The No-Discipline Screenwriter: Part 1

By May 26, 2011Indie Film

Ideas on how to write & finish your screenplay when you have almost no discipline.


We’ve all heard that you need to chip away at it everyday, a set time, a set place, a page a day, a constant pushing forward to get the story done.  Just a few hours a day!  If we were getting paid properly for our efforts, of course we would have the discipline — but we’re busy people, and often we write on spec and sometimes life gets in they way.  And even if we had a few hours to spare – that time is generally spent planning, strategizing, pitching, promoting, decompressing, relaxing, procrastinating, avoiding, etc.  Plus, if you’re like me, you have other projects and many collaborations that need your attention, not to mention your job, your social life (outside of media), your family, your in-house productions, etc.  So full stops and false starts and putting it away on the shelf and picking it up again periodically… is more what we’re used to than day in and day out writing.  And discipline just may not work for you during the script phase or the outline phase.  So how then do you get a script done?

It occurred to me when I recently completed my latest feature length screenplay: A Falling Rock – a thriller by sabi** — that this was my 9th screenplay.  Looking back upon exactly how this came to be (for the purposes of this article) and why this is especially a  surprise to myself — I’ve discovered that in order to get this latest script done (and several others) I just needed to find a smart way around my bad discipline when it comes to writing without pay.  I’m sharing what I did because it worked for me on this script and perhaps you may find some of these ideas useful, especially if you struggle with finding the discipline to write.  Contained in this post (in 2 parts) are some simple solutions that might work for your story and situation, as it worked well for me with A Falling Rock.


Develop the hell out of your story.  Don’t just launch into outlining it.  Develop it in your head and write everything down: character backstories, blue sky ideas, bits of dialogue, little details, articles, research, write it on post-its, pieces of paper, whatever & wherever.  Continue developing it in short bursts over time if that is all you can do — when you are inspired by an idea for the story.   Keep it all in an “ideas” file on your computer desktop or in your drawer, or a shoe-box, it doesn’t matter.  However long it takes before you sit down and write the outline — just develop your story to the fullest by thinking about it all the time.  It’s amazing how many things open up when you just keep the story running in your head — if you’re not able to write it yet.


Absorb all of the notes you took during development and come to the table with a solid and comprehensive outline.  I have called my outline a ‘scroutline’ in the past because it’s part script, part notes, but mostly outline.  Here the voices of the characters are shaped and begin to really come alive (as there is sometimes dialogue written in a scroutline).  The scroutline can be written over the course of a few weeks, a few months or even several years.  In the case of A Falling Rock, mine was created from a massive amalgamation of notes that I scribbled down or typed and filed away over the course of 13 years.  Eventually, over time, I assimilated the notes into a story outline — parts were written in novel from, parts were written in screenplay form, and other times all semblance of format was ignored completely and I just wrote.  The outline itself, which took shape and was revised countless times over the years wound up being close to 80 pages of prose.  And then I when back to #1 and kept thinking about it. 

Yes, this process is insane and certainly not recommended — but it is the direct result of following the no-discipline regimen religiously.  It doesn’t have to take this long to get to this phase.  A year maybe.  But doing it this way does have its benefits — your story is deep and rich, and all the characters have complex and realistic backstories, and your plot is original through to the end — because every option has been considered over time.  It doesn’t have to be as dense as mine was — but be sure to include in your scroutline dialogue exchanges, set pieces, character descriptions, notes, ideas, moments you envision — and anything else you can think of that will be useful when you sit down to actually write the script.  This constantly evolving and expanding document is entirely for you — it can be as long as short as you like, but you can’t start just yet… 

For A Falling Rock, the scroutline included aspects of the crimes, the setting and locations, character arcs and backstories, the mystery of story, potential names for characters, juicy dialogue, questions to myself, considerations for the audience, quotes for inspiration, and more.  All of this, over time was merged into one document and every idea related to this story is accounted for in it.  Before it is complete, however, choices must be made as the story needs to become streamlined based on what you have.  Conflict emerges as the story moves from the motivations of the characters to their efforts to overcome the obstacles in their way.  

These critical choices in the scroutline phase strips down the story to its best and brightest elements, and isn’t finished until a solid, linear and natural structure emerges.  A spine to begin step the next step.  


Now that you think you’ve locked your outline, it’s time to revise and refine it by playing the movie in your head as many times as you can before writing Fade In.  Use whatever tools that can help you achieve this: note cards, creating a streamlined ‘beat sheet’, pulling out character arcs and subplots — whatever helps you visualize the story from beginning to end in one sitting.  Or just close your eyes.  This is especially important for the no-discipline writer because rewriting your outline is a lot easier and less time consuming the re-writing your screenplay. 

Playing the movie in your head using the outline is the first and last chance to get the pacing, story, structure and plot spot-on before your begin.  Yes, it might change as you write — but it shouldn’t change that much, because everything has been considered, and you’ve played the movie several times before page 1.  When I did this for A Falling Rock, the story became more defined and I could understand the personalities of my characters with the perspective of the entire journey, long before the story in my head became the screenplay.  Of course, do this too long, and you’ll go crazy.  At some point the story needs to come out.  I did the same thing for White Knuckles after developing that film for about 6 years before it was written. It was crucial for that particular film to play it as many times as I could since we moved from Script to Screen in less than 6 months after it was green-lit. 


Now comes probably the hardest part, and will take some planning in advance (which is hard for the no-discipline writer)…  Find a 3 to 4 week stretch to write your script and do nothing else but eat and sleep.  This will take a commitment and belief in yourself (I call it “investing in me”) — so be super nice and beg your spouse, talk to your boss, explain to your family and friends what you are doing — and truly carve out the time.  Look, you have no discipline, so there’s no way it’s going to get done by any other means.

The fixed amount of time also puts the right kind of pressure on you — and clearing your schedule completely allows you to focus only on one thing: writing.  And it’s OK if you don’t get done, just use the momentum to finish when you get back.  You can do the math to figure out how many pages a day you need to write, but with endless day upon endless day for a few weeks to write — you will just cruise much faster than if you had to stop and start.  There’s too many opportunities to simply stop with that route.   And with a really refined scroutline you’ve played in your head – you’ll discover that you don’t even need discipline when you have carved out the time to do nothing but write.  You’ll just write.  Because there’s nothing else to do.