Figuring it out as I go along: A Beginning Screenwriters Angst

    I’m about to start working on a new screenplay which shall be called The Cob. I won’t tell you what it’s about at all because that would ruin just about everything and I would never write another thing on it. But I am about to start writing it. It’s my fourth unproduced screenplay in the works. The three others have been read by a few select friends and a couple of completely anonymous screenplay contest editors. I’m pretty proud of all of them, actually. Two of them I wrote with my best friend, Jon. They are comedies and I still think – given both of our particular neuroses regarding writing – that it’s a complete miracle that they are finished. Of course, by finished, I mean they have a beginning, a middle and an end. I’ve rapidly realized that being done doesn’t mean they are finished. It just means they are in a state of completion.

    This is the fourth and I am writing it alone for the moment.

    That said I would like to take a moment to describe my ‘process’ – that much hated word for writers. Well, much hated and much loved. Personally as much as I love hearing about other writers process I also can’t stand it because it generally fills me with so much unneeded information that I can easily get bogged down into hysterics. I mean that literally. If you’re not careful, learning how others do things can be the authorial equivalent of CIA torture techniques. But for whatever sadistic methodology my brain contains right now I have decided to impart some of my present wisdom in this here blog for posterity. This means that many caveats and warnings must apply. First and foremost is the caveat that all methodologies discussed herein are subject to change – random, wild, mind boggling, and sudden change. And I’ll leave it at that. More caveats and warnings will be shared as they come up in my brain and in future postings.

    The first thing I do when starting a project is dream it up. Okay. I know that that sounds like the biggest ‘well, duh’ moment but its only one of many and I want to try and be clear about the entire process. Any story starts with the idea. I’ve read that you must have a strong idea or you shouldn’t write it. I sort of kind of agree with that actually but then completely think its nonsense in the same breath. Any idea is a good one if you make it good much like any idea is a self indulgent piece of dog shit if you make it into one. Most writers don’t know the difference between the two well enough. I’m not going to claim I do either because here I am writing this which could be self indulgent dog shit for anyone concerned. But here, for posterity, is a general rule: If you get hurt and feel all defensively emotional about the finished product, chances are you have just written a self indulgent piece of shit.

    An idea, standing alone, is a naked man in a snowstorm. It may be strong and tough and whatnot but if you don’t put clothes on it it will still die. So make the idea stronger by wrapping the story around it. This is the tough part. To explain more specifically just start with whatever the idea is. Maybe you saw someone standing in a particularly evocative pose, maybe you have a line of dialog, maybe you have a location in your head – what that needs is the circumstances that it came about. Any one of these things is a good enough start for fiction – but you have to work out what that is and how it fits in the story. For instance, Paul Thomas Anderson wrote (according to his own reports) the screenplay for Magnolia based upon the music of his friend Aimee Mann. Granted the movie is full of this music but it is a movie and not a music video and therefore a story happened along at some point.

    Generally I take the idea – taking for example the case of the evocative pose – and add a character first. Who is it that is standing that way and why? I guess that’s the best way to start. Just asking yourself basic questions. You might find that the story is happening all on its own. That said, here is another general rule for posterity: do not cling to the basic idea like a drowning man to a wall safe. This is pretty essential. Through the process of working out who this is and why they are standing or staring off or picking their nose the way they are you may discover many other things that have nothing to do with it. This is because one little thing may lead you to another and another. You may find yourself interested in the character and no longer care how they came to be standing against the ancient coke machine smoking a pipe. If you insist that they need to be there at some point you will start directing them there and it’s a bit like trying to guide a three hundred pound gorilla on a leash. It can be done but it’s not recommended, takes a lot of training, and might end up in catastrophe.

    So that’s where I’m at right now. I have the idea and the characters and a scene or two and that’s all. But that’s how I work. I like it that way. It’s a bit more skin of your teeth. That said I am nowhere near as averse to outlining as I once was. Outlining saves a great deal of time and psyche. Trust me. I’ve tried it the other way only to discover a hundred pages in that it doesn’t make any damned sense whatsoever. This is not a good realization to have. It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to crawl under a rock for fifty years.

    I understand that this is all a bit vague. Sorry. It’s going to be. I’m sort of piecing this all together as I go along. You could also level the critique of: What does this jackass know? He’s never been published or produced so clearly he can’t have any valuable information. I don’t claim to have any valuable information. Or I should say the information is valuable if you find value in it. My job, right now (aside from getting the screenplay started) is to put it out there. Also, if you should have that critique after reading this I would caution you to look in your mind for the self indulgent douchebaggery mentioned above. It’s very likely there and you might want to have it surgically removed before putting your own creative works out there for the whole big bad world to read.

    That’s all for now.

Categories: Writing | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Figuring it out as I go along: A Beginning Screenwriters Angst

  1. When I was reading your last script I found myself wondering how you came up with all that detail – I just didn’t like to ask. This post has just answered all my unasked questions. Very interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing :o)

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