December 9, 2015 by Alexander Christenson
My Process: The Objectively Correct Way To Write A Screenplay
Ha. Ha. See? I can do clickbait.
Before I disclose the GPS location of the screenwriting machine, or the secret string of numbers to enter into it, allow me to present an update on my screenplay, Hush (if you want to get straight to the bacon, scroll to the next set of bolded letters).
When I began this blog, I felt like I needed some kind of A-story to keep everyone engaged. That story was my plan to submit Hush, my screenplay, into the 2016 Sundance Screenwriting Lab. Well, I did. And it was rejected. No surprise there. It was a long shot. A really long shot. Like that shot in the end of American Sniper. Maybe longer. God that movie is horrible.
I also submitted to the Austin Film Festival’s screenwriting competition. It made it to the second round, which is cool. They said that puts it in the top 15th percentile of some 8,600 entries they received this year. Yay.
It’s whatevs. I say that I don’t care. That I didn’t expect for it to go anywhere. While that’s true, it’s also true that there was that distant reflection, glinting from somewhere deep in my mind – maybe…
But really, whatevs. I knew the script wasn’t finished. These entries were more of a milestone. Motivation for me to finish the 6th draft in a timely manner. The second round advancement at Austin is a nice bit of oil squirted into my crankshaft, if you know what I’m saying.
Since then (mid April) till now (mid December) I have been concocting my plan for the 7th draft. Following the feedback collected from peers who read my 6th draft, I fell into the inevitable state of depression. This is a result of exhaustion. A slap from reality when you were hoping that this thing was better than it is. It’s fine. It’s just the process. Time fills up the tank again. The subconscious keeps chewing. Eventually, it pukes something up.
For the first time ever, I tried writing a “treatment” for this draft. I found the process incredibly freeing, and I’ll most likely pursue it on everything I write in the future. I actually threw out two completed treatments before arriving at my current version. It stung but not as much as it would have stung if I’d actually written those scripts. It also allowed me to tell people “I’m working on the third draft of the treatment for the seventh draft of my screenplay,” which is a real treat in itself.
The truest advice for anyone interested in writing is simply “start writing.” I would never argue with that. It’s really the truth. The question then becomes… “Ok, I’m writing, now what?” Having a “toolkit” of methods allows you to shift gears when you’re feeling stuck. If you try them, and they work, you then have the faith necessary to say alright, what I need to do to crack this is move to this method. It’s the difference between sandpaper and a hammer.
Lastly, before I go any further, I feel the need to offer a disclaimer: Despite the alluring title, I don’t have any answers. I don’t know anything. I’ve never typed “the end” on the final draft of any screenplay. What follows are simply tools that I’ve stumbled upon and have proved invaluable, over time, to me. If you don’t like them, no sweat. If you do, please send me money. Cool?
The Initial Spark
Inevitably, when you first conceive your story idea, there will be a rush of ideas that naturally flow from its premise. It does not matter where you write these down as long as you never lose them. Ever. Make these thoughts very easy to access and refer to them often. Yes, by nature of being immediate, these ideas run the risk of being cliched. For now, ignore that. You will never look at this idea with fresh eyes again. Because of that, whatever it was that initially hooked you (something akin to the soul of the idea), is contained in what you just wrote. It may be buried inside of some sentence that really means something entirely different than what you intended it to mean… but it’s in there.
Notes: Google Docs
Look on the bottom of your foot. What does it say? That’s right, it says Google. Google made you and one day, you will return to Google. Google owns all of your thoughts, even before you’ve thought them. Because of this, rest assured that using Google Docs is the simplest way to organize your mountain of disconnected thoughts.
You can use whatever you want, really, as long as it has a function for hierarchical notes. I used to use Word, then Google came around, then Docs came around, and now I use Docs. I can’t see why you wouldn’t. It’s free. It’s in the cloud. It’s always saving itself. It can work offline. It’s UI is great. What more do you want?
Generally I’ll give all my docs for a single project some kind of prefix. For Hush I use “HSH.” This allows you to quickly search the prefix and pull everything up. I guess you could use folders for the same effect, but that’s much less fun.
How you chose to organize your notes is a matter of taste but here’s what works for me:
Notes: Journal (Google Docs)
Please internalize this statement: There is no default format for a story.
Our minds are story making machines. We do this instinctively, even when it makes absolutely zero sense. We do this to keep from going insane. We inscribe meaning to everything. I’m tired. It’s cold out. Gah. Of course – it must be cold because I’m tired. Logically we know this doesn’t make sense. Emotionally, it makes complete sense.
We invented art to tell stories that could reach beyond the confines of our minds. The potential for formatting these stories is limitless. A painting is story as much as the national anthem is a story. Understanding a story as a juxtaposition of contrasting elements will allow you to work in a way that is much less prohibitive than words on a page.
On every project, keep a space that is a journal. This is exactly what you think it is – a blank slate. It requires you to do nothing. If you wake up one morning and you have the flu and you don’t care about this stupid script anymore – add today’s date and write that. If you can’t think about anything but the girl who just left you for your now-ex-best-friend – add today’s date and write that. If you want to spitball with yourself about the scene you’ve got to write next – add today’s date and write that.
The point here is that you’re not some superhuman creative genius art machine. Neither was Hemingway, or Shakespeare, or whoever you get down with. We have a tendency to idealize great artists and imagine that every time they put pen to paper, gold ran out of their pens. It didn’t. I know them and I asked. They said it didn’t.
Externalizing what’s in your mind not only primes you to write, it reduces anxiety.
ProTip: This “journal” Doc will get long. CMD+Up or Down arrows will jump to the bottom of your Doc. This works across all of Google. Google, Google, Google.
Notes: Per Draft (Google Docs)
I create a new Google Doc for every new draft of the script. The only requirement here is that I have one section up top (simply called “Notes”) where I start piling stuff up. Inevitably, ideas will begin to link to other ideas. When they do, you should break them off into a new subheading. Generally, you should have a few “priorities” with each new draft: things that you know you need to work on. I won’t say much beyond this because it depends on your story. Just remember that the more you can group these “floater” ideas into clusters, the easier they’ll transform into tangible scenes.
Notes: Titles (Google Docs)
Keep a separate doc for titles. The initial title you thought of is probably pretty dumb. Like Hush. I thought that was cool. Now I think it’s dumb. And generally, if you search IMDB for a title and there’s already a movie with it – think of something else.
Thinking of a title sends a shot of dopamine into your brain. It’s like popping a bite-sized snickers into your mouth. You aren’t done, but this makes you think you are, on some subconscious level. The poster flashes before you. You see the end of the trailer. It’s motivating. But you aren’t done. Just remember, you aren’t done.
Hey, you aren’t done.
I guess you could also keep a doc on production-oriented things, like where to shoot or what production companies you like… but I think that’s dangerous. Focus on your story. Keep it malleable. When it’s done, call Miramax.
For more diamond-studded musings on the subject of movie titles, read this: http://write.thinkmad.com/?p=40
Notes: Sources (Google Docs)
Your bibliography. Does that word send latent shivers down your spine? Ignore those. You need to collect all your research somewhere.
To be honest, this subject could be an entirely different article. The script I’m working on doesn’t require a huge amount of research. Maybe that’s a misconception on my part, as you can always do more research than you have. Suffice to say, your project’s research may require more than a single Google Doc.
I start at the top with a little table of contents, using the nifty bookmarking function on Google Docs. Anyone familiar with HTML bookmarks will recognize this. You drop a little bookmark wherever you want in your document, and the Doc will generate a URL. Then just make a list up top and you can quickly jump down to wherever you need to input more stuff. I actually use this in other Docs too – if there’s something I want quick access to each time I open the Doc.
Currently my categories are books, articles, interviews, crimes, movies, theorists. Like say you listen to a podcast and there are some great quotes that you want to recall when you’re writing. Slap em down, boyeee (or girleee)!
Scene Tracking (Google Sheets)
I wrote screenplays for ten years and never made it through a second draft. Well, technically, that isn’t true. I finished a second draft in college because it was a requirement. But I ended up changing so many things, that the result felt like the first draft of a different script.
You can see the sisyphean connotation here. I was afraid of rewriting. For ten years I banged out five different scripts and never stuck around long enough to plow through the second, third, fourth, whatever, draft. Part of me is bragging. Despite having nothing to show for it, look at all the writing I’ve done! Yeah don’t listen to that part. Listen to the part that’s telling you this: don’t do what I did. Finish your script. How, you say? I don’t know, I still haven’t finished one. Ha. Ha. Ha. Jokes aside, I do have faith in my current method. It will either take me to the finish line or ensure that I’m still cracking away on the day I die:
While you’re drafting, write X pages every day.
When you sit down to write a draft, figure out some arbitrary number of pages that you realistically think you can hit, every day, until you finish. I chose five. I know Darren Aronofsky chose ten when he was writing Pi. Five pages usually nets out to two or three hours of work. That’s manageable for me, but it often means lunch breaks, and skipping funtimez with friends. Akira Kurosawa famously broke out of his youthful writing slump by promising himself to write one page a day. One page. Are you telling me you can’t write one page of screenplay format a day?
What the Scene Tracking spreadsheet is for is logging what you wrote, every day. It’s a basic spreadsheet that I fill with a date, scene name, pages written, and a description of what I wrote. That’s it.
This conveniently lets you know how many days you’ve been working – and therefore makes you feel that internal momentum that helps keep you locked in. After a week, what’s one more week? Nothing! You’ve got this!
When you start a new draft, just copy the tab over and start again. It’s very cool looking backwards several drafts and seeing where you were in the midsts of your previous drafts. It’s very cool realizing that what you previously thought should be written on stone tablets was, in light of recent revelations, pure nonsense.
Scene Analysis (Google Sheets)
Of all the tools I’ve tried along the way, this is the one that died the death. Now I find it needlessly time consuming… but in retrospect that was the point. Maybe you’ll like it. Bear with me here.
The book that served as the catalyst for my surge in discipline was Robert Greene’s “Mastery.” Specifically the recounting of how John Keats wrote his first long-form work of poetry, Endymion.
In a nutshell, Keats had published some short form work, but was frustrated in his abilities and intimidated by the prospect of creating something larger. One day he put on his big-boy pants and committed to banging something out. He set some ungodly word count, and over the course of a few months, did exactly that. He wrote his first epic poem, Endymion. Endymion was at the time, and I believe still is, lambasted as an utter failure. Keats admits this himself, but didn’t give a shit:
“I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.”
The “don’t be afraid to fail” line is bandied about too much to have any weight anymore. This is in spite of the truth it contains. Keats knew he was creating something on a larger scale. But more importantly, he knew he was educating himself on the topic of creative process. He knew this wasn’t the end-all of his career, and that it was more important to create anything than to sit around in a dark room and be angry. He died at twenty-five and has a very long Wikipedia page.
Upon reading this story, I literally wrote in my phone “I’m going to Keats-ize this bitch.” Part of that effort was devising this “Scene Analysis” step in the writing process.
The gist of it was that once I completed a draft, I would comb through a printed-out version, with a pen, and write coded notes in the margins. Next to a thought on dialog, I’d write and circle a “D” for dialog. Next to a thought on scene order I’d write an ”S” for structure. And so on. Simple.
Then, once I’d gotten through the draft, I’d go through it again, and enter all of these coded notes into a spreadsheet. As I entered each note, I gave it a unique number. Into the spreadsheet it went with it’s unique number, a unique number for the scene, the lettered-code, the page it was on, the note itself, a reference for the note (what it was referring to), and a final column if I’d “starred” it. Starred notes being the ones that I thought were really good.
This was mind-numbingly tedious. Looking at the spreadsheet now, I see that in V1 I entered 472 notes. For V2 I entered 382 notes. For V5 I entered 172 notes. You can see that my tolerance for this step diminished over time. When I started it, I rationalized that regardless of how tedious this was, it would give me a tangible method of quantifying progress. For each new note I entered – I was moving forward. Furthermore, I believe in the power of the subconscious. I felt that this tedium was somehow forcing my subconscious to mull over the various problems I was illuminating to myself.
In retrospect, I was terrified that I would fall into the same trap as I did with earlier scripts. I wanted an air-tight method of proving to myself that I was advancing. With this three-step system of re-writing (five pages a day, coded notes, spreadsheet) I felt secure that I could make it over the hump. I did.
Now that I’m several drafts in, I’m less worried that I’ll be stuck like I was before. This step strikes me as overkill – although I do firmly believe in printing the thing out and sitting with with a pen and marking it up. Get away from that goddamn computer for awhile.
Outlines! You don’t need me to explain what these are. There may be a smarter way to do these than using hierarchical lists but personally I like them. For this step, there’s a bluntness and rigidity to them that I find appealing.
A few drafts back I found this tool Workflowy and now I can’t do without it. It’s a cloud-based way to create collapsible, hierarchical lists. Period.
Why is this useful? Because you can write a thousand-word-long scene description and then collapse it into a single line. I wouldn’t recommend that – but you can!
Workflowy can also be used offline, via the desktop Chrome app launcher. Google it.
Not much more needs to be said about this. Draw up the linear flow of your scenes in a list. Bam!
If you’re feeling generous, use this link when signing up and I get a little kickback in the form of more storage on their servers: https://workflowy.com/invite/2b55e24b.lnx
Informational Beats (Workflowy)
This is a step I took on V4 that I found very helpful. It’s very labor intensive so I haven’t done it since, but it’s an extremely good way to organize your existing ideas via existing dialog.
Think of a bunch of thematic buckets. Inside of each bucket, you drop existing lines of dialog. Here are some examples:
- Mark’s fear of prison
- All the things Jack doesn’t like about Diane
- Nothing has changed
- Avoiding the law
They aren’t rigid. They’re loose. One is just the fear inside of a character’s head. One is a collection of things that bug one character about another. One is a theme “nothing has changed” which ends up being lines focused towards a specific argument that a character gives (we’ve been through all of this but really, nothing has changed, etc).
Here’ the zinger. With Workflowy, you can dynamically sort bulleted items by giving them hashtags. So the list above now looks like this:
Collapse each one and drop in all the lines of dialog you want. You can add notes too. Whatever you want.
Then when you create your outline (assuming you’re using Workflowy for that too) you can plug these in underneath every scene. Like this:
- [#1991] Jack asks Diane to leave with him.
- Jack is suddenly very insistent that they both leave, now, and go to LA. She can tell that there’s something else wrong but he denies this. She won’t go. What about your show? She recalls when his mood changed in the library. He blows up on her. [#D]
- Intent: Jack is receding into himself and pushing the world away. [#I]
- Informational Beats
- Jack is suddenly very insistent that they both leave, now, and go to LA. She can tell that there’s something else wrong but he denies this. She won’t go. What about your show? She recalls when his mood changed in the library. He blows up on her. [#D]
Then once you’ve build your outline, just enter #B45 into the Workflowy search bar and bam!
There are all your scenes that have to do with all the things Jack’s hiding from Diane (a lot).
You’ll notice I also used hashtags for the year the scene is taking place in [#1991], and gave codes to the scene description [#D] and the scene’s intent [#I]. Same purpose. I can instantly call up a string out of the intent of every scene in my story. Booya.
To what degree this is useful or simply indicative of delayed-onset OCD I don’t know. It’s also extremely nerdy. I haven’t repeated it since. This may be due to the all-inclusive nature of the time that I did; all of the “buckets” that I setup still apply, more or less. It can’t hurt anything other than your schedule.
If you think it seems fun, it’s not, but I’d recommend it.
Ranting (a microphone)
Today, I feel stupid for even pointing this out. This has been standard practice since technology allowed our glorious race to record itself speaking. I’ve always known about this technique, so I’m not sure what stopped me from trying it myself. Maybe it’s the externalized nature of it. Maybe it’s because I never worked for a newspaper. People who write in teams (never me) understand this mind-blowingly obvious fact intuitively:
Talking through your story is helpful.
If you’re a writer, that’s one of the grossest possible understatements.
I was backed into this practice. I was living in LA, and had been plowing along steadily on my script. Suddenly I’d gotten a gig that would force me to commute an hour to and from work. I knew that there was no way in hell I’d get up early enough to do any meaningful work and still make it in on time. I also knew that my exhaustion upon arriving home would surely prohibit any useful brain activity.
So I figured well, maybe I’ll just talk to myself on the way to work and record it. That’s when my mind is best anyhow – in the early hours, being fed tons of coffee. And what happened?
Well, a bunch of crap too. But also Fucking. Magic.
There is something about moving your lips, projecting your thoughts outwards… that allows you to see them in front of you and play with them. It’s not a monolog; it’s a dialog. A dialog with yourself.
Yes you will look like an idiot doing this. But you’re bigger than that, right? Aren’tcha? Right?
When I started, I had the luxury of being inside a glass box with wheels. To the outsider, I just looked like another conference-calling asshole on the 110. Now that I’m back in NYC, I tend to stand in the middle of empty football fields where I can spot any approaching enemies from a great distance. I need space, man.
I cannot underestimate the amount of problems I’ve solved using this method.
It couldn’t be simpler. Take your phone thing and make sure your headphone things have a microphone thing. Bam. Open your voice memos app and hit record. Now rant.
The one thing I’ll mention is that as I rant, when I recognize a point I want to remember I’ll add it to a mental list. I say “ok first thing is blah blah blah.” Then when I come across a second thing I’ll restate the first, and add the second. The last thing I do on the recording is state all of these highlights. That saves you the time of plowing through an hour of “uhhhh” to remember the good stuff.
Or I suppose you could just jot them down as you speak. Yeah.
Treatment (Google Docs)
The new kid on the block. Again this step is probably glaringly obvious but for whatever reason, I never did it until now. Now, having done it, I find it invaluable. Though on the surface you may be writing more words than you’d put into a script, you’re covering more ground due to the fact that you’re keeping things loose.
It’s very simple. Just write out what happens in your story, in a document, sans formatting. Done.
Think of this as a bridge between the rigid nature of your outline, and the rigid nature of the screenplay format. Remain free to write what’s happening, or dialog, or literally what’s in the character’s head (a big no-no for the final script). You can even just write you think should be happening on an abstract level (Mark convinces Jack to trust him) and then keep moving. Keep it touch and go. Keep up the momentum.
Beyond that, I’ll write notes to myself in brackets [like this] and then highlight them so they stick out. I’ll also add a little dash-break to delineate a scene change, like this:
I haven’t dug into the new draft just yet but my sense is that my treatment will allow me to spit out scenes that are much more developed than if I’d just started with a Workflowy outline. I’ve seen the story from a bird’s eye view. I’ve let the characters rant ad nauseum. Now I’m free to pick and choose the focused details that will (please, please, please) create a more efficient screenplay.
Music (Spotify, etc)
I listen to music while I write. Kinda.
The first reason is that I live in NYC. It’s loud. I am easily distracted. So drowning out the car horns and yodelling neighbors is a necessity.
The second reason is to control my mood.
I know that Stephen King listens to heavy metal when he writes. Cranked up to 11. Not for me. Anything with words is a no-go. I can’t focus.
I used to listen to incredibly affected, lyric-less post-rock. Explosions in the Sky. Hammock. Sigur Ros. At my worst, I have a tendency to write cheesy or heavy-handed screenplays. This kind of music certainly didn’t help. I found that this kind of music made everything seem significant. He opens a door! The cymbals crash! The pianos cry out! The door is now completely open! It’s the most significant opening of a door in film history! It’s Citizen Kane, but for doors!
The emotion must come from the story.
Now I mainly listen to what amounts to white noise. Nature sounds also work. Rain. Water running. It works as long as it fills two basic requirements:
- Drowns out NYC
For whatever reason, I’ve arrived at a particular white noise track that I just put on repeat. It’s got an interesting yet irregular progression of deep bass sounds and white noise. It’s pretty much all I use now. Here it is: https://play.spotify.com/track/5qLE4xenEa75WqQEOylvIz
When I first sit down, I do listen to some stuff just to get pumped up. Songs you love. Doesn’t matter. I often find myself listening to Misfits at 7AM. Whatever it takes.
Then maybe I’ll transition into something more in line with the tone of the story I’m working on. Maybe dabble with a few of those overly affected tracks just to slow it down.
Then once I’m feeling the flow (read: coffee), I’ll flip on the white noise and jam.
Visual References (Google Images)
Getting a library of visual references is important. I used to rely on visuals more than I do now, maybe that’s just because I’ve been through several drafts and the images are in my head. Pull out location photos. Find your character’s car. Where he lives. His breakfast table. Casting references. Anything to make your story come alive in front of you.
Google Maps is also great for this. You can run through the streets of places you’ve never been, finding that perfect house that feels right for your character.
Writing is an internal activity. I often tell myself I’m going to mull over a problem on the subway… never happens. The real work gets done at the crescendo of your creative session. Getting started is horrible. Always. Thirty minutes to an hour after starting to type (again: coffee) you feel things start to click.
It follows that you want to make this environment as comfortable and reliable as possible. For years I wrote in coffee shops. No more. Too many things crossing my field of view.
I write at home. In the morning ideally. I prepare a spread which is united by the thesis: you will not be getting up for at least an hour, maybe two. Coffee. Water. Orange Juice (fuck yes). Cereal. All within arms reach. I light some candles because fire is my friend. Then the golden morning light says hello. I mean, it’s really great.
This is your world. Mold it into whatever form you need to focus. I would say keep terms like “calm” in mind, but it may take some experimenting. Do you.
If you’ve made it this far, I apologize, but hopefully you’ve gleaned a few tasty kernels of usefulness.
Ultimately, things should be kept fluid. Any tool is potentially useful at any time. Your mind is like the ball in a pinball machine. Bouncing off the walls. Things lighting up. Making sounds. Pretty colors. Oh my. The purpose behind the rigor involved in these methods is so that when an idea comes up… bam! You instantly know where to drop it. You aren’t wasting time dropping it onto a forty-six-page bulleted list only to never be able to find it the next time you need it.
Basically, if there’s a lot of bamming happening, things are going well.