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Over the years I’ve experimented with so many different approaches to screenwriting. Some scripts have been written freehand with no outline at all, while others were rigidly planned.
I learned a little bit from each script – not just about the creative process, but the tactical process too.
After writing dozens of screenplays using countless different methods, some key fundamental building blocks began to reveal themselves.
No matter which format, strategy, or approach I would employ, reaching my goal of completing a screenplay always relied on filling in the exact same blanks.
Now when I approach the writing process, I simply rely on my own custom formula… For me, it works wonders.
I’m not suggesting it’s perfect for everyone, but I wanted to share it here today for those of you looking to streamline your workflow.
Fundamentally, I’m not re-inventing the wheel, but rather placing an emphasis on the sequencing of my process.
I’ve found that my “order of operations” while writing, is a huge factor in whether or not my end product will be viable.
With that in mind, below is the workflow that I have chosen to adopt when writing feature length narrative scripts. It’s the only way I write (at the moment at least), so hopefully this will be of some value to your process too.
It all starts here –
I like to spend weeks, maybe even months mulling over a concept. I’ll often be inspired by something in reality – a story in the news or an experience I had first hand. This will usually translate into a philosophical question… “What would happen to humanity if X occured”, for instance.
This is always the slowest part of my process. I never want to rush it, as the success of the rest of the movie depends on getting this right. Only once I feel that I have a really strong idea of what I want to say or explore, will I move on to the specifics below.
Although I keep the door open for my theme to evolve throughout the writing process, having a solid idea of my theme from the outset can be immensely helpful.
Generally, if I am having trouble identifying a basic theme in my work, it’s because I haven’t really solidified the concept itself. Maybe I’m not clear enough on what the movie is really about, or what I’m trying to say. In either case, bringing out the theme can identify any potential issues early on, and also inform more choices to come.
Before I begin to lay out any concrete story ideas, I want to have a clear idea of the canvas I’m working on.
There’s often only a single genre (or sub-genre) that I could imagine exploring my concept or theme with. By committing to the conventions of that genre early on, it helps impose positive creative limitations that crystalize decisions to come in future steps.
Up until this point, everything has been very high level – conceptually and thematically, but now it’s time to make specific choices… Particularly with respect to character building.
At this stage I want to determine who the best characters are to execute this concept. Which archetypes would best showcase the theme and also work well within the genre?
I enjoy letting my characters reveal themselves later on, so I don’t get too detailed just yet… Instead, I focus on the essential qualities of each character, still leaving room for growth later on.
While my process used to begin with writing a logline (a one-line description of the film), I now place it a bit further down the pipeline. Once I know my characters, theme, and genre, I find it much easier to distill things down to the single line format.
This is arguably the most important part of the process (for me at least), as the logline ultimately becomes the DNA of the story. I’ll take a lot of time to get it right, knowing that for months I may turn back to the logline looking for answers to tough questions during the screenwriting process. Only once I feel that I’ve been able to truly capture the essence of the film in a single line will I move on to the next phase.
6. WORLD & MOOD
As someone who enjoys the texture and tone of films, I like to spend time thinking about those artistic qualities before actually writing my script. I’ll often watch a slew of movies in my genre, look at photos or listen to music as inspiration.
I want to pinpoint the emotion of the film, so that when it comes time to write, everything feels tonally consistent. This can change and evolve later as well, but putting on the “Director’s Hat” early on can be very helpful for me.
7. SCENE IDEAS
Next, I’ll begin writing down any scene ideas that I have. These may be for big moments like an act reversal or climax, or smaller moments that will help build character.
I like to work with the mantra that “quantity will bring quality”, which is why I’ll often write ideas for hundreds of scenes, even if most of them don’t make it into the film. Once I feel I have enough scenes, and that those scenes can generally fall into a three act structure (beginning, middle and end), I will re-arrange them in a logical order so they tell a cohesive story.
8. HANDWRITTEN MINI-SCRIPT
At this stage, some people write a long treatment or use cue cards on a cork board to flesh out their ideas. I’ve tried those methods as well with varying degrees of success, but generally find that hand-writing a super rough version of my story (based on the scene ideas above) is best for me.
I will write the story out in a screenplay-like format, but break the rules where I need to. For instance, some scenes will have placeholders for dialogue, or the scene descriptions will be really rough. I may even leave notes for myself to “finish this part later”. I’m not trying to get it perfect, just to get it down on the page. To see where the strengths and weaknesses are, and have a blueprint for the actual screenplay to come.
I prefer writing by hand at this point because I can’t edit it. That allows me to only move forward, avoid writers block, and get to the first “real” draft more effectively.
9. FIRST DRAFT
Once my handwritten script is complete (which may be anywhere from 20 – 100 pages), I’ll type it up on the computer. As I type, I’m filling in those gaps I left for myself on the handwritten version and begin to inject new ideas.
Because I’ve done my homework though, this process often goes very quickly. On my last feature for instance, I completed the first draft in just 5 days.
Unlike the handwritten draft, I want the first typed draft to feel complete. The script should be at least 80-90 pages and begin to resemble more of a finished product, even if it still needs significant refining.
A first draft is just the beginning. I’ll usually go through at least 3 or 4 re-writes before the script is finished, sometimes more. But the revisions process is relatively straightforward as most of the heavy lifting has already been done in previous steps, at least with respect to major creative decision making.
After several weeks or months revising the script and getting feedback from others, I’ll finally be able to call it a day and commit to a finished product.
As I stated above, this is just my process. It may work for you, or may not… But the big takeaway here shouldn’t just be the process itself, but the importance of the sequence and workflow.
I’m of the opinion that anyone can write a great script, but the process needs to serve their creative strengths, sensibilities, and limitations. For me, the workflow outlined above is what works.
If I follow this order of operations, I’ll usually end up with a finished product I’m proud of, and that wasn’t a complete struggle to create. Hopefully some of you will find the same…
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Jonathan BartJuly 31, 2019 at 7:37 pm
Terrific stuff! I’ll try this on my next screenplay.
Noam KrollAugust 22, 2019 at 4:26 pm
Hope it works well for you, Jonathan!