Monday, September 22, 2014

There's no one right way to get to the destination

You're sitting in the Warner Bros commissary with four friends, noting that you have to go from there to Sony Studios in Culver City.  This being Los Angeles, such an observation provokes 15 minutes of discussion.

"Take Barham to the 101 North. Get on the 405 South.  Take the 10 East, get off at Robertson and you're practically there," says the first friend.

"Are you nuts?!" exclaims the second. "There's no time of day that's good for the 405. Take the 101 South to the 110. Get to the 10 West, then get off at Robertson."

The third gives a sigh. "You guys are too dependent on freeways. Here's how you get there. Barham to Caheunga. South on Caheunga. Turn left onto the bridge just before the Hollywood Bowl because it's stop and go when it turns into Highland. Go right on Caheunga and take it down to Fountain. Right on Fountain. Fountain to La Brea, left on La Brea. Go all the way south to Venice, right on Venice, take Venice to Culver and be ready for the studio entrance."

"I just use Waze," shrugs the fourth.

Every one of those routes will get you to your destination. Some are more complicated then others, some are faster than others but all of them will navigate you from point A to point B, so in that sense, there is no "wrong" way to go.

This is also true of the writing process. As a guy writing a screenwriting blog, I've occasionally felt bad about contributing to an movement of "gurus" who make money selling aspirings "the one" way that they must go about writing their scripts.  When I offer advice about how to get started structuring and commuting your ideas to paper, I try to note that this is just one way to go about it, not THE way it must be done. I know I'm not always perfect about making that distinction, and I do apologize for it.

Go Into The Story recently did a wonderful writers' roundtable with Hollywood screenwriters Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Chris McCoy, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, and John Swetnam. I like seeing these different personalities bounce off of each other and discuss their process. Each of these guys is successful in their own right, and so as you note the differences in their process and approach, it becomes even more apparent that there is no RIGHT way to get started. Like the Warner Bros to Sony Studios routes, there are a lot of ways to get to your destination.

It was F. Scott Frazier who had the explanation that most resonated with me at the moment. Wendy Cohen asked "People divide themselves into two camps. You either write character really well or you write plot really well. Do you feel you kind of fall into either group, and then if writing plot’s a challenge for you, how do you approach that?"

Frazier's answer: "When I’m outlining or coming up with an idea the most plot I ever think about is what happens on page 15. What is the inciting incident? After that, I feel like it’s up to the characters to determine that. That might just be me making it up as I go along because I don’t think that I’m good at plot. I get something like The Departed and I just shake my head at it like holy shit, I don’t even know where to begin to write something like that.

"Or The Dark Knight or The Dark Knight Returns where it’s a thousand 30-second scenes and every single one of them move the plot forward in crazy ways. My head doesn’t work like that. I tend to prefer simpler plots, simple stuff. If you saw The Numbers Station is two people in a basement trying to get out. A lot of my scripts are that way. “Autobahn” is very much a guy in a car trying to get to his girlfriend.

"Not a lot in the way of plot outside of what happens on page 15 and the rest of it is just how the characters react to what that big event was and how they interact with each other."

He later expounded, "I usually come up with that inciting incident first, that’s usually where my ideas start from, and then out of that I figure out who is the character that’s going to be screwed up the most by that kind of situation. That’s usually where my character comes from."

I cannot express how good it was to hear someone say this.  I've used an approach similar to this on two of my last three specs and I've always been nervous about saying so because I felt like it was admitting that I was just flying by the seat of my pants on the first draft.  On that first script, I pretty much had developed exactly what Frazier said. I had a character in mind, the general world of the story, the tone and the conflict that would be introduced 15 minutes in. It was the first time I ever started writing without even an inkling of what the ending would be or even some of the major signposts along the way.

This turned out to be a case where that approach worked for me. One idea beget another, and another, and by p. 40, I'd build up so many aspects of this world and put enough concepts into play that it became easier to project forward to what was going to happen later in Act Two, and then later still in Act Three.

Certainly, once I had a complete draft, I went back and tightened up some of the points, adjusting earlier scenes to work as set-up for later revelations.  I ended up swapping the fates of two of the characters, as it felt more right for one particular person to die while another person's arc was better served by having them live. Beyond that, a lot of scenes hewed reasonably close to their earliest incarnation.  For someone who used to do a plot of outlining and obsessing over structure, the fact that this yielded such good results (the script was generally well-received) was encouraging.

But I never admitted to people that the first draft was written on the fly. That felt like something to be ashamed of.

My script after that wasn't quite as loose, but I still dove in without much of a formal outline. Again I had the character, the world, the tone and the overall message of the script I wanted to convey.  The concept required a lot more research so I basically immersed myself in that world and took note of interesting tidbits I wanted to include. In that sense, I had a little bit more of a game plan, but I hadn't pretty seriously worked out what beat was going where.

And again, the people who read it really, really liked it and thought it was the best thing I'd written.  One thing I learned from this is that since I was really coming from a specific tone rather than a specific beat sheet, the tone of the story shone through more in these two scripts. It feels stronger on the page than it had in some of my other works, where the tone occasionally came across neutral. I don't like to put my process under that much of a microscope, but my hunch is that maybe the feeling and emotions are more vivid when I'm not just transcribing and fleshing out something I've lived with a long time.

But then, the script that came after that was one where I wrote a very detailed 12-page outline and the early reaction is that the tone is very strong and powerful.

Perhaps the larger point is, the end result of each of those efforts was a completed script, and one that left my readers with far more positive reactions than negative ones. How you get to that stage doesn't matter so much.  Now, if you're completely stymied by the process of getting started, by all means, adopt whatever's necessary, whether that's the Save the Cat model or my 12-Step Screenwriting plan.

The important thing is the destination, not the journey.

There's more really good stuff from Frazier in that interview, but I've already gassed on enough.  Check out the entire 6-part interview and odds are you'll find yourself nodding along with several of those writers at one point or another.


  1. I'm totally with you - I tied myself up in knots about the right way to write a draft for years. Then I read a quotation from - I'm almost positive it was George Lucas - who responded to a question of how to get into the industry with "somehow". I think that applies to a draft too; I've cheerfully pantsed it ever since l-)

  2. I'm curious what happened when you looked back at the finished draft at analysed to the same structural paradigms you would normally have forced into the outline? Did it still fit?

    I think once you become experienced and well versed in structure and other facets or writing they become innate. Like driving a car, you don't have to concentrate on how, which allows your more freedom to focus on where you're going. When you activate the analytical part of the brain it shuts of creativity. And you can't simply switch back and forth, it's not wired like that. So if you can completely ignore the analysis your brain is free to create. And if you have learned these skills already then they will appear in your writing even with you don't consciously put them there.

    Well, that's what I find. Thanks for sharing. Very informative ideas.