Nothing makes people more superstitious than talking about working methods. I had a student who told me she was fearful of “analysis blowing away the magic.” I can understand what she meant. It’s like asking where inspiration comes from – surely it’s something unique for everyone?
Ernest Hemingway had an interesting method for getting himself started in the morning. At the end of each working day, he’d grab all his pencils in his big fist and slam them down on the desk, breaking all the points. When he came in the next morning, he’d pull out a penknife and start to whittle them. When he’d sharpened four or five – six, if he had a hangover – he’d find himself reaching for one and beginning to write.
Grahame Greene’s credo was to get up from bed and go straight to his writing desk. He had to get going before the banality of everyday life interrupted his stream of consciousness.
Somerset Maugham, whose output was huge, told an amazed admirer that he only worked four hours a day. “Only four hours,” he admonished, “but never less.” Consistency is all – but each will have his own voodoo.
So where do you start with a screenplay? With a treatment, step outline, improv – or by just plunging in? I can’t tell you what will work for everyone, but I can tell you what works consistently for the writers I work with.
Some people start with a character, but no particular story. I advise them to write a scene that puts their character under stress. Hemingway defined courage as grace under pressure – what qualities does your character reveal when the going gets tough? How can you create a journey for them that brings out their inner qualities?
I advise you not to go too far with this exercise, though. Once you start writing dialogue, it’s all too easy to fall in love with your words – and find it hard to cut them, even when they have nothing do with your theme.
Others start with a story, or the beginnings of it – or maybe even just a world. They’ll need to work on finding characters who represent the key values of that world. The hero’s struggle to defend their values will be the main thrust of the plot. We often speak of values as things we believe in. However in dramatic terms, values are our priorities, what we do rather than what we say. The greater the struggle, the greater the change in the hero’s values is likely to be.
Do you have a positive or cynical attitude to life in general? Both, in dramatic terms, are justifiable. Contrary to popular belief, being upbeat does not guarantee commercial success. Polanski famously changed the ending of Robert Towne’s script for ‘Chinatown’, by allowing John Huston’s villain to get away at the end. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” his partner cynically observes. Polanski instinctively saw that what was more important than being upbeat, was being true to his world.
Most often, when you have trouble with an ending, it’s because you were never clear what the story was about at the outset. If you are, the ending will be obvious. Peter Fonda – producer, star and co-writer of ‘Easy Rider’ – imagined an image of two Harley-Davidsons blown into the air by rednecks . . . and knew it expressed everything he felt about America. He then went back and worked out the story – and raised the money for the movie on the back of that image.
Starting to write without a plan, is like starting to build an office block without a blueprint. The chances are, you’ll get to the third floor and realise you haven’t left room for the lifts, or the safety exits. You won’t understand why you put one department on the third floor, and another, which now seems so intimately related to it, on the ninth.
But if you’re clear about your theme, the relationship of the characters to each other becomes obvious. The story then flows in a way that is logical and consistent, without getting waylaid in detours and cul-de-sacs.
But let’s assume you’ve got the arc of your story roughly mapped out. Should you write a treatment? A treatment is a presentation document, something you may need to produce in order to get funding. It has to express the mood of the piece, the genre, and sense of style, and a giddy excitement that’s bound to secure a commission -without revealing too much about how it all turns out. If you write a treatment, keep it down to five or six pages. If you write more, you’re likely to get into a level of detail which only gives others an excuse for picking it apart.
But a treatment does little for the writer and the process of beginning the screenplay. For this, a step outline usually works best. A step outline teaches the discipline of storytelling in its purest form. It’s the skeleton of the story, with all its twists and turns. By the time you’ve finished it, you ought to be able to pitch it to your friends and keep them hooked. If you see their eyes glazing over, then you know you’ve still got some work.
A step outline is told in the present tense in proper sentences and maps out, beat by beat, the story of your film. Be sure to write in the language of action and reaction, eliminating everything that is not a step or move in the narrative. Separate out every scene by paragraph, as this keeps you away from the temptation of writing prose, which flows in unbroken narrative. Screenwriting – cinema itself – is all about the rhythm of the cuts, the juxtaposing of scenes and images, the changes and leaps in tempo. Separating out each scene also gives you a good indication of the ultimate length of your screenplay.
Do not write the inner thoughts or psychology of your characters (although you may have done this as part of your background research earlier). Do not interpret. Write only what they do, moment by moment. Make sure that each scene has its own dramatic arc, and catapults you into the next, like a line of dominos, one toppling into the other.
Do not, no matter how much you may be tempted, write any dialogue. This ensures your story is driven by the actions, not the words of the characters, and thus is truly cinematic. Billy Wilder rewrote the screenplays of his films until he’d eliminated every piece of dialogue that could possibly be replaced by action. Hitchcock wrote his screenplays, storyboarding every single shot. “When the film is completely finished in my mind, then I write the dialogue.”
Holding back on the dialogue, will ensure that when you go to the next step – writing the screenplay – you still have plenty of ‘juice’. Step outlines may be hard work – but they make writing the screenplay a piece of cake. With the structure in place, adding detail and color is like laying on the frosting. Dialogue – bright, sharp, full of juice – is the cherry on the cake.