Sunday, February 07, 2010

My screenwriting process (most of the time)

My friend Sara suggested I write a post about my process.

I also receive a lot of questions regarding the difference between writing screenplays vs. books, articles, etc.

The biggest difference is film (unlike TV) is a director's medium not a writer's medium. When you write a feature script what ends up on screen could be very different. When you write a novel or a play that's it. You will of course get notes from your editor or if it's a play, the producers and/or talent, but no one rewrites you. You're not fired from your book and other authors are "put on" the project.

Every writer has their own process but for most screenwriters an original script goes like this:

Once I have an idea I do a

CHARACTER BREAKDOWN
I spend a lot of time on this. Most of the backstory is never mentioned in the actual script but by the time I start writing I have a very good idea of who my characters are. There will be surprises of course. Sometimes the character will "dictate" to you what they want to do. It's best to get out of their way and let them do it.

BEAT SHEET
Some writers use index cards. Some even have a different colored card for each character. I use a Word document. Not sure why I stopped doing the index card thing. I don't have the room? Basically this is page (or index cards) of 50 scenes/beats. I keep it short just a line or two per scene/beat. I add to this while working on my characters. I also do any research during this stage.

THE OUTLINE
Screenplays have to be structured. Someone asked me if that's why so many Hollywood movies are unoriginal. No, just how we all have skeletons but are unique individuals, that's what a script is. The skeleton of the film. Without structure, it breaks down.

Are there films that follow a different structure than the three-act one? Yes, Pulp Fiction but you have to know the rules before you can break them.

Notice when you go to a movie and you start to get restless, nothing seems to drive the movie forward? That's a pacing problem and no matter how great the dialogue, interesting the characters, if the structure is broken it's a mess.

The outline is not set in stone. Writing is rewriting. Some writers don't outline or spend a lot of time on theirs. But trust, they still have structured scripts.

For me I like have a solid outline because when I sit down the write my first draft I want it to flow. I do not edit my work until after that first draft is done. When I'm writing that draft, I write 5 - 15 pages a day. I try to iron out story, structure and character problems before I start writing. I want to focus on dialogue when I write the script and that's hard to do if everything else is wrong.

By the time I start the first draft, I have lived with the movie for a while and I think about it all the time. Snippets of dialogue come to me at random times and I write them down. If I didn't have the outline I could easily get stuck, especially during the long ass second act. The second act is where movies can get bogged down and where there are the most story problems.

After the first, rough, draft, I put the script aside focusing on another project for a week or so, then start rewriting. This is the meat of the matter...when the screenplay really takes shape. It might come together in four drafts or maybe fourteen.

If you are interested in writing scripts, read them. Most of them are online. Read books, magazines, newspapers, etc. Watch a TON of movies, current and the classics. In different genres.

Don't think because you can write in another medium, poof, screenwriting must be easy because there are so many bad films. You have no idea what the original script looked like and yes, it's hard to write bad scripts as well.

Listen to the DVD commentary. This is a gift from heaven, especially if you cannot go to film school. You can learn a lot from listening to the writers and directors talk about the movie.

Check out John August's blog, it's excellent. If you don't know who John August is and you want to write scripts...start doing research on the A-list writers. Google their interviews on Youtube. Most of them talk about their process and how they broke into the business.

One page of a screenplay in general equals a minute of screen time. Screenplays range between 105-120 pages. Comedies closer to 105.

When I was an exec and would get a comedy script clocking in at 140 pages from a new writer, immediately I knew the screenwriter didn't do his or her homework.

Execs have stacks of scripts to read every week and are looking for every excuse in the book not to read yours. Don't make it easy. I know plenty of execs who will stop reading a script after 15 pages. People are not overestimating the importance of those first few pages. No one is going to keep reading to see if things get better in the second act.

While the first part of my process (especially the outline) may seem tedious, going through my iTunes library for my script's playlist is fun. Any procrastination issues tend to happen during my research/outlining stage. Once I write FADE IN I'm good to go and music helps a lot.

I write in the morning. During the colder months it's the first thing I do since it's too cold to work out outside. During warmer weather I work out first, then write.

This applies to original material (a spec script). When you have a writing assignment, in general you have eight weeks once commenced to turn in a draft to the studios. That's not a lot of time to do all the prep work and a few drafts of the script. Usually you will give the draft to the producers who may give you notes before you hand in the draft to the studio.

Similar to journalism, there's not such thing as writer's block when you have a writing assignment. Nobody wants to hear it. If the studio is paying for a script and you want to have a career in Hollywood, you need to be reliable.

I've heard many executives, agents and managers say while talent and luck are very important, being a disciplined writer is just as, if not more, important.

28 comments:

Sara, Ms Adventures in Italy said...

Wow, fascinating! I love it!! I know I'll have to re-read this post again.

What do you jot your notes down on? A Moleskine? :)

Eleonora said...

Great post! So much precious information. You should write a manual.

Ciao and buon lavoro!

homebody at heart said...

I love watching the DVD commentary on films after I've seen the film a gazillion times. It's really interesting to hear what characters and directors have to say (especially the British ones, they're so damn witty!). Good luck, I know your time will come!

erin :: the olive notes said...

super interesting post - I love hearing about the process. Something I'm very unfamiliar with...fascinating.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

sara - ha. In fact I do use a Moleskine for jotting down notes. I love those books/journals. I use a Mead spiral notebook for specific scripts. Of course those I bought in St. Martin. Thanks for suggesting I write this post. It was helpful as I get ready for this major rewrite.

eleonora - grazie!

homebody - Thank you. I have heard only a few very dry/boring commentaries. The rest have been very informative and entertaining.

erin - glad you enjoyed it. I was worried it was too long.

Moi said...

hey, thanks for the glimpse into how you work, and how you approach your work. As I've told you before, you definitely are inspiring-- and I'm glad you mentioned the last part about being responsible. I needed to hear that.

Simone said...

Thank you for taking the time to share details on the screenwriting process and especially sharing your own process. Your commitment to your craft and art is evident in your ability to do so..thank you!

AntoBlueberry said...

What's the difference in your method between Beat sheet and Outline? I use those terms more or less for the same thing.
And after the Outline I do a treatment, putting in it all my ideas following the structure of the outline, to obtain something that can be readable by anyone.
I try to get most of the notes on the treatment (especially those concerning structure and character arcs) so I won't be forced to major rewrites in full script form.
Then I break down the story into scenes and do the first draft.
I would like to offer you an aperitivo in Prati or Trastevere or wherever you like and ask you a couple of advice on my work.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

moi - and you inspire me.

simone - you're welcome!

antoberry - Do you write in English or Italian? Which market are you writing for?

I don't write a treatment unless I am pitching a story. Unless someone is buying the treatment or I was writing on assignment I do not give my material for notes until I have a solid draft.

The outline is structured: ACT I, II and III within the ACTS it's broken down into major beats then scenes.

A beat sheet is just a running tab of various scenes and bits of dialogue.

They are two different things. There is some overlap but some writers go straight to outline after doing character breakdowns and others don't do a beat sheet at all.

I use one because even before I start working on the character breakdowns, certain scenes will pop into my head. I need to write them down. It's not as structured as my outline. The beat sheet helps me gather my thoughts into some kind of organized fashion.

Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434 is a good book to check out. Regarding advice, you can e-mail me via Flickr (go to my flickr page on my blog) it depends on what genre and/or language you're writing.

J.Doe said...

Very informative post!! I never knew anything about this subject.

Groommama said...

Discipline. You go girl!!!!!!!

Groommama said...

@ nyc/carribean ragazza: Aren't you going to thank "J Doe" for the nice comment he made in your blog? you don't have to worry about saying anything to me. I don't give a damn...I'm not dealing with anymore fucking stress!!!!!!!!

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Groommamma - what are you talking about? I respond when I can. It might be the next day. And sometimes I cannot respond to everyone. Some bloggers don't even have a comment option, so not sure what your issue is.

j. doe - glad you thought it was interesting.

AntoBlueberry said...

Thankf for your answer. I wrote you on Flickr.
Ciao

Cherrye at My Bella Vita said...

Definitely interesting info! Thanks for taking the time to type this up for us.

Valerie said...

How interesting! Screenwriting is one of those mystery topics to me, so this was very insightful to see the different approach to writing you must take. Thanks!

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

ab - you're welcome.

cherrye - glad you found it interesting and not boooooring. :)

valerie - prego!

GigiSxm said...

Very interesting, the creative process.

How do you come up with your stories?
Is it easier or harder being away from Hollywood? (creativity/selling your work)?
Which market are you selling to? US? European?
How do you protect your intellectual property? my idea of screen writers are what i get from TV, mailing/pitching screen plays to the studios. Do you do that?
I did not know you could also get assignments. who requests them? studios? directors? or both?

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

gigi - I will write a separate post about ideas.

It's much better for me creatively to be away from Hollywood. It would be of course easier for my manager if I still lived there so I go to general meetings.

I lived there for 10 years and have extensive "relationships". That's the only reason I can live in overseas now.

I'm work mostly in Hollywood but sold a project to an Italian production company last year. I write in English.

Re: intellectual property. I have a lawyer and a manager. If a company were to read a script of mine and then rip it off, that would be hard to do as there is a paper trail. When I worked for production companies we NEVER read unsolicited material. The script had to come from an agent or manager. It protected us from some random writer saying one of our films was based on their idea. Every year there are lawsuits from writers claiming a studio "stole" their idea. If a writer is not repped but someone wants to read their material, the writer is sent a release form.

Whenever I would speak on a panel, I told aspiring writers never send their scripts to a company without getting a release form if you don't have an agent/manager or entertainment lawyer.

Open writing assignments (OWA) are when projects are set up/in development at a studio and they need a writer for either a re-write or to adapt a book, article, remake of a movie, etc.

They are very hard to get and go to established writers. Even the A-list writers have to come up with a "take" on the material. Then the production company decides which takes they like the best and those writers go on to pitch to the studio. It's a LOT of work for no money. You are basically doing everything but writing out the entire script.

Some writers are terrible "in the room" and other are great at pitching. For comedies in particular, the pitch is very important. If people are not cracking up in the room, it will be hard to get that OWA.

Sometimes a director or producer will have their own development money and will pay a writer to work on a project. That's rare. If you are a newbie writer, they will expect you to work for free, if it's an A-list talent they will pay up for an A-list writer.

Nobody likes to spend their own money so the only reason a director or producer might do this is so they could have more control over the development process.

Michelle | Bleeding Espresso said...

*Excellent* post! Thanks so much for sharing :)

Jill said...

This was a fascinating entry, thank you so much for writing about your process! You are very inspiring and I look forward to reading more about how you work! Brava!!

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Thanks Jill and Michelle...glad you thought it was interesting!

girasoli said...

I also found the process fascinating to read about. I had no clue. For some reason, I thought screenwriting was similar to writing a book, just with more dialogue. I also enjoyed the link to John August's blog. Thanks for sharing!

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

girasoli - You're welcome...John's blog is fantastic. A lot of great information.

Kim B. said...

Very interesting!! I have been away and then wanted to make sure I had enough time to read this properly. It reminds me of Diana's posts on her pottery -- seeing how technique and creativity come together to produce!

Looking forward to the post on ideas too.

This was fun, thanks!

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

kim b - thank you. I love Diana's post on how she creates her pottery. Very interesting and inspiring.

ackeelover said...

... finding this blog is going to consume sooo much of my browsing time ... damn you ... and thank you ... more anon

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

ackeelover - ha. I'm so sorry. Thanks for reading.