Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The scriptwriting process - and how to do it with your sanity intact...

Scripts are a bit like men (or buses). You wait for ages and then… well you know the rest.

At the moment, I have 3 different projects going on. There’s a script idea I’ve been developing for a while (a sports comedy set in Ireland) which I ultimately want to submit to the IFB for a First Draft Loan. Right now it’s just a promising treatment, but it still needs work. There’s also a jewel heist/rom com set in Europe and a thriller TV pilot (both at the early, early stages). I’m absolutely DYING to write one of these. It’s like a pain in my heart. But for the moment I have to be content with developing the ideas and making sure they’re bombproof. I know what happens when I set off without doing this initial prep, and it involves gnashing of teeth and wailing (literally).

I’d much rather concentrate on one thing at a time, but you have to go with opportunities when they appear. And let’s face it, it’s better to be busy…

Here’s what I do at this stage, the very first part of a project’s life:

  • What is this script about? What’s its essence? Sum your idea up in a sentence or two. This is obviously going to change as you develop the project, but it helps to know where you started from.

  • I also like to come up with one word that the story is about, which then acts as a sort of touchstone during the writing process. For the sports comedy, it’s “acceptance”, for example – because this is what all the characters in it are really seeking. With the thriller, it’s “trust”. Every script is ultimately about one thing, one element that drives it.

  • At this point, I also like to do a two to three page character portrait for the 5-6 main characters. Who are these people? Where are they coming from, and what do they want? And more importantly, what do they need?

  • These portraits always give me loads of plot ideas, so at that point I write a quick summary of the plot. I like to know how it starts, what the midpoint is and how it ends, but the rest will be pretty vague for now.

  • Then I outline, using a beat sheet to flesh out the structure, theme and basic plot. At this stage, story problems or character inconsistencies usually become clear, so I fix these as much as I can before moving on to…

  • The infamous first draft. The draft I love the most, until 3 days after it’s done. Then I hate the script with a passion. It’s flat, and lifeless, and is generally like a curry with no spices added, if that’s not too weird an analogy.

  • So after an interval of mourning, it’s time to add those spices in. This can involve anything between 2 and 10 drafts, with loads of “Aha!” moments in between where it occurs to you that the two henchmen could be one, and that the hero could have a terrible fear of dogs. Basically, these drafts are hopefully where things start to get shape and where the characters turn into flesh and blood people.

  • Repeat until you’re confident that it’s a decent draft, after which it’s time to expose your baby to the cruel world. In my case, it’s time for my screenwriting group to take a look and poke holes in it with their swords (pens). I’ve also asked friends and family members to read drafts and if you’re very brave, put it online and let total strangers annihilate it. And there’s always professional script consultants. Whoever you allow to read it, make sure you listen carefully to their feedback and try not to snort, cry or scream at them. They’re very often right, and if a bunch of people mention the same thing, it’s a fairly safe bet that there’s a problem.

  • After another suitable mourning/incubation period, it’s time to look at everyone’s notes and at your script. Take the notes that make sense and that ring true. Make the necessary changes – punch up your script until it’s a lean, scrappy machine. Then it’s definitely time to get it to a pro for feedback, if you haven’t already.

  • After that, and more rewriting, once you’re sure that this is the best possible version of your script, the ultimate evocation of your original idea, it’s time to get it out to the people who can get it made. Which is a whole other ballgame, and one I will deal with v. soon in a post.


Good luck and get writing!

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