The screenwriter obsesses over The Idea because without it, we cannot sell our work. It is this more than anything else that allows us to break through the layers of industrial machinery to get our scripts onto the desks of people who may or may not want to make them into movies.
In movie-writing part 1, I described how you must get your act together before writing a movie. So in the following article I shall explain the creative process that you need to go through before you start the script:
- What the idea means.
- Finding an idea.
- Developing the idea into a story with a beginning, middle and an end.
- Making sure the middle is well developed.
- Stepping back and re-assessing the idea.
- The Big Ending and preparing to write the script.
The experience of the movie industry is that it can sell certain things more than other things. It almost does not matter how well those things are made, because the public will see them no matter what. They are quick sales. They are easily digested. And they finance the rest of the industry. The Idea hooks the audience.
Competition in this field is great and the films compete largely with technology rather than great screenwriting. Here the formula drives everything. Originality is only in the nuance, the extra touch of humanity, or the updating of the old story. Quirky individuality is not a prized commodity.
So the writer saves time by pitching the idea. If you have that simple twist on an old story that seems so obvious when you state it, but has not been done before, then you can get through the system. It is a story that everyone immediately grasps, that the marketing people can immediately slot into their concept of what the audience consists of nowadays, and it can pull in a guaranteed box office percentage on the first weekend. After that, if the critics like it, it will do extraordinarily well, but if they do not, then money is still in the bank.
The script is not the most important component of this product. Other elements attract the audience -- the stars, the special effects, maybe the director or just the brand name title, the Terminator 5, the Star Trek 7, etc.
Being a screenwriter is more than being the creator of a marketing concept, though often that seems to be the most important element. However, there is more to Hollywood than just big blockbuster special effects movies and as we move away from those, the script becomes increasingly important. For that matter, there is more to the Film Industry than just Hollywood. It is a big wide world and other film industries are out there with their own aesthetic and their own markets and now even they have global ambitions.
Even so, the idea, the basic description of the story that answers that perennial question that writers hate to answer, "what is it about?", is still very important. And experience has shown that those who can answer that easily, often have better scripts than those who start by telling you that the story is about all manner of different things, all of them very exciting, and wonderful, and bound to be a big hit. That is all that the writer wants the story to be, but it is not what the story is.
The story, ultimately, will be about many different things, but there has to be a solid core at the heart around which everything orbits. Seeking this solid core however is not easy and often can interrupt the creative flow of the writer. If you waited until you had the most perfect idea before starting writing, then you would never start writing at all. Most writers will discover their idea in the process of writing.
Should you just write and let nature take its course? Some people have managed to get away with it and, as often as not, it only needs one good script to make a career. If luck plays such a major part in the process, why not just keep churning out scripts and look upon that as the price of your lottery ticket? But writing is not a question of pure chance. This is a game of skill as well as luck. So it is always better to stack the odds in your own favor by actively looking for the winning ticket.
- BRAINSTORM. Most professional writers therefore brainstorm in a structured manner. They jot down notes to themselves about the sorts of story they are trying to write and who their characters are. They think of what they will do in the opening and how they will finish the story. And they think about the great middle sections where the sub plots and complications keep the story moving forward adding layer upon layer of meaning.
If you are writing a novel you can get away with mere page-turners. The writer starts writing at the beginning, knowing how to complete each section with a cliffhanger that will make the reader move onto the next. In the end such novels merely run out of ideas and do not create a sense of the whole being greater than the parts. Often this is the structure of very successful novels, but the screenwriter, even in the crudest of screenplay forms where there is a mere succession of action sequences, cannot rely upon satisfying the audience by exhausting them. The ending must tie together something, a puzzle if nothing else. There has to be an over-riding organizational principle and nothing can be seen as extraneous. The simple reason for this is that screenplays are short documents. They do not have a hundred thousand words or more. They fill up one hundred and twenty pages at the most, with lots of white space on each page. The reader can hold the whole in their mind and see all the connections.
Everything in a screenplay must motivate the characters. Once the initial inciting incident has taken place everything else logically follows, even the parts that for the sake of verisimilitude must appear the random acts of real life.
How do we design such an edifice? The answer is structured brainstorming. So the writer begins by making notes to themselves. I personally organize these notes on four sheets of paper. One sheet contains scribbling of a more general nature, the tone of the piece, the characters, the story ideas, other stories that it reminds me of, pieces of research that I should do and so on. The other three I label beginning, middle and end.
- BEGINNING MIDDLE END. On the sheet labeled beginning I know that I need to come up with ideas for introducing the story and the characters. Here I need a hook, an arresting incident at the beginning of the story that will grab an audience's attention. I also know that I need an inciting incident, something that sets the story going. If this is the hook, then fine, if not, then also fine. I also know that in the first act I need a climax. I need to be able to move from the hook through the inciting incident into an emotional climax. Somewhere towards the end, either as the inciting incident, or as part of the climax, or maybe even after the climax in the resolution, something happens that completes that section and allows the story to move into Act Two.
You might have heard of all these terms. If you have read any books on writing screenplays you will have come across plot points, turning points, hooks, climaxes, set ups, pay offs, etc. There are no fixed definitions of these things. I came to script writing through my interest in the theatre and so I naturally think more in playwrighting terms where Curtain Raisers and Dramatic Climaxes were the natural language to describe structure. Since then I have found it useful to think of the Dramatic Climax as something different from the plot point that Syd Fields talks about in his book on screenplay structure. Similarly, I have found it useful to separate the Inciting Incident from both of those terms, though you can serve all of those purposes with one incident if you so wish.
Essentially, it boils down to the writer thinking of how to gain the audience's attention. He or she asks what happens to set the story moving and what is the first crisis in that story that brings the first act to a satisfactory conclusion, and the main character firmly into the story.
I jot down ideas for visual movie moments, and I jot down ideas for characters. I know that in the opening act, I must introduce the characters and make the audience sympathize with the main character, or at least understand them so that they care where they will go.
Roughly the structure of that first act is:
- "The Hook".
- The introduction of the ordinary world.
- The Inciting Incident.
- A Sub-Plot that will provide a contrast with the main plot - this is a Shakespearean device that I like, though others might not want to use it.
- And finally the first crisis, and a major decision as the end of the act.
At the same time though I am jotting down ideas for the last act and for the second act. I tend to think of the last act before getting bogged down in the details of the second act, because the last act is often a return to many ideas set up in the first.
The big question of the first act has to be paid off in the last act. So I come up with parallel ideas in the last act that remind people of where the story started. Only these ideas have to contain a new meaning. I ask, "what is it about the images that I am using in the last act that creates an interesting relationship with the images I used in the first?
Roughly speaking the last act has three parts.
- The revival of the main characters fortunes.
- The final battle.
- Then the resolution of the sub-plots and relationship.
Sometimes there is a fourth part: a sudden revival of the villain for a final surprising showdown. One adapts this structure to the genre of film that one is writing. Films depending upon lots of surprises will always have that double ending. And because they always have them, one can play with audience expectations and hint at it coming, then pull away, then hint again, and then pull away, and then hit them with a series of double whammies out-shocking each other in ways unexpected at that stage.
Thinking about that last act helps one pace a film. If the last act contains a massive explosion then you cannot have bigger explosions in the middle. Every action of every character must be the most conservative action they can make at that particular moment. Information that feeds into the characters and into the audience has to be controlled by the writer and by understanding who knows what at any given point in the movie allows the writer to spring surprises, set up suspense elements, and illustrate the core values of their characters.
We have moved a little bit further on than you perhaps need to go at this stage of the process. At the moment you are just throwing down interesting ideas. Images, characters, crazy stunts, philosophical asides, and maybe you are linking it all together as well.
- THE DEVELOPMENT. The big problem that all screenwriters face is that great slab of movie called The Development (that is the second act). For a start, this middle section can be broken down into many separate sequences that might be called separate acts. There are standard formats in television that call for feature length stories to contain seven acts so that sufficient advertising space occurs in natural story breaks. Don't get too hung up on the nit-picking discussions about story structure and how many acts and how many scenes per act and how many consecutive scene sequences one needs. Somehow, the right number will emerge in the process.
All you need know is that the big middle of the movie is where the writer earns their money. It is easy to come up with a hook for a movie. It is relatively easy to come up with a big finish. But tying them altogether and giving them the emotional resonance they require, very often depends upon how the writer develops the story in the central sections.
Some people have characterized the central sections as a series of obstacles for the protagonist (that is the main character who makes decisions) to overcome as they strive to reach their goal. This is a reasonable description though you might find you are hard pressed to think in terms of how many increasingly difficult obstacles that you need when you do not quite know the capabilities of your character or what the story is about!
You are still brainstorming. So don't worry if you cannot put a label on the thoughts that you have. Eventually, you will learn how to look at the story from many different angles and at each pass over the story, you will answer the questions many different people, looking at it from many different angles, will think of.
So here's my strategy for tackling the middle section. Because fashions have changed and many films nowadays are ninety minutes long, especially if they are comedies, you might give yourself a break by trying to write a ninety-minute movie rather than a two hour one. (You are writing a spec script so you can call the shots and you can take as long as you like! Make use of this luxury while you can.) Ninety pagers re much more likely to have three equal length acts with a set up and climactic pay off within each act. This for me is more manageable because it does not require complicated sub-plots to enrich the proceedings.
However, you might like to try the big picture, with its levels of intertwining story lines bringing about complicated multi-level relationships within the mix of characters. With experience you will begin to understand your strengths and weaknesses and write to your strength. In the meantime, let's assume we are going for a full-length one hundred and twenty-minute feature.
The second act therefore requires ideas that develop the stories set up in the first act. So what is the next thing that your main character needs to do?
One of the first rules of writing is to make the audience wait for your answer to that question. Having created a great climax at the end of the first act, you now need some light relief. This is where the sub-plot is so handy. So the second act can start with continuing the sub-plot that the first act hinted at. Is this where the love story goes? Is this where a seemingly unconnected story goes that will later on feed back into the main story? You can choose anything that you think is effective. But remember, it has to cohere thematically with the whole piece, hence the importance of that overriding idea that you must simultaneously be developing.
- THE BIG IDEA! You have come so far in the brainstorming process that you might have a better idea of what you are trying to write. So maybe now instead of charging forward, you step back and try to come to a better understanding of what it is all about. You might try formulating your log line, that is the one sentence description of the piece, or even formulating your synopsis, a single page outline of the story.
Playing with those ideas for a while might make you realize that you have some extraneous ideas on your papers and you can get rid of them or reformulate them or even incorporate them at a different part of the structure.
You now go back to the middle sections, looking at that first sub-plot, asking, what relationships does it develop? If anything, sub-plots are often to do with relationships from the pre-inciting incident world, and how they now have to be renegotiated before the hero, main character, protagonist, whichever way you wish to look at your decision making character, can engage fully with the main story. The main story will re-assert itself then, very often provoking a mid-point crisis.
Half way through a film there is often something called a point of no return. Before it, the main character could call the police, or walk away and decide to let someone else deal with the problem. But after it, there is only them and they have responsibilities that they may not like, but they have to deal with them. This is often a point of failure as well. The main character, more interested in the sub-plot, resentful of the imposition of the demands from the main plot, decides to do something to solve everything and fails miserably. This is when they learn that things are far more serious than they imagined. The audience of course knows that things are serious, but the main character is on a learning curve.
When you are jotting down ideas for these things you are thinking of how to illustrate the education of the main character and how that impacts upon his or her relationships. Maybe in your story the relationships are the problem!
Next you have to start thinking about the second half of the middle section. Now perhaps, the sub-plots are a point of resentment for the main character. They have to deal with something so terrible, so important, and yet completely misunderstood by anyone else, that their neglect of the issues in the sub-plot threaten to become big issues in themselves. Well... that is one way to play it. You can play it anyway you like.
But in this section the main story is moving faster than the main character can cope. He or she is trying to get on top of things, but despite heroic efforts, the big climax of this act is a disaster that perhaps blows away innocent characters from the sub-plot.
Once again, this is a scheme that I personally find profitable. You can create your own formula for drama, but roughly speaking, this part of the story will have some of the big chase sequences, the near misses, the pratfalls and tragedies of the story. And when this act finishes the main character's status is at its lowest ebb. They might be thought of as the enemy of civilization, and only the audience knows that they are the only ones who can save it.
Or maybe you want the audience to think your main character is a stinker right now? You will, of course, redeem them in the final act when all will be revealed.
- THE LAST ACT. The last act moves fast, but often has the big static confrontation scenes, whereas the second half of the middle section often has those chase sequences.
When you are thinking of movie moments, you might like to pile those things into that second half of the mid-section but leave the biggest one for the climax of the last act.
You have now sketched out ideas, characters, relationships, sub-plots, and hung them upon some sort of narrative structure, and constantly reworked your idea as to what the story is all about. Everything on the paper should be about that one thing.
- THE TREATMENT. Now you have an idea as to what your screenplay is going to be about and at this stage, you might be able to express it coherently in a short pithy paragraph. So now you begin to write "The Treatment".
When you are writing this, you will discover that a lot of your ideas are difficult to thread together. Maybe you should discard them, or maybe you try not to think about discontinuities too much until you have written the whole thing out. Then you can rewrite and polish and maybe suddenly the ideas will seem to fit.
You might even start playing with the famous four by two cards. You can write a scene idea on each card and stick it on a cork board so that you can see the whole story in one go. Then you can play around with the order of things, adding further notes to the cards as you go. You write the treatment, you play with the cards, you rework the idea, and now you throw away the papers you used in brainstorming because you now have a story line and what you are trying to do is make it work better.
Once you have this story line and you have an idea of what the film is about, you can begin negotiating with producers and script editors and friends and family. Tell them the story and see if it works. If not, analyze why. What is it that you are not giving them that they think they want?
This is a lot of work. Writing the script after doing all this, will be a breeze. When you do it, the dialogue will fall into place and the various layers of work will be there, leaving you to think of new layers, new ideas, fresh workings of the ideas, and maybe even new story directions. You might also find that your story line, even after all that work, still does not do the trick. At that point, you brainstorm some more.
You might find that as you work on the idea, the synopsis, and the treatment, it might be profitable to test out ideas in script form. I should not write all of the script, but it might be worth doing some sections just to get a feel for the characters and how they work with each other. Maybe some of this will find its way into the final script, maybe most of it will not. Creating scripts, or any work of art, is not a strictly linear process, although the industry expects you to produce documents such as The Pitch, The Treatment, The First Draft, in that order as if it were just a matter of filling in the numbers. If only it were that simple.
Luckily, much of this is done unconsciously. Few writers wake up very excited about an inciting incident or a mid-point shift in organizational principle. They wake up excited about having a great story idea and somehow, as they let its logic develop in all its chaotic glory, they begin to find that it will develop a shape. Surprisingly all the elements of the script that I have mentioned do emerge. There is magic in the process and your job as a writer is as much to let it happen as it is to make it happen. Then you can move on to part 3 -- avoiding the common pitfalls of screenwriting.