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Overview of my process (2007)

Page history last edited by Steve 5 years, 9 months ago





My process is strongly character-based. It builds up characters who are true to themselves, and who make internally consistent decisions. The plot comes out of those decisions (rather than having characters make decisions because that’d be a cool direction for the plot to go in). I also reckon that what makes characters understandable and entertaining is consistent dialogue and attitude within a scene and consistent motivations across scenes.


I need a mechanical process to help me keep track of all that stuff. However, whenever the direction of the story seems clear to me, whenever I'm inspired, I can ignore the process and just write.



There's a strong focus on developing characters and the setting in order to create an interesting situation. Basically, I want an interesting world before anything else happens. The structure - possibly a traditional 3-act structure - will (I assume) naturally get imposed on the story over time.


I want to spend about 1 to 3 months ‘noodling’ around with the idea, testing it out and seeing if it inspires me. Then I want to outline thoroughly before I write. Maybe not four years of outlining (like with The Limit), but I do believe analysing the script pays off.


I believe a well-worked out outline is going to create speedy fun writing for me. That’s the goal for next time. And what follows is the stripped down, mechanical version of the writing process I want to try, to achieve that ...



What's it about:


Establish as clearly as possible, in my own head, what the show / story is 'about'. Write it down. Review this once a week and at the end of each draft of each stage of the process.



Setting up your paperwork:


Take an A4 page and number it as page '[1]'.


Divide the page into three columns. Use the right-hand two columns for brainstorming and notes. Use the left-hand column for 'clean copy': final decisions about dialogue, motivations and scene structure.


Set up a folder to store your notes on this draft. Set up another folder for storing notes about the next draft.



Capture interesting ideas:


Use a separate sheet of paper to capture interesting ideas on each of the following areas as you write:

  • moments you want to see between the characters
  • realisations about what the show is about / how the script work. Add these to a 'Writers' Bible' document


Intro characters:


If I'm lacking a clear idea of who's in this story, I can start with the Hook or ‘What if’, and then invent characters who could be involved.


Establish the characters' emotional starting point in great detail.

-- What do they do?

-- What are their lives like?

-- Is anything in their lives going to change on its own?……

-- What do these characters want out of life?

-- What do they think will happen if they fail?

-- Why do they need to act?


Call these the emotional stakes. Make sure we know and care about them. They'll help me clearly introduce the situation.


Alternatively, establish the over-ridingly important questions I need to answer in the first stages of the script.


Be prepared to change this stuff in subsequent drafts.


Draw a relationship map of how these characters interact with each other AT THE START.



-- Which relationships are the most interesting? [Optional: get other opinions]


-- What's the status of the relationships that will apply to this A-plot?


Brainstorm 20 (B20) ideas for each character’s initial actions.

-- What's a normal day like for them?

-- If they have to act, what do they do?


Choose the most interesting. [Define 'interesting']

Create the new situation based on that choice.

Write a synopsis of it on a Word doc. Keep track of what each character ‘wants’ in each scene.



Write down on a separate page for each character, what I’ve discovered about them in making that choice.


The Kicker:


If nothing in their lives is going to change on its own, then a Plot Event occurs. Another word for ‘plot event’ is a Kicker, a situation that cannot be ignored. Present the characters with a Kicker


If my gut doesn't tell me what the Kicker should be, B20 it.


I should try and make sure the Kicker is:

-- of high-quality

-- true to my characters

-- original - within the genre I'm working in and within the show / film I'm writing

-- developing character, plot and/or the series arc

-- progressing what has gone before. NB: don’t have 2 Act Breaks that are basically the same thing. Always develop. Always raise the stakes.


Intro any new characters that that situation demands.



Brainstorm 20 (B20) ideas for how each character reacts to the new situation.

Choose the most interesting.

Create the new situation based on that choice.

Write a synopsis of it on a Word doc. Keep track of what each character ‘wants’ in each scene.



Write down on a separate page for each character, what I’ve discovered about them in making that choice.



The Mid-Game:


Follow the characters like this for a while, see what happens. If they become pro-active, fine. If they stay reactive, introduce another Plot Event. This de-emphasises the textbook Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 structure.  In the past, I’ve thought up the Turning Points first, but I figure the story and the climax should 'look like' they flow naturally out of the characters anyway, so why not make them the starting point of my process?


Repeat the B20, writing process, brainstorming conflicts, beats and lines of dialogue until I'm happy. Come up with at least 20 ideas, and then add 10 more until I'm satisfied. Don't settle. Try and make each sequence as good as I can without pressuring myself to get it right first time out. In fact, each pass can be crappy and unformed - but the idea is to build the sequence into something I'm happy to sign off on.


I've been keep track of what each character ‘wants’ in each scene, and what I've learned about them from each B20. Soon I’ll have ‘character sheets’ filled with traits that allow me to make decisions that are consistent with their characterisation.


If I come up with awesome new ideas or alternative (inconsistent) characterisations, write them down on a page that says Act 1,2,3 (or on ‘Alternative Character Sheets’). But keep going with my current story – to see what I learn.


Why? Well, the idea is that I won’t know if these new ideas are the 'right' ones – all I’ll know is that they’re better – but I could come up with more if I keep going. So rather than keep getting distracted by - let's face it - an inexhaustible supply of new possibilities, I'll work through the entire story and then be able to make a decision based on overviewing the whole thing.




The Heart of the Story

Figure out what your movie is, and then have moments that reflect that. This is just a 'kick-in-the-pants' technique to keep the vibe of your movie focused and on-track. Make sure that at least every 10 pages there are moments reflect your genre and unique moments that could only appear in your movie.


Try to detect the unique character of this film.

Know my genre (if I'm writing in one) and make sure I play genre beats often enough to keep it in that genre. Start doing this as soon as I’m sure of the genre (if any).



The Finale:


Wrap up the A-plot. Did people succeed or fail? How do they feel? Are the emotions you’ve created from the A-plot consistent with how you want people to feel after watching an episode of your show / the film?






When editing, I have to keep my need to ID problems separate from my need to solve them. Often, I've found myself doing them at the same time.


Editing is a process of looking at the story as a ‘whole’, and identifying areas to improve, and then leaving those improvements until I’m in the middle of outlining it again.  


[How's this sit with 'solving the biggest problems'?] Sometimes, there'll be problems that need to be solved at the widest possible level, problems that affect the whole script. Choose the most fundamental of these, and solve them first.


It could be more efficient to do a 'problem-solving pass', and then write a new outline based on those solutions. Not sure.


Read the outline aloud.

Record an mp3 of it.

Take notes.


Review my folder of alternative plot ideas and characterisations. Does anything seem 'truer' to the story than what I've currently got?


If that doesn't lead to huge changes in the story, then I've probably generated a lot of ideas for extra scenes. Now’s the time to provisionally put them where I think they should go.


My method is go through the previous outline scene by scene, brainstorming, critiquing - basically overhauling whatever needs it without committing to anything. Then I transcribe those notes (in a very loose order) into the PC.  


NB: Prepare to drop scenes, combine them or realise they’re repetitive at any time.

NB: Acknowledge if a scene doesn’t fit, leads the A-plot astray or says something untrue about your characters.


Ask “What's this story about?” It's what your story is about at an emotional level, about what's grabbing the audience and making them want to watch more. It's what you say when someone asks you what 'last night's episode' was about. It's the main story. The Limit, in this case, is about 2 dads vying for the love of their son.  What's your story about?' is not what it's about at a premise level - where, for example The Limit is about Vigilantism vs. The Law, which is more effective & how using each method changes you.


I need to know this so that when I'm reading the script I can tell whether each scene is adding to the story that I want to see unfold.


[Possibly] – I should start pitching, to myself, at this point. I’m nervous about that on the grounds that it might lock me down to something too soon.




Subsequent Drafts:


Go back to the start and start with the most interesting situation I've now devised. Rebuild.


Repeat till I’m confident. 'Confident’ means I’m not coming up with ‘better’ ideas each pass through. Once I’m tending towards just refining the idea, that’s when I should go to the pitch.


NB: (I guess I want to do the following in the second pass onwards. Maybe the third. I’m nervous about making this too mechanical too early).


First, ask myself what is the question I want the scene to raise in the audience's mind. Hopefully that question follows logically from what they just seen (I've just written). This question is what I interpret others mean when they ask "What are the stakes?"


Then ask myself "What's the conflict?" I suspect this works best when the conflict centres around two different answers to the question. That way, the answer to the question is uncertain and keeps you in suspense.


Finally, "What is the emotion I want to produce?"




I want to train myself to write dramatic scenes by keeping track of the Stakes (the question we want the scene to answer) and Conflict (the people who represent the opposing answers) in a scene.


What I’ve realised is that I need to have a living stakes & conflict document right from Draft 1. It travels along and develops with the script as it goes through each new draft, constantly getting adjusted and updated – and eventually handed off to the director (hopefully me).


The reason is so that I can tell exactly what each scene is about and whether it’s contributing to what the movie is about.


With Possessions (hopefully my next script, based on Sean’s story), when I start work on a rough outline I should be keeping track of the characters’ wants, making sure they are consistent from scene to scene (which’ll be vital). As the story solidifies, I can make sure I’m driving towards conflict all the time, and build up the stakes.



The Pitch:


As soon as I’ve figured out the story from start to finish and I'm confident about it, tell it to another person. Or five.


The pitch needs to be the first or second step in the process, and the last.


The pitch is going to give you information like:


-- Are people interested in the general idea?

-- Is the idea playing yet?


It will probably give you lots of suggestions that you can then apply to another round of outlining. Therefore, it’s not a final stage, by any means.


Go back and outline again, if necessary.


Go through, lock things down, get the language right ... make sure the emotional flow of the script feels 'right'.

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