December 20, 2017

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Mark's Writing Process

December 20, 2017

So you take the best part of a bottle of scotch and black out in front of the keyboard. When you wake up there will be a screenplay that just needs a polishing pass to remove all the irrelevant, politically incorrect ranting and correct the typos.

 

Of course I’m kidding, though I sometimes wistfully imagine being one of those old school guys who could get leathered while banging out a piece of work. I tend to write in fits and starts, requiring a bit of time to mull over scenes until I can visualise them them, but that comes later, because before even opening a Celtx document (screenwriting software), I’ll typically put in about a week of planning.

 

This next bit presupposes I already have a concept, and some characters in mind for a screenplay, so we’ll skip past that and on to the planning. The two main documents I generate during the planning week are a sequential outline and a board. I’ll also sometimes do a document that has one-two paragraph bios of the main characters, covering who they are, what their personality traits are and what their motivations are in respect to the story, but I’ll often skip that one. I don’t tend to bother with a beat sheet (a list of major plot points and story beats), relying instead on the outline and board to cover those.

 

I follow a fairly standard three act structure, and the sequential outline just breaks your story down into eight sections, two for Act 1, four for Act 2 and two for Act 3. For each of those sections, I write a paragraph or two on how the story plays out at a high level. I’ll highlight key beats in the outline, such as the Inciting Incident that sets the protagonist on their course, the All is Lost moment, etc.

 

By the way, I’m not going to go into explanations of what these beats are or what they mean, as there are plenty of good online articles and publications that cover this stuff. Once your sequential outline is complete, it can be edited and rewritten as a treatment or full synopsis, which is a must have document for when you’re trying to encourage investors or studios to part with their cash and make your script into a film.

 

The Board

 

Next up I’ll do a board, which I do on a spreadsheet of my own design. Traditionally a board would literally have been a corkboard on a wall, which the writer would pin handwritten index cards to, each one representing a scene in their film. The board is the skeleton of the screenplay: it consists of forty scene descriptions in a four by ten matrix. Each entry includes a location header, which beat or section of the structure the scene belongs to, and a short description of the scene with particular emphasis on where the conflict lies in the scene (because conflict is interesting and drives drama, and there should be conflict in every scene).

 

This board structure I use is mainly based on Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, a definitive book about screenwriting structure. As an aside, it’s also kind of a controversial one, because it became a template for doing things in Hollywood, and transitioned from being a useful tool, to dogma, which is the enemy of creativity. I have personal experience of this from when I wrote my first screenplay a few years ago and sent it to an LA based studio who were accepting submissions. Back then I just read a few screenplays and emulated what I thought was good. I had the monomyth down from game writing, and knew how to structure a document, but that was it. These studio guys got back to me and recommended I buy Save the Cat and use it if I ever wanted to sell scripts to Hollywood. I did that and dutifully knocked out my next couple of screenplays to that method.

 

Having now somewhat internalised Save the Cat, I’ve looked into other structures and beat lists, as it isn’t the only one out there, and cherry picked the bits that make most sense. So one doesn’t have to be a slave to a particular method, but it’s a good idea to learn structure as a matter of craftsmanship, before graduating to your own style. Apart from anything else, it’s good to know what producers want.

 

Once the board is complete, it’s then time to move on to the screenplay. There isn’t a lot to say about writing the story here, as the outline and the board have done the heavy lifting in that respect. As alluded to above, I do write in fits and starts, even with the board as a prompt. I need to get my head around the flow before committing words to the page. Some days I might write nothing, or a fraction of what I intended, other days I’ll get loads done. It averages out over time, and it usually takes four to six weeks to complete the first draft.

 

Rewriting is inevitable, but I find that because of the planning, and the agonising over scenes I usually don’t have to do that much redrafting. As a final note, a tip I’ve picked up from other screenwriters that now applies to my work is have lots of white space on your pages. Action descriptions should be no more than two or three lines and it helps to think of each block of action as a single camera shot.

 

Adios, and good luck with your writing.

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