It’s been a week since Script Frenzy started, so I figured it was about time for an update. Off to a slow start, but quite optimistic. Read the full article for stuff about the script, screenplay formats, first draft tips, and why sometimes a large choice is a bad thing.
1. Establishing Shots
Like most people, I heard about Script Frenzy through an email from the NaNoWriMo people (it’s run by the same guys) and wasn’t sure if I would sign up, given my generally unsuccessful results with NaNos previous. I’ve just never managed to finish one or get involved in the community, although I will admit that both endeavours are highly enjoyable.
In the end, the word count swayed me. 20,000 words is a lot less than NaNoWriMo’s 50K goal. At 2,000 words a day — a good writing day — it was reachable in ten days. With my fluctuating writing speed (between 100 words a day and 5,000) it was something I might actually be able to reach by the 30th. The prospect of writing something that wasn’t prose — which all of my writing so far has been — was also an enticement.
I had tried to write a script once before, a half-hour comedy that was in Hindi of all things (typed in English. No, it’s never gone anywhere or shown to anyone, so please don’t adjust your sets). I was pleased with it, but just like short stories aren’t the same kind of writing experience as novels (as several NaNoWriMos have taught me), so 22 minute sitcoms aren’t the same as movies.
Most people have read all the big names when it comes to learning screenwriting — I hear the name ‘Syd Field’ a lot — but I’d only ever read one book by Tom Lazarus (writer of Stigmata). It’s a decent introduction to the world of screenwriting, and is probably more insightful into the process of making a script that fits into the Hollywood world rather than just craft. I hadn’t read it in years, and thumbed through both it and the sitcom script I’d written to refresh my memory for the task ahead.
First, of course, I had to decide what to write.
2. The Problem with Choice
There’s a belief among some people that all writers only have one story to tell, and that all their stories are variations on that one story. We’ve also learned from several Hollywood stories and E! programs that most screenwriters have that one story burning a hole in their heads, that one tale that they’ve been trying to write or are trying to sell, and when sold paves their gold-bricked road to stardom.
I have the opposite problem. I have far too many stories.
While it’s still open for debate on whether or not, in the general sense, they’re all just variations on one story, I have over the years amassed quite the collection of little tales to tell. Let’s start at the beginning; in this case, seven years ago at the dawn of the new millennium, when I first had the kooky idea that I could, at some point, become a proper Writer. I started keeping a little notepad and a pen in my pocket all the time, and whenever I’d think up a story or an interesting thing crossed my mind I’d scribble it down in as few words as possible.
As time went by the notes became a little more elaborate, with their own little codes. Sometimes I’d think of a story and it would seem to me that the story would be best told as a novel, so I’d write down the date, put the code ‘NOV’ next to it and write down the idea. Some became ideas for video games (GAME) and some became comic books (OGN, or ‘original graphic novel’, a term used in that industry). A lot of them started to get the mark ‘MOV’.
Ah, the MOVs. When you start writing you too have heard the myths about the guy with the single great script, the writer with one story, and so you think, “Well, I’ll just be needing one 100 page notebook for my ideas, right? Wrong. Ideas are very easy. You can have half a dozen good ideas for movies and novels in a day, sometimes. If, like me, you don’t ever actually spend the time to write those ideas up as scripts — but you do spend a lot of time laying awake in bed — then chances are those little ideas you jotted down in a moving bus a week ago come back to haunt you, to entertain you, until it’s 4 am and you’ve just played out an entire movie in your head.
I just looked through my files and counted: I kid you not, I have over a hunded and fifty things marked ‘MOV’.
Sure, so some of them, around a dozen or two, are a lot more developed that the others. These are the ones I’ve spent the night playing in my head. I’ve run through them and added in plot points and cleaned them up here and there, so really those are the ones I was most ready to write.
Or was I?
3. The Devil You Know
It was the 1st of June, 2007. I was sitting in a restaurant having lunch with my father and brother. “I have no idea what to write,” I said.
“What do you want to write?” my brother asked.
I fished out my notebook. My fifth, begun in January; a small 2006 organiser/pocket diary that is useless as a datebook, and I don’t like to waste paper. There were already 30 pages filled. I thumbed through it and picked out the ones marked MOV — a baker’s dozen of recent ideas — and read them aloud to my captive audience. There was a short film about talking breasts (I wonder if people would like that as a feature?). There were a couple of action things that are more style pieces than actual stories. One of them just said ‘Harry Potter. In a Car. Imagine!!’ — I still have no idea what that’s about, or in what half-asleep state I wrote it.
A couple were promising. There was a road movie involving a middle-aged man. The premise was juicy but I didn’t quite know what to do once I hit the halfway mark. As it stood, it was only the bits that would go into a teaser trailer, not a movie. Another one seemed like a fun romp but would require me to write about gangsters. I don’t really like gangsters enough to try and wrestle with them in my first screenplay.
My brother told me I should go with the road movie; it’s set in the real world, simple, and should therefore be easier to get into than some kind of science-fiction/fantasy mammoth. I agreed, but I was not sold yet because of the half-a-plot issue.
Later in the day we met up with my friend Jamie, and while shuffling through Ace Hardware — picking up strange tools and oddly-named bottles with the sole purpose of making lewd jokes about them — I ended up pitching a few of the ideas. I got into a long narration of a story I thought up in 2003. It’s the worst kind of fantasy epic, the trilogy. Worse, it’s a romance, but I figured that if a male in his late teens who plays rock and metal could warm to it, then it might be worth writing. He liked it and pointed out the obvious flaws in the plot, how parts of it just weren’t cool enough, and I agreed with him too.
I was playing it safe even considering that story, of course. This is the screen story that I’ve played the most times in my head, so I pretty-much know all of it start to finish. Also it’s gargantuan, which means I would probably reach 20K long before I would reach the end of the first part, let alone the whole thing.
Therein lay my main problem with it: I want to finish something. I don’t want to hit 20,000 and just put it away half done. I want to write the words ‘THE END. FADE OUT’ by the end of June, and so I was going to have to find something better.
Something better showed up on the 4th of June, an old fantasy idea I’d fleshed out as an outline a year or so before. It’s not as epic as the trilogy, not even as fantastic — there are no large battles involving thousands of CGI horsies and monsters charging at each other — so it would be less of a task than the other one* to write.
(* Actually that trilogy didn’t have any large battles either, but the scale was huge, so you get the idea.)
On the 4th I started writing it and have, so far, reached around the 7 minute mark in screen time, just introducing the world and a few of the main players. Only 2000 words so far, but I haven’t written the juicy bits yet — words flow more freely when you’re writing juicy bits. It’s a very character-driven fantasy, and old-style tale with a modern, mature take. Think Beauty and the Beast with a bunch of twists.
Of course, writing the damn thing was not without its issues.
4. Screenplay Formats and Why I Hate Them
First off, I know that it works, and that in a project where a document will go on to be interpreted by dozens of people including directors, actors, editors, composers, production designers, visual effects people — hell, probably even the caterer — you need a script that’s straightforward and in the format they’re used to so that everyone can — pardon the pun — be on the same page.
My problem with it is that when you’re starting out, when you haven’t yet written the story down and it’s this nebulous cloud of information hovering over your head, spending half your time writing INT-this and (quickly)-that, putting every character’s name in CAPS and every sound effect too, making sure the tabs are right, all gets to be a chore.
The first draft is not a time for you to be worrying about things like that. I could write a million outlines and character notes, but the fact remains that eventually some kind of document must be written that becomes the first draft of the actual screen story, and when that is being written you should be worried about as little as possible, and write as much as you can.
The other problem I have with the traditional screenplay format is that I’m not confident that I can come back to it in, for instance, three months time, and see in it the same things I did when I wrote it. Screenplays are supposed to be as lean as possible; don’t talk about precise hand movements the actors should make, don’t put in camera moves, don’t go on and on about the sets. I, for one, need those things to tell myself the story. I need to put them down just so that they’re out of my head and somewhere else.
That’s why I started off late, on the 4th. I just ditched traditional screenplay format for a freer, more prose-like style. “That’s not a real screenplay, it’s a story,” you’ll say, and you’d be technically right on both points if you want to slavishly and religiously adhere to the ‘industry standard’ definition of a screenplay.
You’d also be wrong, because it’s actually a First Draft.
5. The First and Final Draft
Someone wise once said that the first draft of everything is always shit. You know, they’re right. I have never, so far, ever written the second draft of anything. I am that worst kind of person, the Proud Writer.
The Proud Writer expects everything he writes to be good. The Proud Writer uses the backspace key more than any other, re-typing every sentence he punches in several times until it’s just right. If he’s not getting the right words, then it must be a fault of the cosmos or that he’s ‘just not feeling it’ right now, and he’ll get up from his seat and go away to check his email or watch On The Lot.
The Proud Writer believes with certainty that once the words ‘The End’ are written on something it can never be changed. The Proud Writer is mortally afraid that if he doesn’t get it all perfectly right the first time, it will forever be wrong, wrong, wrong and everyone will somehow know and laugh at him when his back’s turned.
Please kill the Proud Writer within you as soon as you can.
The First Draft is not your story. It’s malleable. It’s soft and squishy and you can keep coming back to it time and again and work it until it’s hard and smooth. Nobody is going to read your First Draft except you. The draft contains ingredients that should go into your story, and it will be missing some and contain stuff that doesn’t belong there, but even if you know that something doesn’t belong there, leave it in.
If you’re tired and not feeling it, continue. The words will be crappy, lazy and boring, but continue. Keep writing. If you’re worried that you’re ruining a perfectly good story by doing this, then let me assure you that you aren’t — after all, this isn’t your story, it’s only the first draft — and continue writing. You will reach a juicy bit and things will get better.
When you do reach that juicy bit and feel the urge to spend some time on it, polishing it up or maybe going back to the older boring bits and working with that — don’t. Do not do that, just continue writing.
I know that you care about your stories — we all do — but as my brother so wisely put it the other day, “There’s a time for caring and a time for writing, and the first draft is a time for writing.”