Learning the craft of screenwriting is essential if you want to become a great screenwriter. Twenty years ago we did that by watching great films and TV shows, analysing ourselves what made them work. Now there are hundreds of screenwriting books that have done all that analysis after-the-fact and extrapolated from it a set of conventions or (rather less helpfully) rules about screenwriting. But if you write to those rules, are you editing your writing too early and killing your creativity?
I’m a big fan of screenwriting books and have probably read 50 or more. I’ve watched (and continue to re-watch) classic movies in every genre, I watch 2-3 new films a week (in a range of genres) and I watch at least the first couple of episodes of every new UK TV show along with about 5-10 new US shows a year. So, when Martin Scorsese says that watching old movies is essential to become a great storyteller in film, I am right with him.
But all that studying and analysing can cripple your creativity, bringing with it a fear that you need to get it right straight away; that unless you’ve figured out your denouement you might as well give up on this story idea. But although you probably do want to end up with a very tightly structured, linear narrative, where every story beat is tailored to move your central story forward, to expect that from too early in the process is to miss the point of being a creator, a writer.
To be creative is to find or make connections between seemingly disassociated ideas. To search only for the ‘right’ thing is to miss amazing opportunities exploring the ‘wrong’ thing that could lead you to somewhere much more interesting. Don’t be afraid of the chaos because in there lies originality. Of course, to send out to the industry an incoherent script which is merely a collection of disparate ideas isn’t going to cut it either. But if you self-edit too much or too soon in the development process, your work might tick a lot of boxes but it’s not going to get anyone excited about your writing, and it’s that excitement and passion from those reading your work that will propel your screenwriting career.
Creativity and structural convention (aka commercial success) can be uneasy bedfellows, not just in the finished product but in how you, as a writer, develop your ideas. Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation is a great articulation of that tension. So how do you maintain your creativity, which usually lies within the chaos, while pursuing that streamlined mainstream narrative? Get comfortable feeling uncomfortable in that mess of tangled possibilities. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Don’t be afraid to get it ‘wrong.’ Take ideas for a walk before dismissing them.
The other danger of editing too early is that you never finish your story because your pursuit of the perfect opening sequence becomes all-consuming. ‘Don’t get it right, get it written’ (widely attributed to James Thurber) is a great adage that can be hugely liberating. Lots of writers talk about their ‘vomit draft‘ – yuck! but you get the idea, right?!
I spend a lot of my time successfully helping very imaginative writers to shape their ideas into something more accessible and satisfying but I’ve also experienced that awful feeling of knowing you’re beating the life out of a project. As a script editor on one of the UK’s primetime drama shows, I had the privilege of working with our best writer on the opening episodes of the new series. With a lot of the series budget at stake there were a lot of executives giving a lot of notes just on the story outline. By the time they’d demanded a tenth rewrite of the beat sheet, my poor writer had grown to hate his own story. I knew that unless we let him go to script, and fast, he’d either walk off the show or deliver a ‘script-by-numbers’ draft – neither of which was desirable.
Knowing when to let go of the beat sheet / story plan / outline, and just write the damn script, is important. Recognise the warning signs that you’re falling out of love with the project and find a way to reconnect. Often simply letting yourself write that very imperfect ‘vomit draft’ is the answer.
Writing should be as much about discovery as it is crafting and shaping ideas. Finding your own process that both embraces the chaotic creativity and yet delivers a tightly structured script is tough but essential.
Edit your writing too early and you miss creative opportunities, edit too late and you waste valuable time down story dead-ends. Learning when to be creative and when to be more analytical and structured in the development of your idea is part of the process of becoming an experienced screenwriter.
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