In some of my previous blog posts, I’ve talked about the process I use in writing a screenplay, sharing some of my experiences of finding out what works – and what doesn’t work – for me. Of course, writing is a very personal thing to do, as it should be about expressing ideas – and ideals – that mean something to you personally. The method, the how of your writing, should be no different.
One thing that I’m finding works for me, at the moment at least, is to write out of order, then build up the rest of the screenplay. Now I must stress that doesn’t mean that I write with no plan or strategy. I always aim to have a guideline, however rough, of where I’m going to end up, and how I’m going to get there.
But what has been helping me to get to that place is to write in a non-linear way. I prioritise those scenes that have to be there, those important story beats upon which the plot turns. I also focus on troublesome scenes, those parts of the story that I know might be a challenge, or could become that way. Lastly, I make sure that if I have an idea for a scene, a line of dialogue, etc, then I type it up. Even if I end up moving it, changing it or even cutting it entirely.
The key thing is, for the first draft at least, I try not to put too much pressure on myself. I once read that the first draft is your story idea in its most raw form. So I see it as being primarily about getting everything connected to the idea that’s in my head into a rough screenplay structure. The shaping, fine-tuning and editing will come later.
All of this obviously doesn’t eliminate the need for research. But with this approach, I’ve found getting an early, rough framework of a first draft helps shape not just the story, so that I know what to do with future revisions, but it helps to guide any additional research that I might need to do. It’s also useful in highlighting any weak points in the script itself.
The basic, underlying rule I apply is to go where the story leads me. Writing those early scenes down helps me to craft the story. It gives me something from which to work, not least because these rough scenes will inspire other scenes that have to fit around them. Again, none of what I write in this early stage may make it through to the final draft. Or, it may be changed significantly.
As an example, I’ve just finished the first draft of a spec screenplay that I’ve been working on since October 2018. For a while, I knew that I wanted to insert a fight scene that would be important in the development of the final act, so I wrote a bare outline of the scene early on. It was actually one of the first scenes I wrote. The scene is still there in the completed first draft, although it’s been altered slightly and moved around, to a point where I believe it works best for the story.
This meant that, in order for this scene to be present and to work at all, certain events and certain scenes had to come before and after it. Think of it like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. I know where I have to end up (even if it’s only a rough idea), but how I might get there is more fluid. I might discover a better way to get there, but I won’t know until I start to write something.
For me, that involves getting something down as a basic template, a prototype that I can then refine. It may be a matter of personal taste, but I find I work better when I’ve got something to work from, even if it’s basic, rather than staring at a blank screen.
Often that means writing out of chronological order, and then filling in the spaces around what I’ve already got. I see it as setting waypoints that, I hope, will help me to reach my destination. Or, going back to the jigsaw metaphor again, I put down some ‘pieces.’ They might not be next to each other chronologically, but they’ll at least give me momentum in shaping the rest of the screenplay.
It’s obviously not without its challenges. For one, you need to be aware that if you’re zipping about along the timeframe of your story, you have to keep a handle on where you are in plot terms, and consequently where the characters are in their respective arcs.
It’s also not an approach that will work for everyone, for every project. However, I’ve found that it’s given me more freedom in my writing, and means that I avoid the procrastinating that I’m occasionally guilty of before starting projects.
The thing with writing, as with solving a puzzle like a jigsaw, is that the method will vary with each person. Just find the approach that works best for you, and allows you to end up where your story needs to be.