Someone recently asked me about how much pre-writing I do before I start writing actual first draft pages. Pre-writing is stuff like brainstorming, outlining, character development and research.
The amount of pre-writing varies from writer to writer, of course, but also project to project. And there’s a danger of doing too much – of using pre-writing as a way to convince yourself you’re accomplishing something when in fact you’re procrastinating.
I’m an outliner. Most professional screenwriters I know outline extensively before writing – but not all. However, those that don’t usually admit that their first drafts are a mess, often dozens if not hundreds of pages spent going in the wrong direction. If you ask me, they’re outlining, too, they’re just doing it in screenplay format. I’d guess my first drafts are more akin to their second drafts.
But I’m not criticizing their process. Whatever works for them – and whatever works for you – is the right answer. I can really only tell you what I do and why.
Let me start from the beginning. Whenever I get an idea for a movie, I jot it down in a notebook. Often these ideas are kind of half ideas. There’s something there, but they aren’t really compelling or rich enough yet. Somewhere down the line I’ll figure out the other half or I’ll put two of them together and it will feel like a movie. Some of those concepts will worm their way into my mind and keep popping up unbidden. Those are the ones I start developing.
The initial development process is pretty informal. I’ll start to jot down notes by the idea in my notebook. When I get to the point where I have to add a page, I create a file folder just for that idea. Active ideas have a place in my file cabinet. (Usually that’s half a dozen at a time, max.)
As the story starts to take shape I’ll begin to naturally organize it around the three act structure. There are a few things I look for as this happens: Who is the main character? What’s their want and need? What’s the main obstacle to their goal, or the main antagonist? Do they succeed in the end?
Once I can answer all these questions satisfactorily I start formalizing the story. I like to write an initial treatment of a page or two, just to let my imagination get the story out the way it sees it. Then I start to break it down based on three act and mythology structure. I might not have all the beats yet, but at least I’ll know what needs to be filled in.
There’s one more crucial question that comes up here: “Given this premise, what do I want to see in the movie?” This is really a form of focused brainstorming. You’ll probably only ever write one script about this particular subject matter so you want to make sure you get all the good stuff you can think of into it.
Then I basically start adding (and occasionally subtracting) until I have a 12-25 page step outline. A step outline is a document that indicates every major scene with a paragraph or two or three describing the action. It can include important bits of dialogue, too. Once I’ve got that and it feels pretty solid, I’m ready to go to script.
But wait! A lot of things happen between one page treatment and 20-ish page step outline. Exactly what depends on the project. Some projects require research (and that deserves a post in itself…maybe next time!) All require character development, which I wrote about here.
A lot of writers use index cards to break out their stories. They tack them to a bulletin board on the wall, one scene per card, or maybe additional cards with ideas for dialogue or events or character info. As they get more ideas they jot them down on a card and tack it on the board. Then they can reorder the cards to try out different approaches to the story.
Personally I don’t do this with most of my scripts but if I have something complex, or with a big ensemble, or that jumps around in time, I find this is a very useful technique. Sometimes I’ll even use different colored index cards to indicate A, B and C plot; or to indicate which time period I’m in. Then I can step back and get a really clear picture of how the different threads are balancing – if I go too long without addressing one, for example, I might want to move a scene forward or back.
The goal is to get to that step outline that feels pretty complete. Once I have that, I’m confident I know what I’m trying to accomplish with every scene. And as a result I don’t get writer’s block. Not that I always stick religiously to the outline. As you write, things change. I’ll often end up rewriting my outline when I’m in the middle of the first draft. And a lot of times I’ll revise the outline after the first draft to provide a roadmap for my rewrite.
It can be tough to know when that step outline is done. Often you'll want to rush to craft those brilliant scenes, and you'll gloss over the fact you really haven't figured out what the character's feeling in the second half of act two. Or the opposite happens: you keep noodling with the outline because you're afraid to move to the next step. You want to make sure you've figured out how you're going to dramatize every major beat of the story, but once you've done that, you do want to move on to your first draft.
I developed my process through trial and error over many scripts, and I’d say it’s still developing. And really every script is different. Sometimes the character pops into my head fully developed; sometimes it’s a struggle to figure out who they are. Sometimes the structure is obvious and sometimes I spend a month trying to figure out what happens at the end of act two. Research, particularly, varies a great deal. Developing a contemporary romantic comedy based on personal experience is a lot different than developing a historical epic based on actual events.
But that variety is part of the fun of being a writer!
Now Write! Screenwriting – with a chapter by yours truly about character development – is now available!