Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Process

You may read screenwriting articles and advice about how to prepare and write your script. Research, notes, character biographies, exploring the setting, writing the outline/structure of the story. Outline, outline, outline, outline. Most advice gets hung up on this issue. They say that you must sit down and work out all the beats of your story in the outline so that you know what to write when you sit down at your computer (see previous post about 'professional documents' to check out what an outline actually is).

Now with all screenwriting mantras and rules, this is to be taken with a pinch of salt. If you don't outline, it doesn't mean that your script will be an aimless and structureless wreck. Your talents as a storyteller should ensure otherwise (you hope). There are obvious benefits to charting out your story in all the relevant detail beforehand as it makes writing the screenplay a less daunting and challenging task whenever you hit a spot going: "what am I doing? where am I at?".

I enjoy the two sides of the outline argument. Sometimes I outline, and enjoy it, and write an okay first draft, other times I just wing it, with equal success. It's interesting to note that in writing for television - you have to write an outline before you proceed to script stage. You have no choice. The script editor, producer and series producer want a good idea of what you're going to write before you actually write it (and pay you for the privilege). This outline is often referred to as a 'Step Outline' or a 'Scene by Scene breakdown' where you describe the key elements of each scene.

Most writers probably avoid this approach for their screenplays. Which is fair enough - as I say, I'm not saying one or the other. I think having a broad outline of the story is always a good idea, so you have some sense of the finishing line, and then let your creative impulses to surprise you along the way. But sometimes, the creative process doesn't work like that and there's nothing better than sitting down to the blinking cursor on a blank page and letting rip. In my scripts, half have been outlined and preppped, the others developed from a seed of an idea or character that I was interested in.

The script that won the BBC Tony Doyle Bursary last year was written on the hoof. I let the story and characters dictate where they wanted to go. The result was a well-written script that won the award but not entirely satisfactory as a dramatic experience (still, as a first draft, I was very pleased). The script was optioned by Irish actor Liam Cunningham and Parallel Films, and armed with their notes, I went back to the drawing board of 'scene by scene' so I could chart out the drama and structure to a more professional level.

The combination of the 'free story' approach and lateral preparation has been great, and it's increased my overall attachment and love of the project as a whole. Not all my projects have originated or developed in this way but I feel comfortable with the various processes available, so taking the right approach when you need it is the key. Don't be swayed by the gurus or any hard rule that they say must be obeyed. If you can write great stuff but without an outline or whatever, then keep spinning that magic baby.

6 comments:

Chris (UK Scriptwriter) said...

I'm not sure if it a 'by the rules' outline, but I usually write one for my ideas. They usually run between five and ten pages (hand written), and are a way to get a story idea down on paper when I am too busy to spend a lot of time writing a whole chunk of a script.

It is also a good way of recording ideas so I don't have more than one script on the go at once (I have enough trouble finding time for one, yet alone several on the go at once).

They are usually made up of a small amount of backstory (sometimes), and then a 'this happens', and then 'the characters do this' and then 'so and so, screws them over', and so on...

Tim Clague said...

I am such a fan of mapping things out. I guess it helps me overcome the fear of the blank page. For one of my current features I haven't actually done a formal treatment. Instead I just use cards and lay them out. There is a pic on my blog here:

Card pic

I love it. I then do an electronic version in case of wind accidents and to allow me to put coloured lines that criss-cross the board for the major plot threads.

I just can't hold all this in my head.

Tim Clague
PROJECTOR FILMS
My Blog

Anonymous said...

Hi Danny,

This is a great blog, read some of your scripts THE DEVIL'S PUNCH BOWL is great, any chance of you putting up some more?

In your blog you mention you have had scripts optioned and I was just wondering what the average going rate is when a script is optioned to a bona fide production company.

Thanks.

Tracy Screenwriter

Anonymous said...

Hi Danny,

This is a great blog, read some of your scripts THE DEVIL'S PUNCH BOWL is great, any chance of you putting up some more?

In your blog you mention you have had scripts optioned and I was just wondering what the average going rate is when a script is optioned to a bona fide production company.

Thanks.

Tracy Screenwriter

Danny Stack said...

Tim: I have a similar cork board full of cards and notes, certainly is useful.

Tracy Screenwriter: Hello and thanks. Options vary enormously. Production companies want your script for nothing and then will offer next to nothing. I think you can expect offers of £500- £1,000. Anything between £2,000-£3,000 is generous(!). And of course, some people will offer you less than £500. It's not Hollywood but there you go.

The Constipated Writer said...

I outline in 10 page sections. If I feel I am running out of space, and don't know where to go, I outline my nights work. But there's times I can go 15 - 20 hand written pages without outlining any of it. That being said, I do edit it when I'm putting it into Final Draft.

I tend to lean towards a hybrid technique, which pretty much puts me squarely in both camps. I see benefits to both, but combine them most of the time.