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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

In the Beginning Was the Box

So you have an idea for a script. You talk to friends, they like the idea. YOU like the idea. This is exciting. Then you open up a blank document. And stare at it. You write down your idea. Suddenly, it's not seeming so great. Hours pass, sweat beads on your forehead. The blank page mocks you. Dozens of other pressing needs cross your mind: changing the paper at the bottom of the bird cage. Checking the mail. Throwing in the whites. And still, the page mocks you every time you return from these other pressing priorities.

So - what is literally the very first step you take in this whole "write a script" thing? The Wave-inatrix has written ten scripts and believe it or not, the first step is always the hardest. There's no easy, pat way into getting your story going. Why, I spent this last weekend in this self same position. But by the end of the weekend, I had written a complete outline for an idea I've been bandying about for weeks. It's imperfect, it's not fleshed out, but it's there. Finally, a lumpen shape to play with. I also changed the paper at the bottom of the bird cage and did quite a lot of laundry. But I digress.

The first thing I do is write down, in a long, sloppy paragraph, what my idea is. I stare at this horrible paragraph. And I ask of it - where's the antagonist? What is the crux of the conflict? What is the deal with the main character? What is her flaw?

And that is where I start. With my main character. Because I know, lo these many years both reading and writing scripts, that whatever the adventure I had first come up with, must be inverse to the flaw of my character. Uh, oh but I don't have a flaw yet. I go back to the main gist of my story idea. Okay what is the worst flaw you COULD have in this situation, that fuels the story, that will make the universe rain down on my main character's head at every turn?

And then I just begin to write. Steam of conscious, unedited crap. I just write. I write stuff that I will quickly delete. And then I rewrite it. I write bits of dialogue. I fill the page with utter gobbledygook that no one else will understand. Then I look back up at my primitive premise line.

And I begin to see. A shape has started to suggest itself. And I tweak the premise line. Then I keep writing about my main character. Oh - and that idea for the antagonist again. Yeah, great line of dialogue. And hours pass and still, I have a half-page of confusion. But slowly, very slowly, a shape is beginning to emerge.

It's like packing up to move. At first, you have a pile of boxes and all of your stuff staring at you. Half-heartedly, you pack one, random box. Okay, one box done. Is it time for lunch? Anyone want coffee? But you stare bleakly at the rest of your stuff and know you've got to keep moving. And suddenly, you must categorize. What if I just pack up this ONE cupboard? What if I start with the kitchen at least? A primitive system of organization has emerged from the muck of procrastination.

Boxes are assigned and stuff is going in those boxes and hours later - aha! Progress has been made! Now motivation starts to kick in. That part of the house is DONE. A light is at the end of the tunnel - you can do this!

So think of the blank page as a room full of possibilities that need to be categorized, starting with what your story idea is. So put that idea in a box and stare at it. Then look around the room and know that character work is the next box that really has to be packed and stacked, next to the premise line. And then later, the theme - oh but you don't need that right now, just pack the dishtowels and leave the box open, you'll get back to that. Oh and the antagonist, that should get packed and put near the main character. Oh looks like you forget something to put into the premise box! Keep that one open too.

And suddenly, hours later - your hot mess of an idea has started to gain a certain organized beauty. It's not perfect, but you've made progress. The end is in sight - the end, in this case being an outline that while imperfect, makes a certain kind of sense. Once you've packed all your boxes, you can endlessly arrange and rearrange them before you make the move and UNPACK the boxes into actual script pages. But that's much easier - these boxes go in the kitchen, those boxes go in the living room. You organized the packing now you can unpack at your leisure. Because you know where everything is and where it needs to go.

That might be one hot mess of a metaphor but Wavers, it works for me. And I have begun the process of organizing my next script and it feels great. But the point of this missive is that it's not only okay it is totally normal to feel somewhat overwhelmed and distressed when you start a new script and have no idea what your first move should be. Just pack one box. And then another.

What's the main idea of the script?
Who is the main character (that's one messy box)
Who is the antagonist?
What then is the inciting incident?
What would the climax then be?
And the midpoint?

Hmmmm... Not working. So rearrange the boxes. Nobody is judging this right now. You are alone in this rag-and-bone shop, you decide how to find just enough order to spark your creative juices and let the eventual pages flow.

Keep shuffling those boxes until order arises from the chaos. And once you've got some kind of order, you've made it past the toughest part. Truly. The unpacking, the actual script pages will present challenges too, but at least now you're in your new place, full of possibilities and extra closets and cupboards you didn't even know you had. Now is not the time to worry about exactly where you're going to put the panini maker. This is just getting this big, overwhelming, dusty project STARTED.

Actual page writing? That's when you're all unpacked and have an amazing outline and then you figure out what color to paint the living room or which kind of curtains to put in the kitchen.

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Wyndham said...

I'm not sure I want to start a script now, but I sure as hell want to move house.

Diane Stredicke said...

I agree with so many of your insights on starting a new script. But the one thing that I do - to get the creative juices really going - is write the scenes that have given me the inspiration to write the script to begin with.

I know that in the end they may end up in the trash, but without them, I wouldn't even start packing the boxes.

Laura Reyna said...

"Boxes" is a great metaphor.

There are many different elements and stages to writing a screenplay, and most of us aren't Mozart-like geniuses who can hold the entire story in our heads. So stories are developed in stages or layers. And you usually work on one element at a time.

We all need a system or process that effectively organizes those various elements and stages.

I use a series of pre-written sheets:
Idea development/Logline
Char development

After I finish comtemplating & making decisions about each one of these major elements, I move on to the next. And then the next.

At the end of thinking about these elements & filling out the sheets, i have a pretty good idea about what my story is about and if it's working.

I also use beat sheets and a detailed outline, with several drafts.

And I sometimes use sequence cards-- but not scene cards (I find them cumbersome & not that useful).

All these notes, sheets and cards are kept in a big project folder, so i can find them easily.

A lot of writing a screenpay is really about ORGANIZING. Organizing your story ideas, your time, your energy, your process...