I’m in a great writers group with a bunch of close friends. Everyone’s really talented and experienced at writing in one format or another, but someone who wanted to try writing his first feature was having a tough time getting started. That’s when the lightbulb went off: we’d been offering support, reading each other’s work, but when it came to the nuts and bolts of our craft, we weren’t really sharing our processes. So as an exercise, many of us wrote documents explaining the process for the type of writing we were most experienced at in order to share with the group. I’ve been a professional feature writer for over a decade now so I wrote a document about my feature writing process. I thought it might be interesting to share it here, and I recorded a podcast today in which I vowed to do exactly that, so here it is. It’s long, so I’m splitting the document into three posts. Here’s part one!
MY FEATURE WRITING PROCESS
My process is very concept driven. For me, a screenplay has to have an intriguing idea at its core. If I’m going to spend months or longer writing something, if I’m going to try and move heaven and Earth to get something made, it has to be an idea that captures the imagination. Most of my ideas tend to fall within a certain “box” that I’m known for: character-driven action with humor and heart. Sometimes I’ll lean in one direction or another, depending on what “target” I’m shooting for.
Recently I’ve been interested in near-future sci-fi, watching a lot of stuff in that genre, and imagining the kind of movie I could write in that space. Sometimes an idea will just appear; I was imagining what my kind of Sundance movie would look like and the idea for a screenplay I wrote last year came to me. I was in the shower, but still, that’s where my brain tends to wander and I do a lot of thinking. But when I’m not in the shower and I want to work on something new I tend to start with:
I have an exercise I do where I list five or six movie stars I like and then brainstorm an idea for each of them. I find this a very helpful exercise because different actors have different essences. So even if I’m brainstorming action-thrillers for example, Tom Cruise and Matt Damon are very different actors and can lead to very different ideas.
Once I have five or list good ones, I show the list to my writers group, my manager, and my wife and figure out which of the ideas resonate the most with people. Then I take a good hard look at the “winner” and ask myself, do I really like this idea? Is it worth putting a lot of time into? Am I intrigued enough to dedicate myself to this idea for a while? When I’m taking general meetings and an exec asks me what I’m working on, I’ll often pitch one or two loglines, just to see which ideas resonate with people.
Once I have the logline, I create a WORD file and that’s where I start brainstorming. Everything that comes to mind: characters, bits of dialogue, scene ideas, set pieces, story beats, whatever random stuff I have I put here. I’ll put all my questions into this file and start to think of answers. If there’s a mystery to be solved, I put all the pieces of the puzzle here. This is sprawling mess of a doc but I want to have everything somewhere, for when I start assembling these pieces into something tangible.
When it comes to structure, I use a modified version of Blake Snyder’s 15-point beat sheet that he wrote about in his book Save The Cat. Mine has only 10 beats or so, depending on what I’m feeling. It usually includes:
2) Catalyst (usually around page 12)
4) Break into Two (page 25)
5) Fun and Games
6) Midpoint (page 55)
7 All Is Lost (page 75)
8) Break into Three (Page 85)
10) Closing Image
Those page numbers are guideposts and not set in stone. But if you take out the funky names and just leave the page numbers, then I generally know what’s going to happen at (approximately) pages 12, 25, 55, 75, and 85, and the very end. This can evolve over time but what this does is take an intimidating amount of pages (usually around 110) and break ‘em into manageable sequences.
Then I’ll write a document with a sentence or paragraph for each of the above beats. It’s usually about 3 pages long and if I do my job, someone can read those 3 pages and get a good sense of the entire movie. Probably the best beat sheet I’ve ever written was for a “Die Hard at a high school prom” movie idea. In that one, I used all 15 points in the beat sheet, and in three pages, you totally get the whole movie. I actually pitched that one with a movie star attached and production companies couldn’t pass fast enough. But I still think the beat sheet is pretty great.
When it’s time to break the beat sheet into note cards, I use a corkboard that fits about 36 3X5 notecards, six rows across and six rows deep. I write down the main scenes in each beat from my beat sheet. I use a double-sided sharpie: the medium tip for the “what’s this scene about” line and the extra-fine tip for an extra 3 or 4 details below that. I try to write as little as possible on each card, I’m just trying to write the main beats of each scene. I do this so I can sit back and look at the corkboard and visually see the movie coming together. In Save the Cat, I think Blake had a system involving 40 notecards. I never do that many. I tend to break off a row at the end of an act, so each act takes up two rows on the board. Why do I do less than Blake? It has to do with allowing myself to improvise between the beats. I’ll explain more about this in a future post.
NEXT TIME: From treatment to scriptment to first draft!