30 Things About Screenwriting: Break your story in prep

July 15th, 2015 by

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]

Break your story in prep

May 28th, 2015 by

Have you ever started a script and not finished it?

Has it ever taken you 6 months, 1 year, or more to finish a script?

Have you ever gotten so lost when writing a story, you became incredibly frustrated, and gave up?

Chances are you did not do enough story preparation.

Don’t you think it’s time to approach writing like many professionals do and break your story in prep?

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Screenwriting Master Class offers a 6-week online Prep: From Concept to Outline writing workshop, a unique approach to develop your story, enabling you to crack it before you type FADE IN.

The beauty of this approach is three-fold:

  • You can go into the page-writing part of the process with confidence because you’ve already broken the story.
  • Since you won’t be overwhelmed with finding the story when writing pages, you can focus your creativity where it should be — characters, dialogue, themes, mood, pace, etc.
  • By devoting six weeks to prep, you will almost assuredly cut the overall amount of time you spend writing your script and increase the odds you will finish your draft.

Here are a few testimonials from writers who have participated in the Prep: From Concept to Outline online workshop:

“‘From Concept to Outline’ is a course I wish I had known about a couple of years ago. I would recommend this whole-heartedly for anyone who is about to embark on their first script or ANY script. This lays the foundation stone to your story.” – Camilla Castree

“This has been an outstanding class. I’ve taken a few from other sources and most don’t live up to their promises (they shall remain nameless). But here, I’ve learned so much and gotten way more than my money’s worth.” — Daniel O’Donahue

“I went into Scott’s Prep class doubting I’d ever finish a script; I came out with the tools, confidence and inspiration to power through a complete first draft in just a few months. Amazing!” — Jessica Sada

In the nearly five years I’ve been teaching through Screenwriting Master Class, I’ve led multiple Prep workshops as it has proved to be one of the most popular classes we offer. Why? Because it works! If you fully engage yourself in the six stages of this process, you will end up with an outline you can use as a springboard for writing your screenplay.

Moreover I hear from writers frequently who have taken the workshop, how they continue to adapt and use it on other stories. I’m not saying it’s the way to break a story, however it has proved to be a viable approach for many writers.

What the workshop consists of:

* Six lectures written by me

* Six writing assignments which take you from a Protagonist Character Treatment all the way to a Narrative Throughline outline

* Six due dates to spur you to make progress on your story

* Online forums with feedback from myself and your fellow writers

* Weekly teleconferences for yet more feedback

In other words, a structure which steers you through the prep-writing process… from concept to outline.

I will be leading the next session starting June 8. For more information, go here.

As always, I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

Wrangling your story

April 16th, 2015 by

Some call it breaking a story. Others cracking a story. I prefer wrangling a story. Whatever you call it, you have to do it… figure out the story. What goes where. Who does what to whom. And for most writers, the ideal time to do that work is before you type FADE IN.

What we call prep-writing.

Of the many things that can go wrong with a screenplay, perhaps the most frequent contributor to a project’s crash-and-burn is the writer not spending enough time in prep wrangling their story.

Conversely if you do spend sufficient time in the prep-writing phase of the process, you significantly increase the chances you’ll not only finish your script, but produce a draft that will be much closer to realizing your goals.

WranglingComplexity

When Tom Benedek and I launched Screenwriting Master Class nearly four years ago, the very first class we offered was Prep: From Concept To Outline. I created the workshop precisely because I believe so strongly in the value of prep-writing combined with the fact there is nothing out there remotely close to the approach I had in mind.

Prep: From Concept To Outline is a 6-week online workshop in which you start with your basic idea and your story’s Protagonist, then through a series of weekly writing exercises, you develop and build your story’s structure. Not just the plot, but also what’s going on in the emotional and psychological world of your story universe, the foundation of Character Based Screenwriting.

Character work. Brainstorming. Plotting. Subplots. Connecting the dots. Mapping your narrative. Weekly teleconferences where we workshop your story. In the end, you have a detailed outline providing you a foundation upon which you can craft a first draft.

What’s more, you can adopt this approach — and adapt it to your own unique skills — for every future writing project.

Tom will be leading the next session of Prep beginning Monday, April 20. So if you have a good idea for a movie and want to learn a professional approach to wrangle it, sign up now for Prep: From Concept To Outline.

If you have any questions about the workshop or what we offer online through SMC, please post in comments or email me.

Tom Benedek (Guest Post): Writer as Pioneer

April 14th, 2015 by

A guest post from screenwriter Tom Benedek (Cocoon) and co-founder of Screenwriting Master Class:

Stories have endings. Characters may have inevitable emotional destinations. They may start with an internal dissonance – a psychological itch they cannot scratch – something which they need to understand, come to terms with which they may not even know about. Writing teacher Lisa Cron, calls this “the live wire” in her book Wired for Story.

Some writers cannot start a project until they know what their theme is. Others ignore the T word entirely, never it even if readers or audience may eventually see great meanings in the work.

But this “live wire” — a character’s internal dissonance — may be at the heart of why we start to write anything. Even though it is not about the writer, it’s about the characters. Who they think they are? vs. Who they really are? What they really know about themselves? vs. What they think they know about themselves?

As plot moves forward, our characters often do grand battle within themselves. Identifying this “live wire” helps the writer understand how the protagonist will deal with the obstacles you throw at them in the story. So throw the compass and road map into the hands of your main character or characters, but be clear about what is disturbing their inner peace, making them tick in the here and now of the plot. And fascinating things may unfold.

You are a pioneer when you start making notes for a new writing project. A number of things may have popped into your head already. An idea, a place, a situation has grabbed you. No one has told your story before so you probably can’t just tell it. You must discover it. As you edge forward, you build your characters. You learn about their “live wires” — their internal dissonances. Plot and story will unfold uniquely through their unique world views.

We’re starting a new 6-week Prep story outline class this Monday, April 20. Pioneer your new script project. Uncover the “live wires” of your characters.

The Prep workshop is one of the most popular classes we offer at Screenwriting Master Class. Easy to understand why as it offers a dual benefit: Not only do you take one of your original stories from concept to outline, you also learn a prep-writing process you can adopt and adapt for all of your future writing projects. Having an efficient, effective way of breaking a story is a critical capability for any writer who hopes to work in Hollywood, either as a screenwriter or TV  writer.

For more information on the upcoming Prep workshop with Tom Benedek, go here.

Do you start scripts, but not finish them?

February 23rd, 2015 by

Four questions for you:

* Are you prone to starting scripts, but not finishing them?

* Do you get lost when you are writing your script, then lose faith in it – and yourself?

* Have you received feedback that your scripts have thin characters or weak plots?

* Do you have a great concept for a spec script you want to get to market as smartly and quickly as you can?

The Prep: From Concept to Outline class is designed for you.

This 6-week online workshop is unique, offering a professional approach to developing and ‘breaking’ your story. Combining lectures, weekly writing assignments, feedback, and teleconferences, it is a proven approach to take you through the prep-writing process.

Plus if you do the work, you not only end up with an outline, you also learn an approach to prep-writing you can adopt and adapt to fit your own creative needs.

Let’s take those four questions from above one by one:

* The single biggest reason why writers start but fail to finish scripts is because they don’t really know their story. In our 6-week Prep class, the focus is on precisely that: finding your story.

* The best way to avoid getting lost when you type FADE IN is to break your story in prep, like most pros do. If you do the work, at the end of the Prep workshop, you will have a thorough outline of your story, enabling you to power into the page-writing process with confidence.

* The work you do in the Prep course targets both character and plot, so you can end up with well-defined and richly drawn characters, and a solid story structure.

* Breaking your story in prep actually speeds up the scripting process, enabling you to get from concept to market faster than if you try to find your story by jumping into pages.

Here are some testimonials from writers who have taken the Prep: From Concept to Outline workshop:

“I went into Scott’s Prep class doubting I’d ever finish a script; I came out with the tools, confidence and inspiration to power through a complete first draft in just a few months. Amazing. And the class was so much fun! Scott’s got a great sense of humor and is a brilliant teacher – devoted, generous, encouraging, and kind. As an accomplished screenwriter himself, Scott’s notes are creative and insightful, and his advice about the industry is practical and authentic, informed by his own experience.” – Jessica Sada

‘From Concept to Outline’ is a course I wish I had known about a couple of years ago. I would recommend this whole-heartedly for anyone who is about to embark on their first script or ANY script. This lays the foundation stone to your story. Over six weeks, Scott posts a weekly thought-provoking lecture which gets into your grey matter even before you finish reading it. I learned how to blueprint my story, which is possibly the most important thing to do before you type FADE IN.  — Camilla Castree

The approach in the Prep class works. I know this not only from working with writers in our online courses, but also through private sessions I have had with professional screenwriters, even playwrights and novelists to help them crack their stories.

The upcoming Prep workshop begins Monday, March 2.

Isn’t it time you learned to approach your screenwriting like most of the pros do — breaking their story in prep? Sign up now for the next session of Prep: From Concept to Outline by going here.

This is something you can do because this is something you have done!

January 5th, 2015 by

I get email:

Hi, Scott. Happy new year!

Just dropping you a quick note to thank you. I finished my first first draft of a feature script just a few days ago. It was my goal to finish before the year was out, and your online classes this past spring helped me get there. And as much as all your lessons made sense then, they make even more sense this side of “The End.” Honestly, finishing this script crystallized everything you taught me.

Thanks again, Scott. On to the next one.

Warmly,
Jeff

My response to Jeff:

Appears that you really ‘got’ it re process. Two keys: Break the story in prep. Then do everything you can to get from FADE IN to FADE OUT. Get something down on paper. For some writers, maybe not the best approach, especially seasoned vets who just know they are going to finish. But for writers who have yet to knock out three, five or more scripts, it’s important to establish that foundation of confidence that this is something you can do because this is something you have done.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the whole 10,000 hour rule. Every writer is different. That said, there is something about simply doing the work and producing the product that translates into understanding… knowledge… confidence.

You’ve done it. Therefore you can do it.

One of my goals here on the blog and through the writing classes I teach is not only to provide solid theory, but principles and practices grounded in the realities of life as a professional screenwriter… the daily grind, the weight of expectations, the pressure.

You need to develop that belief based on experience that you can deliver the goods. If you go up for a writing assignment, you must have faith that in 10 weeks or whatever the contract calls for, you will give them a script they will – at the very least – recognize as a strong effort in moving the project forward.

Therefore your chops in doing research, brainstorming ideas, developing characters, working the plot, understanding themes, and all the rest require a certain amount of experience. And you can only gain that experience by… doing it.

When I interviewed Craig Mazin (The Hangover, Part 2, Identity Thief) and asked him what his best excuse not to write was, this was his reply:

I don’t need one. That’s the truth. If I don’t feel like writing, then I’m not writing. I mean, there are things during the day that I kind of look forward to, like lunch with a friend. My son plays baseball. He has his baseball practices, and I go out there and I run around and get my exercise on the field, but also I’m avoiding writing. But then I do it. Then I write. For instance, today I haven’t written anything, but I’m about to. I can just tell. It’s like one of those days where I just know this is like an evening thing where I’m going to sit outside, and I’m going to write four or five pages. I just know it.

That is where you want to get, that level of self-confidence. And how do you know you can do it? By having done it.

How do TV writers write? They ‘break’ the story first.

October 31st, 2014 by

Entertainment Weekly has a sponsored piece of content called “A Day in the Life of a TV Executive Producer and Writer,” featuring Sarah Watson who works on the NBC TV series “Parenthood”. You can read it here. What I’d like to zero in on is this:

Parenthood Writers Room

Notice all those index cards? Watson explains them:

A story is a group effort before the writer goes off to work out the script. “We ‘break’ the story as a team. Break is a fancy word for outline. We talk it through scene by scene and beat by beat until we have a shape for an episode. On Parenthood we use cork boards and colored note cards to track the scenes.”

Index cards! With all the technology we have nowadays, perhaps these simple 3×5 inch cards are the one of the most important writing tools. And not just for TV. Back in June, I featured this interview with screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, whose movie credits include Milk and J. Edgar. He is a big fan of index cards:

I was really interested to see the table Lance works on because I interviewed him a few years ago and we discussed our mutual affection for using index cards:

DLB: Then what I do is find the scenes that speak to that, and I put them on note cards. I have this table in my kitchen that’s of a certain size that I think is about two hours. And I start laying out these note cards and if they start to spill over the table, I know I’ve got to cut stuff. I keep doing and doing and doing it, going through it and through it and through it, combining things, telescoping time, combining characters if I have to until these cards fit on this table, then I think, Will this collection of cards communicate the reason for this film? And hopefully do so in a dramatic and entertaining way.

SM: It’s funny that with all the technology available, I talk to so many writers who still like to work with those three-by-five inch index cards. Like we need that tactile experience of working with those cards and seeing the story come into shape.

DLB: You can see it all laying out in front of you. And you’d have to have a massive computer screen to see the entire story. Plus there’s no program I know of, not yet at least, that allows you to take a fine tip Sharpie and scribble something in the corner of a note card that’s already crammed with ideas. It’s collage and art. I don’t know of a program that’s loose enough to accommodate the craft, because it’s still a craft, crafting a screenplay.

Ever since I spoke with Lance, I kept trying to imagine what “certain size” table he has that translates into a two hour movie. Well, there it is in the video. In fact at the 3:40 mark in the video, Lance flat out says about scenes he’s had to cut, “There’s not room. I don’t have any more room on that table.”

Index cards. Tables. Cork board. White boards. Whatever you do and however you do it, break your story in prep. I’m not saying it’s the only way to write a screenplay, but most pro writers I know approach the story-crafting process that way. And every TV writer does. So if you don’t outline your stories, now’s the time to give it a try. Bust out those index cards and break your story!

Wrangling your story

October 20th, 2014 by

Some call it breaking a story. Others cracking a story. I prefer wrangling a story. Whatever you call it, you have to do it… figure out the story. What goes where. Who does what to whom. And for most writers, the ideal time to do that work is before you type FADE IN.

What we call prep-writing.

Of the many things that can go wrong with a screenplay, perhaps the most frequent contributor to a project’s crash-and-burn is the writer not spending enough time in prep wrangling their story.

Conversely if you do spend sufficient time in the prep-writing phase of the process, you significantly increase the chances you’ll not only finish your script, but produce a draft that will be much closer to realizing your goals.

WranglingComplexity

When Tom Benedek and I launched Screenwriting Master Class nearly four years ago, the very first class we offered was Prep: From Concept To Outline. I created the workshop precisely because I believe so strongly in the value of prep-writing combined with the fact there is nothing out there remotely close to the approach I had in mind.

Prep: From Concept To Outline is a 6-week online workshop in which you start with your basic idea and your story’s Protagonist, then through a series of weekly writing exercises, you develop and build your story’s structure. Not just the plot, but also what’s going on in the emotional and psychological world of your story universe, the foundation of Character Based Screenwriting.

Character work. Brainstorming. Plotting. Subplots. Connecting the dots. Mapping your narrative. Weekly teleconferences where we workshop your story. In the end, you have a detailed outline providing you a foundation upon which you can craft a first draft.

What’s more, you can adopt this approach — and adapt it to your own unique skills — for every future writing project.

I will be leading the next session of Prep beginning next Monday, October 27. So if you have a good idea for a movie and want to learn a professional approach to wrangle it, sign up now for Prep: From Concept To Outline.

If you have any questions about the workshop or what we offer online through SMC, please post in comments or email me.

Amazing things happen in these workshops, so I look forward to the opportunity to dig into your story with you!

Do you start scripts, but not finish them?

August 11th, 2014 by

Four questions for you:

* Are you prone to starting scripts, but not finishing them?

* Do you get lost when you are writing your script, then lose faith in it – and yourself?

* Have you received feedback that your scripts have thin characters or weak plots?

* Do you have a great concept for a spec script you want to get to market as smartly and quickly as you can?

The Prep: From Concept to Outline class is designed for you.

This 6-week online workshop is unique, offering a professional approach to developing and ‘breaking’ your story. Combining lectures, weekly writing assignments, feedback, and teleconferences, it is a proven approach to take you through the prep-writing process.

Plus if you do the work, you not only end up with an outline, you also learn an approach to prep-writing you can adopt and adapt to fit your own creative needs.

Let’s take those four questions from above one by one:

* The single biggest reason why writers start but fail to finish scripts is because they don’t really know their story. In our 6-week Prep class, the focus is on precisely that: finding your story.

* The best way to avoid getting lost when you type FADE IN is to break your story in prep, like most pros do. If you do the work, at the end of the Prep workshop, you will have a thorough outline of your story, enabling you to power into the page-writing process with confidence.

* The work you do in the Prep course targets both character and plot, so you can end up with well-defined and richly drawn characters, and a solid story structure.

* Breaking your story in prep actually speeds up the scripting process, enabling you to get from concept to market faster than if you try to find your story by writing pages.

Here are some testimonials from writers who have taken the Prep: From Concept to Outline workshop:

“You gave us just the right amount of ideas, encouragement, and support to discover, develop, and design a real workable blueprint to take into the page writing.” – David Broyles

“The Prep class has given me a set of practical tools to use to take the bare glimmer of a concept to outline in six weeks.” – James Tichenor

I honestly can’t wait to get started on this script now, and to use what I’ve learned in Prep to go back and rewrite other scripts.” – Paul Labich

The approach in the Prep class works. I know this not only from working with writers in our online courses, but also through private sessions I have had with professional screenwriters, even playwrights to help them crack their stories.

The upcoming Prep workshop begins Monday, August 18.

Isn’t it time you learned to approach your screenwriting like most of the pros do — breaking their story in prep? Sign up now for the next session of Prep: From Concept to Outline by going here.

Do you know how to break a story?

September 16th, 2013 by

Writers use a lot of different words for the process of figuring out a story.

You break a story.

You crack a story.

You wrangle a story.

Those verbs give you a pretty good idea of the fundamental challenge a writer faces when writing a story. It ain’t easy. A story is a live, moving target with a will of its own, so in order to craft a story, you need to know how to break it, crack it, wrangle it.

That’s why I created “Prep: From Concept to Outline,” a unique six-week online Screenwriting Master Class course that provides participants an interactive approach to figuring out a story. Once you learn this approach, you can use it on all future writing projects.

The class consists of six lectures that I’ve written and six weekly writing exercises, creating a process that engages you with your story universe and its characters. During the six weeks, your story emerges enabling you to pull together a comprehensive outline so you can type FADE IN with confidence.

Moreover it’s a workshop environment, so you get the benefit not only of my feedback, but comments and suggestions of other writers, including weekly teleconferences.

Finally it creates a structured online environment that lights a fire under your ass, so if you have problems making progress, sticking to something, or even getting started, committing to a class like this can be just the thing you need.

My next session of the Prep class starts next Monday, September 23 and there are still a few spots open. To my knowledge, there is nothing else quite like “Prep: From Concept to Outline” anywhere else, which strikes me as crazy because every Hollywood writer knows how critically important prep is to writing a successful story.

Here is your chance to work with me on your story. For more information or to enroll, go here.

An observation from writer Rob Burke who participated in a recent Prep workshop:

Hope you don’t mind Scott – but, as someone who has taken the class, thought I’d (unsolicited) throw out there that I HIGHLY recommend this course. Especially if you can answer “YES” to this question:

I have [fill in the blank] scripts that I’ve started, but have not finished.

This class has the potential to get you past what’s likely getting you stuck in the proverbial writing mud. It did for me. And, while it is definitely not an automatic cure-all – you have to put in the work and be committed to it – I think if you’ve been searching for a better way to approach writing your script, you’d be hard pressed to find a better dogmatic approach than Scott’s. (Or is it karmic . . .)

Rob raises a key point: Perhaps the single biggest reason why writers start scripts, but don’t finish them is because they haven’t figured out the story before they type FADE IN. Anyone can write a first act. Some folks can get through the next 10-20 pages. But when they get lost midway through Act Two, that can lead to confusion, frustration and almost inevitably giving up.

The Prep workshop is designed in large part of solve that problem, steering you through and motivating you to break your story before launching into the page-writing part of the process.

Just like Rob says.