By: Matt van Onselen
To the outsider, a screenwriter does only one thing: sit at his or her computer and type. But writers understand the intense levels of contemplating, ruminating, self-talk and (let’s be honest) pain that one goes through to write a script.
Yet even with the benefit of the subjective experience, writers can be unaware which phase of the writing process they’re in, or worse, settle into an extended phase of agony and stay there (aka writer’s block). Sometimes it helps to pull back from what you’re doing and ask yourself how you’re engaging with your script in order to keep your writing moving forward.
Here are a few modes a screenwriter can operate in. You can hop from one to another, back and forth, depending on what the moment requires. Usually, one mode informs another, as you slowly develop a story into a work of art worthy of a gold statuette.
This is where you give the figurative pen free reign by writing what you want, however you want, in a separate document from your script. For the most part, prewriting requires time spent bouncing ideas around, spit balling with collaborators or browsing the internet looking for ideas. You then collect the ideas in a document and see what pops out at you. Many writers literally put pen to paper in this phase, as the process of physical writing limits self-editing.
It sounds like this might be something reserved for the first stages of your script, but it’s not. You can do this at the end of an act, between scenes, or even when looking for dialogue inspiration. (Just make sure the “browsing the internet” part doesn’t extend into hours-long Facebook sessions!)
Screenplays (usually) rely on sharply defined plot points, act breaks and character arcs. In this writing mode, you’re evaluating your starting and end points within certain parts of the script. This could be within acts, scenes, or the entire script itself. Then you ask yourself some questions: How do you get from point A to point B? What are the logical problems you might run into? How do the smaller parts fit within the whole?
For better or worse, we are constantly required to review structure as we write, which means that we return to this mode repeatedly. For some it can feel restrictive and monotonous, for others it’s the opportunity to allow characters to develop in a new way. Either way, it’s a necessary part for defining the shape and flow of the script.
The Big Push
A common experience even seasoned professionals enjoy is the incapacitating fear of the Blank Page. “How do I start?” “Where do I go from here?” “I’m stuck!” All these worries are thrown out the window by embracing The Big Push, where you put your head down and just… write. No second-guessing, no fear. Sometimes this requires lowering your own standards to get words on the page. Remember, editing can happen later.
For example, you know your character needs to be introduced and then become involved with a group of bank robbers. The Big Push means you write whatever dialogue and action comes into your head, and you keep driving towards that goal. If the story drifts away from the outline, that’s fine. If you’re unsure you’re being true to your character, that’s fine. The Big Push can go on for hours, even days. The point is, in this mode you’re not worried about smaller details, you’re just getting words on a page in order to see where the story goes.
When Michelangelo created the sculpture of David, he had a wonderful advantage: a big chunk of marble from which to chip away. The Big Push provides that chunk of marble, and when you’re in the finessing stage, you’re like Michelangelo himself, except instead of chisels and hammers, you’re using “delete” and “backspace” buttons. Here you refine what you have by making sentence-level adjustments, removing clunk and reshaping dialogue. This is also where your OCD nature can be expressed in full.
This is when you have a significant amount of writing that needs to be evaluated in terms of the project as a whole, and then rewritten. It’s most helpful to receive notes and advice from people you trust to help guide your revisions. For example, you’ve written Act One, but received a note that your lead character does not stand out enough. This is something you need to go back and rework, usually amongst several other elements that aren’t quite clicking.
Every mode you’re in can lead to a jump to another mode. Writing doesn’t always follow a neat, logical sequence. The important thing is that you realize which mode you’re in so that you can give the right kind of energy to your process. Slowly but surely you will craft a masterpiece that deserves to be displayed next to the sculpture of David. Or, even better, made into a movie.