Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why I love treatments

I've been cranking out pages lately. For one of my super secret projects, I have a really well developed outline which sits next to me as I write. It makes everything easier.

When I started writing screenplays, I would do the index card thing - not sure why, since I never moved the cards around at all. The main reason for using the cards is having the ability to move story pieces around, but I write pretty linearly. Plot Point A causes Plot Point B, so you can't really move things too much in my scripts. Sometimes I'll change where a B story event happens, but that's a little move, not enough to justify index cards. And in the end, I rarely ever even looked at the cards once I started writing.

So a couple of years ago I began to dial back on the cards until I abandoned them completely. Initially I wrote everything out on paper, then transposed it to the cards, then I realized the cards were just an unnecessary extra step. Now I write out a full treatment on paper. The one I'm currently working with is 9 pages long.

I put the treatment next to me, propped up on one of those paper-propper-upper things. And I follow it to the letter. Every time I forget where I was going, all I have to do is look back at the current page, and I'll remember the next step.

I know people always rail against this - I certainly used to as well - as a way to stifle creativity, but to me it's the opposite now. I do most of my creative thinking in the treatment-writing phase. I get to the bottom of the story I'm trying to tell before I have to delve into details and dialogue. It makes the actual writing SO much easier. I don't get overwhelmed with choices as I crank out pages, because I've already made them. The plot is done.

What I do get to play with is dialogue, blocking, and character development. What you can't always know when you're working on a treatment is what the characters' voices will sound like and how they will bounce off each other. Since I don't have to worry about figuring out plot points at this stage, I'm free to let them play with their scenes the way you let a talented actor toy with dialogue.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, write the fuck out of your story before you even begin to write your story. You may be shaking your head thinking there's no way that will work for you, but unless you've ever tried it, you don't know that. I certainly didn't think it worked for me until I had to do it.

That's the other thing. You will have to do it if you ever expect to be employed. You'll have to do it a lot. For no pay. And most likely nobody will ever tell you whether or not they liked it.

So if you don't think you can ever write a detailed treatment first, walk away from screenwriting now. Ain't no way you'll have a career without that ability, not anymore.

My treatment is the reason I was able to crank out 8 pages in an hour this morning. Last writing session I got to 7. I'm so much more productive with a well-constructed treatment. No more wasted days trying to figure out where to go next. I highly recommend it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The daily screenwriting grind

Thank you, everyone, for the great comments wishing me well. We have a great wedding in our yard and everyone seems to have had a good time. Now I am back - no wedding to plan, no papers to grade, just writing and meetings and whatever freelance work I can pick up to pay the bills. I was going to sub, but the further I get from the classroom the more I don't want to go back to a 9-5. So now I'm pursuing other options.

In the meantime, writing is my job. I treat it like a job.

As a teacher, my body adapted to rising early, and the dogs help keep that pattern up. So I usually wake up before 8am every morning.

Then this is my schedule Monday-Friday:

Whenever I wake up: Eat breakfast. Water stuff that needs to be watered in the morning. Get dressed. I find that getting dressed helps me take my work more seriously. I'm more likely to noodle around on the Internet if I'm in pajamas, so I always put on real clothes before plopping down in front of the computer. Plus my office window looks right onto my neighbor's house. She can look out her kitchen window and see me in here. I like to be decent.

9:30 - in front of the computer. I give myself about half an hour to fuck around on Done Deal or Tracking Board or whatever else I need to do other than work.

Around 10am - work on one project. If I'm working on a treatment, I do that. If another script, it's whatever one is not my top priority. I used to have page count goals or time or whatever, but now I generally go until I run out of steam, which depends on what I'm writing. If it's a dialogue-heavy sequence it's a lot harder for me to write than an action sequence, so dialogue days I'll probably write fewer pages than if I'm in a fight scene. If I feel myself fading, I always give myself one more push, so just when I think I'm ready to stop I try to do one more scene, and sometimes that bounces me into another run.

Around noon - I'm hungry by now, and tired of staring at the computer screen. I'll go until I feel like stopping, but usually I get a good two hours of work. So now I stop for lunch. Watch something - a movie, some TV, the news, whatever I feel like.

Around 2pm - Back to work. Now that I'm warmed up, I work on whatever project is my top priority. I do the same thing I did in the morning - go until I run out of steam, but always try to push for that one extra page.

Around 4pm - quit for the day. Then I work out, walk the dogs, cook dinner, take Foxy to agility class, whatever.

Of course, if I have meetings scheduled I nix the first project for the day because I try to schedule my meetings in the morning. That means everything up to 2pm could be taken by meetings, then I follow the schedule for the rest of the day. And sometimes if something important is going on that I have to deal with, the whole schedule upends to accommodate whatever that is.

Sometimes if I REALLY don't feel like writing, I'll write some of the day and spend the rest of it editing Lost Girl videos while feeling a tad guilty that I'm not writing.

But most days I follow this pattern - loosely, but as close to it as possible. It helps keep me productive.

I take weekends off, just like I would in my old job.

And that's how I do, in case anyone ever wondered.

Friday, July 13, 2012

BRB getting hitched

I'm off getting married. I'll be back in a few days, and then I will hopefully be able to start posting regularly again.

In the meantime, get some writing done.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

How to write a better logline

Almost every single time I read a logline someone posts for notes, I ask the same question: "What does your protagonist do?"

People always make the same mistake. They give the setup, not the plot.

For example: "When a group of kids take a vacation at a cabin in the middle of nowhere, they awaken an ancient evil that wants to kill them all."

Okay, that's act one, then what? Because right now, which movie am I describing? Cabin in the Woods? Evil Dead? Dead Snow? I bet you can think of others that fit this logline. It's too generic. Pass.

A logline tells me what I'm watching for two hours, not just the first act. It needs to tell me what this story is about in an interesting way, a way that makes me want to see how you pull it off. If all you give me is Act One, it sounds like a million other movies I've seen.

It also doesn't tell me what people DO. What do these kids do? Is it simply about escape, as in Dead Snow? Do they try to kill the evil, like in Evil Dead? Is it a mystery to solve, like in Cabin in the Woods? Am I going to watch a teenage slasher movie, or a movie where the kids turn it around on the bad guy? I need to know these things if I'm going to get interested.

So a better logline would be "When a group of teenage friends unlocks an ancient evil hidden in the basement of their isolated cabin, they must find a way to kill it before it forces them kill each other."

Now you know which movie I'm talking about, right?

It still sounds like a cheesy B horror flick, but at least this time it adds something different. I'm not just going to be watching kids track and kill an ancient evil, I'm going to be watching kids try to kill each other, people who used to be their friends. There's suggested interpersonal conflict there. I also now see a goal. I know what I'm rooting for - they have to destroy the evil. Now I've got a reason to read it.

My point is, if you want someone to read your script, you have to give them enough information to want to read your script. Make it sound irresistible. Don't worry about spoiling the ending. Nobody's going to get to that great ending if they don't see a reason to read your story.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Just do it well

Screenwriting is not math. There is no magic formula, no perfect template that will guarantee success. You just have to write the best script you can.

If you come to a scene and you're not sure if it's okay to do ______, the answer is, yes. If whatever it is you want to do is the best way - not necessarily the only way, but the BEST way - to tell that part of the story, do it. You don't need to ask permission.

I don't mean you should never get notes or advice. Of course you should ask for help if you're stumped. Just this week I asked a friend of mine for notes on a treatment I put together because I knew parts of it didn't work and I wanted some suggestions on how to fix it.

But if you're thinking gee, I'd like to use voice over here but I've been told never to use voice over - fuck that. Use the damn voice over as long as you can use it well.

That's the key - using it well. Before you decide on your risky decision, make sure it's the best possible decision for the scene. Voice over, for example, tends to be a crutch for new writers who don't know how to let the action do the job. Look at your scene. Does the voice over need to be there, or can you give us that same information in a less talky way?

My rule for voice over is that I only use it for one of two reasons: style, or to tell the audience something they can't see. For example, I have a script where a character is pretending to be someone else, so the only way we know she's pretending is through her voice over. I've never had any complaints about its existence.

As long as it's used well, nobody will care what you do. They just want a good story.

So whatever it is - flashbacks, asides, nonlinear storytelling, nudity, foul language, foreign language, using music - use it if you know you can use it well. Don't be so scared to do it wrong, be scared to do it poorly.

Now go write something.