Last week I attended a special creative writing class at Northwestern University to gain incites from great writers. I was the writer with the least amount of skill in the room and battled with my emotions. I could sense that by the end of the day, I’d either take advantage of the talent surrounding me to improve my skills or I’d feel bad about my ignorance and give up the craft.
What fascinated me about the class was the incredible word craftsmanship revealed as each writer read his in-class work. It was amazing. However, there was one oddity that surfaced as I read my lackluster work: It was a story, not a series of polished words with no direction.
My poor ability to wordsmith was obvious, but it was odd that I was the only one with a complete story. This was partially due to the time limit of ten minutes given to the writers, but I wondered if it was more due to focus. The writers were into words and their sounds, while I was into telling stories that evoke a response.
To help the class, the instructor had us write a one-sentence story. It was a difficult challenge, but we all dove in. When it came time to read our work, it was once again clear that everyone used eloquent and polished words, except for me. The only redeeming quality attributed to me was my story – No one else had a complete story. I happened to write a comedic story, which caused everyone to burst out laughing – Yes, it was only one sentence long.
I concluded that most screenwriters start with their cool ideas or dive into the scenes they can easily visualize, rather than thinking through story structure, themes, and the character development that drives a story. In fact, I think it plays out for most screenwriters like this:
An idea pops into the head of an independent screenwriter and he’s off to the keyboard, typing at a breakneck pace. He pulls the paper from the printer and shoves it into his most supportive readers’ hands. They chug through the 120-page script over a few weeks and finally give feedback about the handful of scenes they loved and the story they didn’t understand.
The screenwriter takes another stab at the story and soon finds he added three more scenes that play well, but again, the story is incoherent. Returning to the keyboard again, he pumps out another 120-pages of a very different version of the story. He finds fewer readers available that are willing to give up 3-4 hours of time, but those who work through it find nine loveable scenes, yet still no story.
After another six months of pleading, looking up old friends and finding new ones to read his work, he sets the unfinished script on the shelf to dive into an entirely new concept that popped into his mind during coffee with an acquaintance. This idea is larger than life and is sure to be a box office success, so he hits the keyboard and starts the process all over again.
No matter how creative the person is, until he puts the story into a structure that makes sense, he will only have a handful of cool scenes. To help screenwriters focus on creating a functional story, I’ve listed the five steps to take an idea to a script:
STEP 1: LOGLINE. Every story worth telling can be reduced to 1 or 2 sentences. This step is incredibly important as you can test your story idea with lots of people in a short time frame without much effort on their part. If they don’t like the story, you’ve lost little time at the keyboard. And, when you’ve got an idea that peaks most people’s interest, you have a story blueprint that will help keep your story focused through all writing stages.
STEP 2: STEP OUTLINE. A stack of index cards can be used to capture one sentence for each scene in the film. Once the brainstorming of scenes are complete, they can be easily moved around the wall to help determine which scenes will be used for the inciting incident, various turning points and the climax. Cards can be quickly added, changed and tossed into the recycle bin.
STEP 3: PITCH. Testing the Step Outline with a handful of people only takes 10 minutes. By reducing the sentences to a couple pages, the screenwriter can glance at it as he shares his story with others. This is a critical step in learning what ideas or scenes captured the person’s attention or bored them.
STEP 4: TREATMENT. This step explodes out each sentence from the step outline into a full paragraph or two. It captures what the characters talk about without using dialog, as it creates the subtext of the scenes. And, to better clarify things for the first draft, the long form treatment will include the character’s thoughts and feelings.
STEP 5: FIRST DRAFT. This tool is in place to transfer the story from the literary world into the visual world. It typically has minimal dialog, descriptive action, and clear subtext. It is also the first time to determine what parts of the story work and flow with the juxtaposition of scenes and pacing.
Screenwriters understand that 90% of what they write during these steps will survive in the final screenplay, but they know that they need the process to create great story. Anyone can write a story, but few will persevere for a great story.
© 2012 By CJ Powers
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