Write It, Don’t Fight It: How Screenwriters Really Write

Most of the nuggets of insight I dispense to filmmakers can be traced back to a common source, and that’s Syd Field, the screenwriting teacher who died in Beverly Hills the day before yesterday. Not that I ever took one of his mammoth classes, and nor can I remember the last time I cracked open his landmark book Screenplay. Field was, however, the first in a series of screenwriting “gurus” to aspiring writers these last three decades, and the vocabulary he popularized became so pervasive it just became known as “good writing.”

I put the QMS’s, or the quotation marks of suspicion, around “guru,” only because the word appears so ubiquitously in all of his obituaries. To call him a teacher doesn’t adequately summarize the ecstatic feelings of his students, and we are right to be suspicious of teachers whenever their schooling crosses the line into fandom, but I digress. I honestly started writing this post before Syd Field died.

Here is how I actually write a screenplay:

1. I make time for original ideas. Between all of my gigs and other responsibilities, I absolutely insist on spending a little time doodling: writing brand new stories, in synopsis form, and if they end up unfinished or inherently flawed, who cares? It’s what I like to do and I’ve learned not to fight it. And from this I have a catalogue of ideas I think would make pretty good movies.

2. I start it with a conversation. A director or producer I know says, “I really think the time is right to make a [names a genre] that costs around [names a budget] that has [names some production elements: X number of characters, a certain profile of cast, or often as not a state where the story is set that has lucrative incentives].” I say, “Y’know, I have something you might like, it’s [I graft a story from my catalogue onto his notions],” and we agree that there may be something there.

3. Wait. I wait a few weeks and give it a sniff test, and present it to someone else, just to make sure I’m not suffering from wishful thinking.

4. I start writing the synopsis. This is the most exciting part, when the story is a wide open landscape. As I’m revising it, I show this to a handful of trusted colleagues, and I talk about it with people outside of the business. This happens naturally, since people ask “What are you writing? What’s it about?” When I’m at any other phase of the process, I typically say something elusive, but while synopsi-sizing I start telling them, and I see what they respond to, and what makes them look at their phones. Very informative. If I had three months to write a first draft, I would spend the first month just writing the synopsis over and over.

5. I break it down into beats. Each beat is a two to five page basic story chunk, and figuring out the order of these beats is the real nitty gritty. You can’t just fudge it like you could while writing the synopsis. “Soon she finds out her husband was there the night her lover got killed” doesn’t cut it any more. How did she find out? In a perfect, yoga-and-grapefruit-juice world, we would all make the beat sheet flawless before we wrote a single page of screenplay, but most of us can’t keep our hands off the donuts.

6. I write part of the first draft. We’re pretty confident that the first act is ready to commit to pages, and the beat sheet is starting to be a drag. Honestly, I often need a reality check about the length of the story at this point. I look at my Act One in the synopsis and beat sheet, and I say “That seems like it’ll be about thirty pages of script, but what if I’m wrong?” So I start writing.

While rendering a story into actual script pages, we learn all kinds of things about our suppositions. We realize that the reader/viewer will like or dislike a character more readily than we thought, or that we can cut story steps out without losing any feeling. This is also that precarious place that makes screenwriters an enormous market for writing gurus and their products, most of them well-meaning but some of them outright hucksters. Most of their advice comes down to this: get the beats right before wasting your time with script pages you’re going to have to rewrite anyway. Fair enough, but you can also wrack your brain with beats, and no matter how many teachers say you shouldn’t waste time, I don’t believe that’s how writing actually happens. There’s a little nutrition in donuts, isn’t there? I’ve learned not to fight it, and trust the path of least resistance, until it starts resisting, and then I go to a method attributed to Syd Field:

Index Cards

7. I write the beats on index cards. It seems so elementary, but this way I can shift them around and visualize the story by trying to balance good, cause-and-effect storytelling with maximum impact on the reader/viewer. So partly I’ve used the unfinished script to expose the weaknesses in the story structure, but partly it’s a chance to reconnect with the original idea, and to reflect on what kind of story I’m making. It’s not uncommon that you discover the actual theme of your story at this point, and this often coincides with a mid-draft break of sorts: just last weekend I collected these cards off my table and took a few days vacation outside the city with them in my pocket.

8. WOP and GOD. I’ve got the beat sheet looking tight and gone back and made the (hopefully not too many) necessary changes to the existing script pages. Now it’s time to write full on. My mantra changes to WOP and GOD: Words on a Page, and Get Out the Door. I become my own evil boss, muttering sarcastic insults like, “Page 38? You were writing page 38 yesterday.” By now it’s a month past the time I told my friend he’d see a first draft, and I’m frankly a little tired of it. If I leave the house – the “Get Out the Door” part – without the expected Words on a Page for that day, then I’ve got one pissed off boss second-guessing everything else I do all day.

Syd Field gets credited with codifying the Three Act structure and popularizing the method of putting beats on index cards. Was he the first? I don’t know, and don’t have the patience for research of that sort, but his timing was excellent. He published Screenplay in 1979, in a relatively open market, so it had time to become the definitive work in the field by the time the independent film movement began at the end of the ’80s, and the number of screenwriters exploded. He would have been 78 on December 19, and like many Sagittarians he worked better as “the deep one” on someone else’s team than as team leader himself.

The value of collaboration is to anchor a story-teller to a confidant. The times I have tried producing and directing myself, if I didn’t have that colleague on set, I made that colleague out of the nearest available sympathetic ear: the key P.A., the art director, somebody! This is why starting a screenplay with a conversation is such a good idea. You need someone with good taste on hand to ask the obvious questions. Syd Field offered his services as confidant to many, and was apparently better than the average guru at it.

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  1. […] in the can when Cullen had to go back to the beat sheet – I advised him to invest $1.09 in a pack of index cards at the time – to figure out what should […]

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