Tuesday, February 24, 2015

This Is How I Do

Every year, in every single AFF panel, the question comes up:

"How do you write stuff?"

Of course, the exact wording changes; it gets sneakier and turns into "can you expand on the writing process you used to bring That Movie, or That TV Show to life," which is basically still asking the same question of "how do you write?" Which is a question that annoys me for two reasons:

1. The question itself is annoying because if you're asking that question I make the immediate assumption that what you really want to know is "how can you tell me to write so that it feels easier" and

 2. I am always underwhelmed and frustrated by the answer, which almost always amounts to a floundering run around of "if you don't know how to write, then I don't know what to tell you."

Well, guess what; because I just finished my TV pilot script and subsequently am feeling the kind of power that I imagine only ever truly belongs to leaders of certain communist countries, I am going to reveal the secret to you.

This secret of how you write stuff.

Ahem. Correction. This is how I do it, and it happens to work. Mostly.

Feeling good. Putin good.

Step 1: You get an idea
This I cannot help you with, but basically you want someone (hopefully interesting and dynamic) to want something (hopefully really really badly) and then things happen (hopefully big crazy things) to prevent that person from getting that thing.

Step 2: You write up a treatment
I'm not exactly sure what the current industry standard of a treatment is, but for me a treatment is a five to seven page narrative of your entire story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens and so on. You name people and places and establish a basic beginning, middle and end to the thing. There's no pressure to this step; you're just letting the idea flow and writing down whatever comes to mind. You can always write another treatment. For my latest script, I went through three different treatments before really getting what I wanted. This is also the thing you want to run past your friends, family and whoever else will listen because those people's faces will tell you whether or not you've got a good story here. Don't listen to their words, look at their faces!

Step 3: To the spreadsheets!
I love spreadsheets. Spreadsheets for everything! I have a spreadsheet of every article of clothing in my closet, from the color to the fabric to where I bought it. Why, you ask? Because I love spreadsheets. The particular spreadsheet I use came courtesy of an astoundingly amazing friend of mine and I believe it is fashioned after the Blake Snyder beat sheet, but any spreadsheet will do as long as it encompasses a basic three act structure (or four or five act, depending on what you're writing) and includes basic hallmarks of a script (setup, catalyst, b-story, midpoint, all is lost, finale, that kind of stuff). There's plenty of resources out there for this, so get Googling.

Step 4: More spreadsheets!
Seriously, and I cannot stress this enough, spreadsheets are the answer to everything. Money problems? Spreadsheet. Relationship issues? Spreadsheet that shit. Can't decide where to eat for dinner? Spread dot Sheet dot Done. Trying to write a script? Take the step 3 spreadsheet and expand. This second spreadsheet is basically a forty to fifty scene chronological breakdown of precisely what is going to happen in your story. Every scene is described in the order in which it will appear. Mine is a three column, fifty row affair that is color coded by Act. In the first column is a description of what happens in that scene, the second column is for stating the purpose of the scene and the third column is for notes that usually address alternatives to the proposed scene (maybe Lucy punches Doug in the face, but what if Harriet punched him instead), or bits of dialogue.

Because you get to change things. Throughout these first four steps, everything is negotiable, everything is up for debate, mostly with yourself. You can make up your mind, then change it, then flip it around and turn it into an omelet - whatever you want. And enjoy this freedom, because it ends as soon as you get to...

Step 5: Write the damn script
Pull up your Fade In, or Final Draft or Celtx or whatever it is you're using at the time and lay it side by side with your step 4 spreadsheet and stick to the damn plan! You are done making choices and being critical; your job now is to write this thing and to write it as quickly as possible. Ignore the doubts, ignore the part of you that keeps saying "this is crap, this is crap, this is utter crap" and continue with what you're doing. This is why you don't make changes at this stage, because the sheer weight of what you are about to do is paralyzing enough that you don't need to be grappling with whether or not you're writing the best version of your story. Of course you're not writing the best version of your story; this draft will end up total shit! Expect it, accept it. Because you can wish in one hand and write a pile of shit draft in the other and guess which will get you a script first?

When you've finished your draft, give it to those people in your life who you give writerly stuff to. Make them read it. Take your lumps. Be grateful. And celebrate; you just wrote a script! Congratulations! That's huge! Go you, go me, go everyone. Now get out there and do it!

Do it so you can feel good. Putin good.

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