go at it. Nothing wrong with that… if it works.
Repeat: You may be a writer who either cannot abide the process of prep-writing or find it actually inhibits your creativity. Whatever approach you discover that works for you, even if it involves little or not prep work, good luck and go with God.
However standing on the front line of aspiring screenwriter-to-pro-screenwriter as I do, having worked with literally hundreds and interfaced with thousands through my blog, I strongly believe the single biggest hurdle for writers is not doing sufficient prep-writing.
First, in my experience a writer is much less likely to finish a script if they haven’t figured out at least the major plot points before they type FADE IN. If they get lost, confusion sets in. If they are not finding the story, their enthusiasm wanes. At some point, frustration enters, then bitterness, then rejection. Another script on the Died On The Vine pile.
Second, even if they do manage to get to FADE OUT – and acknowledging that a first draft is always going to be rough – unless they do 10-15 drafts, I doubt they will ever find the story they could have discovered if they had fully immersed themselves in it in prep. That is one of the big values of brainstorming and character development especially, giving yourself the freedom to explore and test out a wide variety of narrative options as opposed to narrowing the field of choices before surfacing other possibilities.
Third, if a writer wants to have a realistic chance at succeeding as a professional writer, they have to be able to turn around stories in an efficient manner. You sign a contract on a writing assignment giving you ten weeks to deliver, you’d better be prepared to do precisely that. Having figured out whatever sort of approach to prep you use is a big plus in that regard rather than watching the ink dry on your contract, then going, “Uh, what do I do now?”
On a side note, if you have any interest in writing TV, whether you like prep-writing or not, you are simply going to have to embrace it. For example in one-hour dramas with narrative arcs that extend over the course of one or more seasons, they break all or almost all of that out before divvying out scripts to individual writers. In fact, I think it’s safe to say a majority of time in the writers room is devoted to breaking stories (after shooting the shit and eating snacks, of course).
So different strokes for different folks and all that. And yes, we all want and need to leave room for the mysteries and surprises of stories to reveal themselves. If a full outline stifles your creativity, don’t do a full outline.
However for writers not of that ilk, my point is you need to figure out the story somehow. Why not do it in prep? Then you can concern yourself in page-writing with all the fun stuff of writing — scene description, character interaction, scene construction, transitions, atmospherics — rather than desperately attempting to sort out what goes where, does this work, oh my God, I’m lost.
Finally let me say this. I have seen writers get ‘converted’ on this point. Many who had never done much in the way of prep, some who said they knew it wouldn’t work for them. After I got done working with them, it was like the heavens opened and the light of revelation shone down upon them. I’m not kidding. I have dozens of testimonials to that effect.
And if that doesn’t sway you, check out these pro Hollywood writers — Karen McCullah and Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith, and David Magee — and their approach to prep-writing. And this from Academy Award-winning writer Dustin Lance Black:
The essence of prep-writing is really quite simple: Get curious about your characters. Engage them, get to know them, interact with them, listen to them, ponder their personal histories, delve into their personalities, dig, dig, and dig some more. If you do that in a thoughtful way, the story, indeed the plot itself will emerge as a natural part of the prep process.
I’ve seen it happen over and over and over and over again, which is why I say to most writers…
Break your story in prep.
For the rest of the 30 Things About Screenwriting series, go here.
[Originally posted November 15, 2013]