The Writing Process: Notes No No-s

I use a specific technique to give notes that allows me to be of service, whether I like the content or not. I ask the writer/artist what they are trying to say with the work. That way, it is not about me and my taste, but about whether what they have done is getting their message across. Telling someone how I think the work should be different (i.e. “better”) doesn’t help the creator achieve his or her vision. It’s not up to me to judge if something is good or bad—it simply either succeeds at executing its vision, or it doesn’t. Using this idea, I can constructively give notes on anything, even if it’s not to my taste.

It also helps keep notes clear and focused.I’ve seen people get an idea for how someone can change their work, get super excited about it and go off on a tangent. But often, the new idea has nothing to do with the story the writer is trying to tell (I’ve been guilty of this, too). Or, similarly, some suggest arbitrary changes that are based on individual taste (“I hate Seattle, set it in Portland,” “Broad comedies aren’t my thing, I think this should be a quirky rom-com”), rather than what serves the writer’s vision.

I experienced this in writing groups and workshops so often, that I now have a rule in my classes. If someone is workshopping material and opens it up to the class, I first ask them what information they’re looking for. Then, I instruct the students to only make comments/suggestions that answer the writer’s questions, clarify something confusing, or work to the writer’s specific goal.

Tomorrow: The Writing Process: Killing Babies

The Writing Process: Rewrite Away

The rewriting process can be challenging at best, demoralizing and un-ending at worst. The first lesson I learned was to carefully select my notes givers. These people aren’t necessarily writers, but are familiar enough with screenplays that the format won’t affect their experience. I have two or three people whose taste and opinion I respect, who consistently take time to give really thought-out notes. I’m lucky enough to have a couple of generous friends that get into every scene, helping identify the problems. You only have one shot with most people—make sure to take it when you’ve done your best work.

Even so, I don’t take every single note. My general rule is that if more than one person gives the same note, if something isn’t clear or is confusing, if the protagonist doesn’t have a defined voice or if the reader doesn’t care about them, I address it. What I find most effective is when a reader knows what I’m going for in the section that didn’t work for them, and tells me their initial reaction. This helps me identify what went wrong.

Tomorrow: The Writing Process: Notes No-No’s

The Writing Process: Beat It

I like to make 40 index-card sized boxes with electrical tape on a big board. Each card is a story beat, and I write out as many as I have. I love puzzles and this feels much more tangibly solvable than staring at a computer screen. Usually, the middle of the board is frustratingly light on cards. There’s no way around it though, I keep brainstorming, writing and rewriting until I have enough beats on the board.

It’s never the full 40—I stop when I feel confident in the path I’ve mapped out—but each beat must be essential. Meaning, I don’t write scenes that aren’t centered on conflict or move the story forward. If I can find a way to show new information about the character in each scene, awesome, but that’s not always essential.

Honestly, this whole process is mostly to minimize that gut-wrenching fear I feel every time I face a blank page. By doing all this work, I know, at the very least, what my first scene should be. I take the step, look at my map, and take another, and another. Then, when I get to the end, I tear up the map and the real work begins.

Tomorrow: The Writing Process: Rewrite Away

The Writing Process: Stay in Character

So now I have my ending, I know where my protagonist begins and where she ends up. (Though I talked about the importance of endings yesterday, beginnings can also give clues to what the ending should be, as long as the central conflict is clear.) I start to think about the journey to the finale, and what characters she needs to meet along the way.

I find it helpful to start with archetypes, and develop nuance and specificity as I go. Sometimes, fully fleshed-out characters emerge from my subconscious like fun little gifts. The same can happen with scenes. I’ll feel an impulse and look up from my laptop an hour later, having written a good scene as if by magic. But this rarely happens at the start of my process. Usually, I’ve already done the heavy lifting and inspiration has a clear route to flow through.

When I work with actors, I tell them that the script is like a painting. Each word of dialogue, description and action is deliberately placed to serve the protagonist’s transformation. So as I’m writing, I try to make sure I’m doing this. I ask myself over and over: how is this character serving the story? What is she teaching/showing the protagonist? What challenges does she pose? What is her role? Sometimes, just having the character pursue something that causes conflict with the protagonist is enough.

Next Week: Beat it: How I Put My Story on a Board

The Writing Process: But First, The End

It’s not a movie until I find the right ending. Sometimes, the final scene is the first idea I have. But, more common, a character, image or line of dialogue strikes first. In these cases, the hard work begins with figuring out what the central conflict will be. What is the protagonist’s insoluble problem?

Most films have a defined “want v. need” that is the source of tension in the movie. Win the fight, but lose the girl. Accept the mission, but never see your family again. Stay loyal to your leader, but let countless people die. For example, Lester really needs to earn respect. But he really wants to fuck his teenage daughter’s best friend. If he does what he so badly wants to do, he has no chance at gaining esteem. But if he exercises restraint, he remains stuck in his bleak existence. It’s lose-lose. Unless the protagonist changes.

The process of change is the meat of the movie, but I have no hope at writing it effectively unless I know where the protag will end up. I don’t move on until I have a scene that shows how the protagonist had to change to achieve her need (which often also becomes her want). For example, if I know that Dorothy tearfully repeats, “There’s no place like home,” as the incantation to return to Kansas, I know she’s achieved her need—or learned her lesson—and now feels grateful for her family. But she’s not at home when this happens—she’s in a totally new world, physically and metaphorically. This means I’ll need to start her emotional journey at the farthest opposite point of where she ends up: total ingratitude.

(And voila, there’s my theme, too, exposed through the transformation: There’s no place like home.)

The transformation I describe can be tragic, where the protagonist learns the lesson but it’s too late. It can be depressing, where she has one final chance to act but doesn’t. Or it can be about his devolution, where he becomes the epitome of his “want”, despite paying a huge price. And there are, of course, dozens of great movies that don’t strictly follow this structure (many biopics and films with ensemble casts, for example). But, before attempting to break the mold, I’d like to try and master it.

The Writing Process: What Comes First?

I started writing. I also read every book on screenwriting I could get my hands on, finding Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat particularly helpful. With this idea of scripts as transformation machines, I carefully mapped out the journey of my protagonist, one beat at a time. It took far longer than I expected.

There are plenty of people out there (such as John August) who can sit down and write good scripts without having to outline extensively beforehand. I am not one of those people. Writing without a clear-as-day roadmap is, for me, like driving without headlights in the dark: there’s a chance I’ll get to my destination safely, but I’ll probably crash and feel terrified the whole time. One day, if I finish a few dozen features, my eyes may get accustomed to the dark. But, until then, I plot the crap out of everything.

This begins with The Idea.

The Writing Process: I Shouldn't be Doing This

I became a writer by accident. A dyslexic kid who wasn’t diagnosed until I was 20, the English language felt like an enemy to be defeated. If I didn’t get it right the first time, I didn’t see the point in trying. And without academic support for my learning disability, I was never going to get any of it right. If you’d told my 15-year-old self I’d be writing screenplays as adult, I would have asked you what you were smoking—and if I could have some.

But I always loved stories.

Acting seemed like the natural way for me to explore this passion. But after realizing I didn’t really want to be an actor—and that to pursue acting in Hollywood you have to really want it—I moved on. I made art, marionettes, directed and explored storytelling in that way.

Eventually, I started coaching actors privately. They brought me script after script, and I broke each down using techniques mastered by Stella Adler. Interpretation, imagination and, most importantly, making choices that serve the story. I eventually realized that every single character serves the story of the script in a very particular way. And that key moments seemed to happen at the same point in each script. Then, one morning, I woke up and it hit me.

A screenplay is a transformation machine.  

Every single piece of information is included to force the protagonist into a transformation (whether positive or negative). I’ve found this to be true in 90 percent of produced screenplays. I also felt, for the first time, creating this kind of machine was something I could absolutely do.

I’d also—and I’m going to be brutally honest here—read a whole lot of really bad scripts. Now that I understand how hard it is to write anything, let alone anything good, I have nothing but compassion for those writers. But I felt like I finally had in my possession a key that could help me unlock the stories that had lived in my mind for so many years.