Jason Buff is a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill and founder of the Indie Film Academy. He started his career working in San Francisco and Los Angeles as a commercial DP and Director. At the same time, he worked as a professional script reader for Alliance Atlantis Communications. Follow Jason on Twitter: @indiefilmacdmy
What was the first thing you did when you decided to write a screenplay? If you’re like most people, you went on Amazon and looked through their vast selection of “self help” books in the screenwriting section. After reading your first or second book, written most likely by someone who has never actually written a screenplay, you most likely started writing out notes or putting together cards or doing the things that most guru’s recommend. After all, it sounds pretty legit. The creative mind obeys our command right? It loves organization. I’m being sarcastic.
One giant misconception is the notion of the expert as teacher. Some gurus are former teachers or studio readers, and others are screenwriters who have had moderate success. Maybe they had a hit film 20 years ago and have been teaching screenwriting techniques ever since. But the true misconception in all of this is that someone is going to have the secret sauce for teaching you how to write a good screenplay. They create all sorts of rules to follow. If you read Save The Cat!, for example, you most likely have broken up your screenplay not only into beats, but had certain events occur because of a page number. It’s understandable to want this sort of warm voice guiding you. It’s safe and feels good.
Screenwriting forces us to be vulnerable, so we grasp for rules and guidance and things that will make the process less scary. But there is also a level to which relying on screenwriting gurus can become an addition and hinder our writing goals.
Now nobody will argue that structure isn’t a key component to writing a screenplay. It’s basically just a way of saying you need to know how to tell a story. Your goal as a screenwriter is to bring people into a believable world and with characters we can identify with. And this is one of the main issues. How can we believe in a world if we are so painfully aware of what the plot structure is trying to do to us. As much as I love Pixar, for example, I am always annoyed at how perfect their screenplays are. It’s like a perfect present with a bow on it. Everything is wrapped up nicely in the end. If the central problem of the story is stated in the first act, then you already have a notion of what the third act is going to be. And if you’re following the same structure and beats that are specified in an already tired format, your audience is going to get bored. One of the fastest ways to kill the tension of your script is to make it predictable. And let’s face it, common structures are predictable.
As many successful screenwriters will tell you, there are no rules. Am I saying that you don’t need to know 3 or 5 act structure? Of course you do. Am I saying that Save The Cat! is bad? No. But Save The Cat!, or The Hero’s Journey, or any other of the famous structures are like training wheels. You use them to get started. They are a way to teach beginning writers how many stories have been put together. And as we will discuss in a moment, rules of structure are essential once you’re well into the screenwriting process to go back, look at your story, and determine why certain things aren’t working. The true irony of these formulas is that, while geared towards making your screenplay flow better, they are actual the primary source of it’s undoing.
This takes us to the next phase. What is your process for writing? In most of these books, they suggest writing everything out. You must know what’s going on in each scene and only once you have it all written out and put on note cards should you actually begin the writing process. I know many writers who do this. Many successful writers. And if that works for you and you are happy, then by all means you shouldn’t fix what’s not broken. But for those of us who can’t really write this way, I would like to suggest an alternative.
I love to inhabit the world of my characters. When I first started writing, I would sit around and just write like I was a fly on the wall. Characters would interact, but not much happened in terms of plot. As I started reading all of the classic screenwriting books, I started second guessing myself. “Oh, I’m not doing this right. I have to do this and that… etc.” And so, for weeks and months and in some cases years, I would write notes. I would fill massive notebooks with ideas and write out the different beats of the story, with the idea that one day it would be perfect and I could begin my first draft.
After nearly a year of filling up notebooks, I realized something. Note taking was a form of procrastination. Much like filmmakers like to delude themselves with the idea that they can watch movies all day because they are just “studying,” I found that my note taking was a very convenient way to avoid the thing I feared the most — actually sitting down and writing my screenplay. I was absolutely petrified of starting. In my mind, from the very first word, I needed to prove to myself that I was a writer. So what if my first paragraph wasn’t perfect. What if I was a horrible writer? What if I’ve just been kidding myself all this time? I was at war with my own ego and paralyzed. What Steven Pressfield refers to as The War of Art.
Reverse Engineer Screenwriting
So for those of use who chronically take notes and procrastinate as a way to avoid the anxiety of writing, I have an alternative to popular wisdom. What I like to call reverse engineer screenwriting. What does this mean? Basically it means you work backwards. Instead of working on your structure and taking notes first, you take them after you have created your first draft. I know, it seems counter intuitive. But believe me, it has worked much better for me, and I would imagine it will work for many others as well.
Am I saying that you just start writing out of the blue? No. I don’t recommend starting with absolutely nothing. If fact, as I will repeat over and over, there are no rules. You can take whatever notes you want. You can even start out with a prebuilt structure like Save The Cat!. In all, before you start your vomit draft, I suggest you do the following.
- Write your ending: This will eventually change.
- Write your beginning: This will probably also change.
- Spend about an hour writing out the entire story. (Guess what, this will also change.)
That’s it. Now you’re ready. But there is also another key aspect of writing your first draft. It needs to suck! It needs to be horrible! And it needs to be written fast. At the very least about five pages a day. Give yourself a month, so roughly three pages per day. That’s not so hard is it. Three terrible pages per day?
When you just sit down and write and don’t judge yourself, you will be able to harness the full power of your creative antenna. As long as you know the basic outline of your story, you can write whatever you want. You can live in that world and start to feel it come to life. In this phase writing is more like improvisation. One of the keys to improvisation, even in your own head, is that there is no such thing as negating an idea. If a character in your head takes you in a direction, go with it. Embrace that nutty creative mind that you were blessed with.
Don’t edit. Don’t go back. Don’t do anything but move forward every day. And at the end of it, you will have your first draft. Of course, you will never ever ever show this draft to anyone. This is a big gelatinous blob of creative energy. If you have done it right, it most likely doesn’t have much structure and most likely drones on too long in most of the scenes.
Now! It’s time for some notes. Read through your story. Be inspired and get new ideas. Watch movies. There is no better way to really feel how a story should move than watching a good film, especially one with a similar tone. Really study those films. Stop them and rewatch scenes to see where they start. Do what David O Russell does and memorize the scenes from one part of the film to the next. Think about what is going on with each character. Listen to audiobooks in your down time. Take notes.
Now you’re going to do the same thing for the second draft. Just get through it, but now you’re going to start tightening things up. Things you discovered in the third act will now effect your first act. Setting things up that you didn’t see before.
On the other hand, you can look at your friends who are still writing notes. Trying to reorganize and make their film match a formula that will make it less original with every rewrite. You now understand the role of these prebuilt structures. To give you a notion of the direction you can go when you get lost. For example, if you’re at around page 50 and not sure what to do, you can always look at STC and see that most films have their midpoint twist. On the other hand, don’t do the wrong thing which is to second guess yourself and think that you have to change your screenplay a structure.
Looking over your subsequent drafts, you will need to repeat this formula. Write freely. Allow creative ideas to come into your mind. You will be coming up with tons of little gems. Most of them you will have to get rid of, which is why you shouldn’t be self editing while you write. If a creative idea comes into your mind during a scene, just go with it. But write it quickly and get it down because more than likely it won’t be in the final draft. Allow your characters to just talk. Don’t worry about page numbers. Just let it all happen. Don’t judge. And when you finally get to draft 9 or 10, you will have carved everything down until its perfect. You will have gone from 100 great ideas down to 10 that really work for the story. Scenes will be compacted into their shortest possible length, starting late and ending early. But the scenes will feel bigger because it will still exist in your mind.
So, I would like to end with one idea. Successful writers write. Of course, they do supplemental things like take notes and daydream and drink. But what makes you a writer is the ability to overcome whatever fear you have and just start hammering away. My solution is working backwards. Your solution might be something else. But we all have the same goal. To come to terms with the way our creative minds work and to find a way to manifest that into a screenplay that has something original to offer.
- Meet the Reader: Linear Equations – Non-Linear vs Linear Narrative
- A Writer’s Voice: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ & the Engine of Structure
- Balls of Steel: 7 Lessons in Outlining, First Draft & Fear, Oh My!
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