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Screenwriters: what's your process?

By process I mean what you do from inception of idea to finished screenplay. Also an insight on what format of script you write (feature, TV, theatre) and the genre you prefer.

Genuinely interested as I'm still at a stage where I'm finding my own way and once I have an idea it's difficult to adapt it into a structured story.

Side note, what inspirational films do you watch the most in relation to great screenwriting?

Thank you and I really appreciate your time and knowledge.

  • Interesting question. The starting point for an idea can vary. You could pick up a newspaper and find at least three stories. started by seeing a picture. Then we googled to find out more. My writing buddy Ralph is an expert in WWII militaria so he made a start with the skeleton and I read loads of books then visited people and places until we had all available facts. I shunted scenes around until they flowed then wrote WITH MY GUT. Visualising scenes by using dramatic improvisation and ending/starting scenes as though editing. That's my bit! It helps if you've studied drama and understand film editing is my basic advice.

    2 years ago
    • Thank you Franz, that's a great way of doing it and some good, useful advice.

      2 years ago
  • I tend to start with characters. Almost never plot. Plot, in my view, should grow out of character. I don't do step outlines or even a synopsis. I write a page a day, even if I want to write more than that. I stop at a page (though that's a fresh page. I will re-write previous days work if I need to). This give my brain time to work toward the next day's bit, and it has worked well for me.

    If the finished script has issues, then I'll do index cards and lay them all out on a table. It makes it easier to see structural issues that way.

    On successive drafts, I always keep working the dialogue to make sure each character has their own way of speaking, and making sure I've hidden exposition to make sure it's seamless. I cut out anything that I don't need, and try to make sure each scene has a beginning, middle, and end.

    That's my process. It works for me, and took me about 10 years of writing to hone it. Sometimes a script deserves re-writes. Sometimes it deserves to be put on the shelf for a few years... or forever.

    2 years ago
    • Thank you Dan, that's extremely interesting that you begin with character and only write one page a day! You sound like an experienced writer! Thank you for sharing. I'd love to know how do you find and develop characters?

      2 years ago
    • @Rhys Holland I'm not sure how I "find" my characters. I'm working on a novel now that came about because a Japanese friend of mine and I were talking about the Samurai. She is a descendent of a Samurai clan. I started wondering what it would be like for a Japanese woman in Los Angeles to be an expert with a Samurai sword, and I just started with that. I wrote a script that was optioned (back when option money was real) about a professional pickpocket, because I was dating one at the time (long story!). Those are the broad strokes. What I find enjoyable is getting into the personalities. What kind of people are these? Are they shy until they get to know you? How would that affect a scene? Our personalities color our interactions, which leads us to certain choices. Those choices make up a collection of scenes that eventually become a script. I think, in the end, my stories are influenced by the people I hang out with. Most of those are film people because of my job, but I'm also not judgmental about people's background. A friend of mine spent 22 years in prison for robbing a armored truck. He's one of the most decent people I know, but if I'd judged him based on his background, I wouldn't have gotten to know him. He's good fodder for a character, don't you think? If you only hang out with bankers, that's going to color the type of story and character you can write about in any in-depth way. When I was in my 20s, one of the writing exercises was to interview a stranger. Everyone in the class came back with amazing stories of real people. I started up a conversation with a lady on a bus bench that was schizophrenic. The detail she went into about her voices was frightening. The great thing about interviewing a stranger, is that a stranger will tell you details about their lives that they wouldn't tell their closest friend. It was an eye-opening exercise.

      I tend to write in a lot of detail about character in the first draft. Sometimes I take a lot of it out, because it's a screenplay and not a novel. But I still get feedback from readers that the read was really enjoyable because of that detail. Most importantly, that detail feeds the story. As a simple example using physicality, let's say you've written a character that has a habit of always popping his knuckles. At some point in the story, he's hiding in the closet from the bad guy. He's scared, so he subconsciously pops his knuckles, which the bad guy hears. His habit has given him away. That's just a VERY simple example, but this conflict has still come out of character.

      The type of films I hate the most is when a character does something out of character to serve the plot. If you want him to do that thing for the plot, you'd better set that up in his personality. But for me, character always pushes plot. Plot must come out of character. I really don't know my story until a start writing. The characters guide where the story goes. Think of "Dog Day Afternoon." The reason our anti-hero is robbing a bank is to get his boyfriend a sex change operation. He's made this terrible choice based on his life--his personality.

      If you're writing a fish out of water story, you'd better set up a character that knows nothing of the world he's about to enter with a personality that would never enter that world in the first place.

      In the end, I just know a lot of different people from different parts of society, and never have a problem finding a story out of those friendships. But have I ever had a script produced? No. A couple optioned, and a couple more where funding fell through when I thought we were so close! But that's the rub; I didn't write anything that Hollywood really wanted. Nowadays, that's an action film or comedy. I'm not good at those. But neither should a writer try to write something that Hollywood wants. You should write what you want, then hope it meets the expectations Hollywood wants. These things are cyclical, after all. Hopefully your genre will come around again. But if you're good at action, holy crap, write an action picture (just make the characters real). Think of the Bourne Identity; we get to know Bourne along with him because of his condition. We get to discover his character as he discovers it, all within context of an action film.

      I'm sure you know some people where you could combine their personalities into a single character. Might be a good place to start. (Damn, that was a long diatribe.)

      2 years ago
    • @Dan Selakovich a long but fantastic response, thank you. Your knowledge on character development is fantastic and I'm genuinely surprised no one has snatched you up as a screenwriter yet!
      Your friend who served 22 years sounds like a very interesting person who'd make a great leading character.
      How many years have you been writing Dan? Do you have any advice as a newbie to writing features?
      Thank you.

      2 years ago
    • @Rhys Holland I wrote my first script in 1978. It got me nominated to the Sundance Institute (in those early days, someone had to nominate you to be considered to attend). What was really cool, is that I got a meeting with the institute, and talked to the guy for a couple of hours about my script. In the end, I wasn't chosen to go because my script was too commercial. HA! But he was beautifully encouraging to a young screenwriter. I think he may have destroyed me for life, though. ;) When I read that script now, I can't believe how bad it is. Well, the plot is OK, but dialogue sucked. I worked on making my dialogue better for years because of that first script. Studio readers of my optioned scripts always gave me high marks on dialogue, so I guess I succeeded. I also tend to write about women characters, and that certainly doesn't help get scripts produced.

      I wish I could tell you that I've been writing all of those years, but my real job is working uncredited, trying to make bad films better. Not writing, but re-editing a "finished" film. I also direct new scenes and re-edit the picture to make a film watchable. But the industry has changed a lot, and the money just isn't there, so I've gotten back into writing. But this time, I'm trying my hand at a novel. I'll probably turn those optioned scripts into novels too. Seems that is the only way to get something produced now: have a solid selling novel that gets optioned by a producer! Well, at least they won't have to hire a screenwriter to adapt it.

      The best bit of advice I have is to write everyday. And a page a day isn't hard. At the end of the year, you'll have 3 scripts. You need 3 solid scripts, preferably in 3 different genres. That way, if you do ever get that meeting and they say, "no. What else do you have?" you'll have something else.

      There was a WGA study of working screenwriters some years ago. The average number a scripts a writer wrote before a sale was 9. Many young screenwriters--almost all of them--think they are going to take their first screenplay and sell it for a million dollars because they've heard a story or two where that happened. It doesn't happen. Just keep writing. Even agents would be shy about signing someone with only one script. They want to make sure that this is a career for you, not a one hit wonder.

      Also, if you find yourself in the position of a sale, don't be a dick. Swallow any ego about your work. On one of my optioned scripts, I was attached as director. I wouldn't let that go. If I had, I'd probably have a produced screenplay. Don't be like me. A produced screenwriter gets a career. Make any compromises that you have to, and get that script produced. I know this a bad thing to say on an indie film forum, but you have to learn to take bad notes and do something good with them. You can't really ignore notes on a first job by people with the money. Having said that, be careful of how much work you do for free if you find yourself working for a producer. Put a limit on re-writes. Here's what will happen: you'll keep reworking your script for a year, then the producer will say, "I just don't like it, anymore. I don't have the passion for it like I used to." And it was their fucking notes! This has happened to me and many of my writing friends as well. And we all did this for top producers or directors, not some schmuck wanna-be. It sucks.

      I'd also write some really good shorts and find a talented director--there are quite a few here on SP-- and hand the things over for free. Seeing how your work is interpreted by others in invaluable. Plus, seeing actors bring your characters to life is quite a rush.

      And while this advice is something I give for directors, I think it good for writers as well: take an acting class. It's nothing but character work, and that can help your writing. It doesn't matter if you suck at acting. You just need to be able to expand the way you think about character.

      I wish you luck. It's harder now than when I started. There weren't all of these writing gurus and books on structure. Now anybody that knows the alphabet considers themselves a writer. Because of the glut of screenplays, producers won't bother reading unless it comes through a trusted connection. That's sort of always been true, but nowadays it's unbelievably true. It's a sea of crap scripts, so I don't blame them.

      Lastly, I can't tell you the number of new writers I've met that have never read a screenplay. That dumbfounds me. Read at least 30 screenplays from movies you like, or that most people consider excellent. 50 scripts would be even better. That's your goal before you write a word. In my day, that meant going to the Academy Library every single day for a month. They knew me well there! But now, you can find those scripts on-line, so there's no excuse! After you've finished those 30, 50 or 100, read one script from a friend or classmate. It will be staggeringly bad in comparison. Reach for the top writers in the industry, not the top writer in your screenwriting class.

      I guess that's it for now. That last bit is important. READ!!

      2 years ago
    • @Dan Selakovich this is genuinely awesome advice! You are well informed and give great advice clearly from experience. I'm glad you are writing a novel and I hope that if you get published there is an opportunity for you to revisit your scripts either to turn them to novels or to gain considerable reputation and get them produced. I really wish you the best of luck.

      Personally, I'm going to read as many screenplays as I can get my hands on and study as many films to finally get my head around The Hero's Journey and how to implement it in a interesting character!

      Finally what you said about writing at least 3 scripts is a great point. I was guilty of thinking when I first started film school I could be the next Christopher Nolan and produce a screenplay and my career would kick off from there.

      Thank you for your time and advice Dan, it truly means a lot for someone taking their first steps into the unfamiliar jungle of the Film Industry.

      2 years ago
    • @Rhys Holland Sure, glad to be of help. Just a warning: be careful of labeling things. It will get you into trouble. What was "The Hero's Journey" in Nolan's Memento? To me, he was a desperate guy trying to get out of a desperate situation. Heroes are people that head into trouble to save... whoever. The soldier that throws himself on a grenade to save his brothers is a hero. Batman, who has no super power, fighting evil, is a hero. When I started writing, the only hero were the mythical ones that Joseph Campbell wrote about. If you go into a script thinking "The Hero's Journey," then you'll write about a hero instead of a person.

      If you get that guru techno babble into your head, it will be hard to get rid of, and fuck you good and solid. I see it so much, and young writers always get into trouble because of it. You're not writing the hero's journey. You're writing about a person. Yes, the guy down the street that survived a Nazi concentration camp is a hero, but if you go at it from that angle, you'll be screwed.

      Yes, you might need an "inciting incident", but damn, does it have to be on page 12? Maybe it comes on page 2. Or before the movie even begins. Structure is important, absolutely. But it has to be structure within the world you are writing. Ignore the hard and fast rules of the guru. You'll write yourself into a corner, and there will be no getting out. I shit you not. Here's a rule for you: what happens next is more important than what's happening now. That's everything. That's the rule. Audience anticipation is the only thing that matters. That. Is. Everything. Write about people. Not Batman. Don't write about cool looking things that are emotionally empty (Inception). Here is another rule: beware the screenwriting teacher that teaches the gurus. In film, there is no such thing as a 3 act structure (until Syd Field said there was, and he never sold one script). Your first plot point can be at page 20 or page 40. As long as your audience is at least curious about what happens next, you're good to go. Make your characters interesting with conflict, and your scenes with a beginning, middle and end, and you'll be golden.

      That all said: if you're writing a super hero movie or a horror script, stick to the genre's structure. Studios are sticklers for that.

      In short: structure is good. Structure that forces characters into a specific map is often terrible. Ignore the guru.

      2 years ago
  • Wow, some brilliant advice from Dan. He's pretty much on the nose - Write every day - Read screenplays - understand character through real people and acting - Live life and draw from it - and this process can take years and years and years. Writing is like a muscle, exercise it each day and it gets stronger. I don't think he mentioned reading novels, but good books are brilliant for ways of understand story and character.

    My process is that - I start with either an idea, a character, a landscape (place), or a question I want to explore. I've got a pretty succinct way of working now. I do a longline, if you're working on a commision this is essential so you know you're all on the same page, but it also should contain the essential kernel of your story. I find this really helpful. I then do a beat sheet. It's a really simply document normally around a page long. It has all the essential movements in the story embedded in it. I can move these around easily by just giving them a quick glance over. I then write, and I try and write quick. I work and have a family so I have to get up early or stay up late, but I write quick because there's a honeymoon period on any idea, a time when you are in love with it, and I like working with this. Sometimes I have to go back over a script for a couple of years (I have one in particular) But most I can get written and re-drafted within three weeks, sometimes less. I am at 90 pages, and I write in three acts. I take a little breather after each act (30) pages is done, and review.

    The easiest way (I find) to write, is when my character's speak. When I understand exactly the words they would use, and how they would react. For me, finding the voice of the character is essential, every person you meet has a different way of speaking and using the same bucket of words we all share. When I've got the voice, it's like transcribing rather than forcing the characters. I came (originally) from an acting background, so that's why I fully support Dan's advice on taking acting classes. Get inside the shoes of your character and your dialogue and story will flow.

    Like Dan, I also work in different mediums, so a theatre play that I've written I will often transcribe into a short story, or a film script or a novel. I've got one story currently selected for Twisted 50, that I initially did as a short story (which got selected) then did as a play (which got selected for a festival, and then got selected for development) and is also a screen play (still waiting for selection on that one!) Using other mediums is a great way to pull your story about and understand your story, character and voice. So you may find starting off with a prose monologue helps you get inside your character.

    The next thing is - Good Luck. This is an essential ingredient. Sometimes it may come without hard work, but I get the feeling that most times the hard work comes before the luck.

    2 years ago
  • In writing competitions, I get better results when the competition asks for an anonymous copy. Once I was invited to discuss my play and they were very surprised and, (I think), slightly embarrassed that I was a female and a foreigner! They thought I was a 40 year old English man!!

    2 years ago
  • I'm so glad others are finally chiming in! Each writer has their own way of getting to that last page, and all are valid. Step outlines don't work for me, but they might work really well for you.

    Shirley, when I edit I do a kind of "beat sheet" as well. Though I call it "sequences." When I get the script for a film I'll be editing, I break it down into sequences. A sequence may be a single scene, or a collection of scenes. These sequences are almost their own little movie within the context of the whole. I tend not to start editing until I have all of the scenes of a sequence (but that's not always possible!). I've noticed that most screenplays have between 30 and 50 sequences.

    It works well, I think. A scene that doesn't belong in a sequence sticks out like a sore thumb. Or a scene that goes on too long gives the sequence an emotion hiccup.

    I learned this from an old Hollywood editor that worked in the old studio system. It's weird that I've never applied this to writing. Thanks for giving my brain a push, Shirley!

    2 years ago
  • Describing myself as an actor/writer I was somewhat humbled to read Shirley Day's contribution. Now that's what I call a writer! And disciplined. Good god, when I recall how I will (usually unconsciously) concentrate on what I find easiest - which is usually what I've been praised for - and that is dialogue and (too late) realise that I've focussed on that at the expense of character and narrative. Which are arguably more important. What she and Dan appear to find easier than I do, is to create a 'logline', 'beatsheet' list of 'sequences' etc which obviously gives shape and some discipline to your work. How do you do that? Don't answer, I know. You work at it.
    And Shirley is certainly more productive than me. Hope it's a living Shirley but anyway carry on.

    2 years ago
  • Lovely words Allan. I'm not sure it's a living so much as a passion that kind of works. Sadly, the teaching and script editing pays more than the actual writing. Hopefully one day it will switch over.

    Dan's sequence approach sounds good in that all scenes have to fit into sequences. I know there is a sequence method which I think is called the "mini movie Method." I don't tend to use this, but I know some people love it, and it's got an interesting history in the origins of cinema where a film was made up of eight cinema reels which had to be changed. So each reel has a kind of complete movement. My method sort of came from my literature studies on narrative discourse with Seymour Chatman's Theory of Kernels and Satellites. Kernels are the essential bits, like stepping stones, move one of these and you get a different story. Satellites are all the information surrounding (supporting) each Kernel. It's interesting that Dan has also brought elements from another discipline (film editing) to inform his method of working. So perhaps each writer draws on skills they have learnt in the past to support and devise their own writing method. Which kind of brings us back to the beginning of it being essential for most writers to be engaged with life - ivory towers aren't the best place for most writers to exist.

    2 years ago
    • Sing it, sister! Ivory towers, indeed. Life experience is everything.

      What Allan said about Shirley being a real writer is something you need to grab onto, Rhys. By writing every single day, you'll get there. You won't know what you know until you write that script and let others tear it to shreds, and grow from that. Eventually, you'll internalize structure and writing will become easier... well, less painful at least! I know I've written something decent when I miss the characters I've created. I mean I really miss them as people. My other way to know that I've written something successful, is that everyone hates something different in the script. If all of the readers hate the same thing, I'm in deep trouble. So, yeah, once you finish a script, you'll be so far ahead. Even if you don't plan on becoming a professional writer, writing is an essential component for directing and editing.

      2 years ago
  • Whilst I'm awaiting a flood of investors for I've just made a start on a fresh story. Anyone remember Quatermass and the Pit? I've got a fresh twist on that and am writing 2/3 scenes per day straight off then need to pause and think. Still undecided about what is found in mine though...

    2 years ago
  • Hello everyone, I apologise for the late reply, I was on Holiday in Scotland near the highlands so very little signal but lots of time for reading!
    I have just read this message feed and 'Wow', this information and advice is priceless!
    I spend a lot of my time trying to find a structure like the monomyth that will fit all stories. Almost like it's a be a writer quick scheme. This has helped me realise the importance of just sitting down with an idea, nurturing it and developing it by hitting the grindstone and writing continuously until it's a fully finished story.

    Thank you everyone! A special mention to Dan Selakovich and Shirley Day for spilling your process honestly and in such detail. A treat for myself and anyone following this feed!

    2 years ago
  • Check out my review of James Moran's Writing In Genre workshop he hosted at Frightfest about his process

    2 years ago
  • There are numerous free webinars you can watch. Among the best are The Writers Store in LA. I can recommend them - I got a sale after being selected for one of their development programs. Generally, US "gurus" tend to be far more robust than Brits. You can also check out Robert McKee, and Aaron Sorkin has a new masterclass (not free but well worth the money).

    2 years ago
  • I write rubbish until it gets better. Then I sit on it for a bit, then I go back and cut, cut, cut. Re-write, throw it in the bin, start again. Less dialogue is more for me, though I'm terrible at taking my own advice and still write in too many words. There's never a stage at which a line of dialogue can't be lost. My characters tend to write their dialogue for me, but I have to rein them in! Learning to write through the pain of not having any good ideas at all is the key thing - you'll dig out the good stuf eventually. EVERYONE is different and their process will be different. There are no rules, really. The most important thing is to just keep writing :D

    2 years ago
    • "Learning to write through the pain of not having any good ideas at all is the key thing"

      Spot on Vanessa... Ain't that the hard truth of it all... Or even the fear you may never have an idea again - that's a killer when it strikes you sat at the keyboard...

      2 years ago
    • @Stuart Wright I've never had writer's block for one simple reason: I allow myself to write complete shit. I can always change it when my mojo comes back.

      2 years ago
  • Dan, just love the no-nonsense response. Far better than some of the waffly crap that gets posted.

    2 years ago
    • Hahahaha! I needed that chuckle today, Alan. Nice to see my reputation as the SP curmudgeon is still intact.

      2 years ago
  • The process I've come to find very workable simplifies the whole process for me and demystifies it - I used to go crazy overanalysing this stage but realised the whole point of drama is conflict, and making as many things as you can opposites you're gonna create the most conflict.

    I start with concept, a unique idea I don't feel anyone has done, then derive the themes the concept would explore, then from then from the character's goals I give them an internal need and obstacle which makes obtaining that goal difficult( on top of their external obstacles from the plot) and then the character comes to life and from that point it's as if i'm discovering his secrets and he deals with how he gets his goal.

    You've gotta remember characters are only alive whilst they're on the page and if they're not dying to achieve their goal and struggling to overcome their internal and external obstacles you're dead in the water, this problem must mean everything to them. Always give them something to do and always make every element of script revolve around your themes - If i would've realised this when I started I would've saved years of work that wasn't good enough.

    Good luck on your writing

    2 years ago