It takes a while, but gets going eventually…
Work continues on first drafts. I write from the treatments I completed last month, ten pages of script per day until I’m done, before moving onto the next.
It didn’t come easily: I found that writing from these treatments wasn’t so easy without some preparation (or maybe better treatments; something to learn for my next scripts). This brought to mind a blog I read some time ago about how one particular writer raised her word count from 2000 words per day to more than 10000 per day.
I’ve linked to Rachel Aron’s blog before, but I hadn’t understood it fully until this most recent writing experience. She writes of how she needs three things in place before she writes: time, meaning the best time and place for her to write; knowledge, meaning knowing exactly what she was going to write; and enthusiasm, where her excitement about what she was going to write kept her going until her work was done.
This certainly worked for me: going over my treatments with a pen, noting which approaches to take in certain scenes, creating scenes within scenes also, enabled me to continue through to my daily page quota with the minimum of fuss and a lot of enjoyment.
That said, these are only the most undeveloped of first drafts: the action here is to get things down on paper; the real writing will come as I rewrite. But as I learn more about the technique of screenwriting, the process and results will become more fascinating than before.
Treatments, handwritten, typed, rewritten again and again…
This month I’ve been writing first drafts from the treatments of my projected screenplays for this year. I’ve referred to these before as the “junk drafts”, to be rewritten and discarded as soon as possible before the real work of rewriting can begin, but this is only half true.
Yes, screenplays only become readable, let alone good, after many rewrites, but the first draft isn’t junk. It’s a dry run, a first rehearsal and, if used properly, utterly essential. A first draft is written to be looked at critically, mercilessly; torn down, noted upon and remodelled until one is ready to go onto the next draft.
There is another aspect that appeals about a first draft: once written and printed, the screenplay is real. It exists. It’s a possible thing. I feel that this is quite a hurdle to get over for new screenwriters; the momentary sense of achievement at having concrete evidence of achievement in the screenwriting process, even if it is at the very early stages, cannot be dismissed.
With a well-worked through treatment, a writer can get through ten pages of script per day. I haven’t yet managed that, but with the treatments I have, writing the screenplays has been an enjoyably methodical process, with no moments of “where next?” when moving from scene to scene: it’s all down there in the treatment.
Recently though, there has been some debate at how to use a treatment or outline in screenwriting. Some advise on a very precise outline, rewritten until everything is exactly where it should be prior to writing a first draft; others favour a more loose arrangement, following the outline, but not slavishly, letting characters speak and the story evolve. The outline or treatment, in their eyes, is a guideline rather than an map.
I’m not sure where I stand on this, but so far, I have found having a treatment invaluable in getting the screenplay to a first draft. After getting it to that level though, the writing is still at a very early stage: much more rewriting is needed. The screenplay is going to evolve no matter how evolved the outline or treatment it’s based on.
That moment before the lights go down in the cinema… exciting again?
I haven’t yet seen The Hunger Games, but I’m really looking forward to doing so. Rather late in the day, I’m sure, I tore through the first book of Susanne Collins’ trilogy this weekend on my Kindle (can you “tear” through a Kindle? What about “flick” or “press”?) and I’m nearly halfway through the second, Catching Fire.
The film has had generally good reviews and good box office: I’m genuinely wondering how the film makers are going to make the story’s violent contents palatable to a young audience (one can read a lot harder than one can watch) but I have high hopes for what I’m going to see.
Why? Because I found reading The Hunger Games hugely exciting: the idea of a most dangerous game is an old one, but it has never been told this way, with elements of reality television, the Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring and social inequality drawn so deftly into the story’s fabric.
The idea of all these elements in such a readable form for young people is inspiring: the story is one to be read, discussed, investigated; it makes the reader aware - a terrific skill. It brought reading Dickens’ Oliver Twist to mind: the story of a poor child, told with a brilliant eye for the state of society’s most disadvantaged.
This made me think more about the power of stories: their ability to make readers, viewers or listeners not only feel entertained, but moved to think, learn and be more aware of what surrounds them. I felt that way watching Margin Call and reading JC Chandor’s screenplay sometime later: looking though a new window on the world.
How does this relates to my own writing? When I think of the projects I’m working on right now, I consider them to be potentially entertaining stories, but I wonder if they can be more, or if the next stories I write can be closer to what’s inspiring me right now. Treatments, drafts and redrafts will show, I’m sure.
Everything, pretty much, in its right place.
Due to it being my birthday last week, I didn’t blog. Well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. I continued to write new drafts of screenplay treatments. Rather like sculpture, every pass brings up more details as well as a more precise overall form
Filmutopia’s terrific Sunday Morning Film Blog highlighted the importance of precise details in a screenplay. Such thoughts dovetail with animator Hiyao Mizayaki’s remark about how he tries to tie all his screenplays to a particular place and time; to illustrate, he said that the reason American films were successful wasn’t that they were generic, but that they were very particular: one could always tell precisely where a successful American film was taking place.
As I redraft these treatments, these lessons are slowly sinking in: a doctor’s career becomes and interest in particular fields of medicine for particular reasons; a character’s flat takes on a new location and design because it reflects character and story, rather than because I’m a fan of that particular location or design. Every redraft gets closer and truer to the story. Every redraft gives the story a stronger form.
Why is so much time being spent on these treatments? I know where I’ve been before when writing: stuck in a particular area of the script, unsure of where to go, because I hadn’t worked it out in the first place. If a screenplay is a blueprint for a film, then a treatment is a road map for a screenplay: exploring every avenue and focusing the story for the first draft screenplay to come.
I certainly am exploring every avenue. These treatments depict a number of events that I dare say will never make it into the final story: I just need to examine them now, rather than waste time with them when I am writing screenplay drafts.
More precision is necessary: on with treatment drafting.
The road to clarity (with welcome illumination)
Treatment writing so far has been about building a core to a story. This has been done by looking at log-lines, synopses and outlines so far and rewriting them. This way I am aiming to get the fundamentals of character and story in order before making the next steps. With each step I get deeper into the story.
Before writing a first draft, one needs to know every possible inch of a story’s world and its characters. At the moment, I have outlines of these worlds. This is not enough, so with each rewrite, more notes are written on story and character ideas, nailing down the elements until they begin to take on a life of their own.
Previously, I felt that screenwriting guides that I’d read pushed for minimal description. Now, I realise my mistake: the minimalism comes from knowing the world of the screenplay so well that few words are needed to describe it perfectly.
One screenplay that shows this is Ali, by Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Eric Roth and Michael Mann. This is a pivotal scene (apologies for the cut and paste):
“INT. HOLIDAY INN ROOM + BALCONY - ALI
on the phone, on a long extension, joined by Lipsyte and Howard Bingham, while Bundini keeps at bay reporters at the front door. It all feels like a rock group in town for a concert.
(listens; to cam.)
Ask Chauncey Eskridge in Chicago.
He’s my lawyer. No. I’m out on
(goes onto balcony
Yeah, I fight. I fight clean. I’m
an athlete. Army’s there to kill,
kill, kill. My religion forbids
that. No. I never shot anything
in my life.
Do I know where Vietnam is?
(wry; playing to
Yeah. It’s on TV…
In southeast Asia? It there, too?
That’s a joke, man…!
Ali hangs up. The phone rings again.
What do I think about who? Vietcong?
Next is something Ali has not deduced. Ali perceives it intuitively and reflexively. As with other of his decisions, once made, he doesn’t hesitate to speak them. And he won’t waver. He says…
Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with
It goes dead silent. Ali listens. Lipsyte is stunned. So’s Howard.
No Vietcong ever called me nigger.
You know what you j-j-just said…?
He hangs up.
From Europe to China…every home
in America…the world’s gonna know
what the heavyweight champion of
the world said about the U.S. war…
I ain’t gonna be what anybody else
want me to be. I’m not afraid to
be what I want. And think how I want.
And that’s the real Ali, right there.”
It’s spare, yet on reading, one can imagine the room, the clothes, the expressions on screen. There’s hardly any adverbs, yet it’s all there, in the dialogue and actions. This incredibly vivid writing could only come from deep immersion in the story. So deeper I shall go.
And the next step is…
Now the three screenplays’ events have been outlined, I am moving onto writing treatments before attempting first drafts.
There is some debate over what a treatment actually is. Search online and you will find a plethora of responses and as many differing definitions; anything from 2-5 pages on story events, to 8-15 pages or more exhaustively detailing all the events in a screenplay. One definition I like is in Adrian Mead’s excellent book, Making it as a Screenwriter: “Everyone has an opinion about what the length and content should be… whoever is paying you to write has the only opinion that will count. Ask them what they want.”
In the absence of anyone paying, sticking to what nearly all the definitions share is the best option: it must be a great read, communicating the style and pace of the proposed feature film, television show or short film. If a comedy, it must be funny. If a horror story, it had better be scary.
This takes a lot of work: not only must the events be plausible and well-arranged, but the tone must be note perfect. One could write a first draft from a flawed treatment, losing plausibility, tone and precious time. Every step towards a delivered screenplay; the treatment, the pitch document, even the title; needs to be just right.
So, over the coming month, in addition to writing treatments, I’ll be rewriting titles and pitch documents, both for myself, in making sure they have the correct tone and that I’m writing what I want to write, and for any future reader, so that they will find what I have written worth reading. Definitely a lot of work.