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The 15-day First Draft

July 18th, 2011 No comments

Speed writing?

At Forbard Story Services, I provide truthful and constructive criticism of my clients’ work – and always observe absolute confidentiality involving every writer’s story, plot and subject matter. But I did have a unique experience working with a writer recently that I will share. Like a screenwriting version of speed-dating, we worked together and fashioned a first draft screenplay based on his orginal (prose) material in 15 days. My client and his resulting script fall under that ‘confidentiality’ thing, but the experience itself was invigorating and rewarding.

Compelled to write

For a number of reasons, including the writer’s age, I was motivated to help him achieve his vision, even if that meant I had to do more than I customarily would in terms of story analysis services. The writer was clearly compelled to write, and I could sense his urgency, so I simply used his stories as a blueprint to develop a complete script with a beginning, middle and end, containing solid characters and story themes which would resonate with an audience. After a false start or two, we hit on a productive working relationship: as the client offered more primary material, I generated script pages, which we would both revise. Soon, we fell into a comfortable rhythm.

No time for distractions

To create a full first draft script in 15 days, it was necessary to hunker down and work. It meant a minimum of 10 solid script pages a day before revisions, and left very little time for much else. I consulted with my client by phone nearly every day, sometimes multiple times, and set myself the task of adapting and adjusting the writer’s stories into something a producer or director would recognize as a thought-out script, in a familiar format, lacking any serious flaws like plot holes, stilted dialogue or a formulaic feel. It helped that I was home alone while my wife was away, since it allowed me to work any time the whim struck me.

Even God rested…

The 15-day first draft involved 15 days of writing, but not 15 consecutive days… Let’s face it: writing is hard (at least good writing is), and even God took a day off while creating the world. So I took a few days off during this process, and the entire affair unfolded over 18 days. But, as any writer knows, a ‘day off’ isn’t always an accurate description, since most writers keep working in their heads when they aren’t tapping the keyboard or scribbling on paper. In any case, both my client and I took a few days off, but they were needed to recharge – and refine.

First Draft at last!

The final day of writing was spent bridging various scenes, revising some of the previous story lines and characters, and generally just getting all the script’s figurative ducks in a row. After an intense period of living and breathing the stories’ characters and creating and re-hashing plot elements and story lines, the first draft was complete. My client was enthusiastic about the end result: although he didn’t realize it when he started, he was trying to write a screenplay, but lacked a general familiarity with the format and mechanics of screenwriting to come up with a finished script on his own. For my part, I was very pleased: although as a story analyst I usually confine my input to constructive criticism, this project was special, particularly because of the client’s obvious desire to tell his story.

Stay in shape!

What I took away from the whole experience is that it’s good to keep those screenwriting muscles in shape – a 15-day first draft is like running a marathon: you start out with highest hopes and great intentions, occasionally sag in the middle, and are elated to see it end – albeit with a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. At least that’s what my runner friends tell me. After all, what would I know about running marathons? I’m a writer.

What should I write about?

December 10th, 2010 No comments

The question frequently arises among writers: “What should I write about?” It’s not coincidental that the most frequent answer is “Write what you know,” especially since it’s easier to draw on personal experience than create a new world from whole cloth. But both approaches have their merits, and their adherents. It’s really about which you do best, since writing well is the goal…

Recently I attended a holiday dinner party which came together almost spontaneously. At the dinner I was joined by a high-level film studio executive-assistant, a Tony-nominated playwright, a British screenwriter (son of a Knight!), a set dresser and a costumer. As the lone blogger, I was both intimidated and fascinated. Talk ranged from gossip to philosophy, from food to metaphysics, and I did my best to take it all in (meal included, truth be told). By evening’s end, I had enough ‘material’ to write several screenplays, from the “Big Chill” aspect of this rag-tag group of celebrants to the farcical “Home for the Holidays” spirit of the day; if I wished, I could tap darker undercurrents which would lead the tale an entirely different direction.  Regardless of what direction I wished to go, from comic to heavily dramatic, I gained enough inspiration (and story material) from our dinner together to keep me busy for a while.

Knowing what to write about is half the battle. What remains is a difficult – albeit frequently fun – task of defining your story, identifying its beginning, middle and end, and applying a plot structure to it which moves the story forward while satisfying audiences’ desires to be entertained. It’s a careful balance of  plot, character, dialogue, pacing and tone – and any one of these elements can ‘tip’ the overall project off-kilter – and into a studio’s ‘reject’ pile. So it’s obvious that knowing your story is paramount to your screenplay’s success, but getting it right is just as important, and that takes an artist’s touch.

Personal experience is a tricky thing: we often lack the perspective to ‘open-up’ our own stories and instead get bogged-down in minutiae, so it’s important to step back to see the bigger picture (the one the audience deserves) to ensure your story is being told completely. It’s no accident that many of the best novels are adapted into screenplays not by the books’ authors, but by experienced screenwriters who understand the structure and demands of a screen story. Many book authors get the opportunity to adapt their work for Hollywood, but few see their efforts get to the screen unchanged; conversely, those writers who eschew Hollywood work in favor of writing more books often score a higher success rate in getting their titles to theater marquees. A prime example of the latter is Elmore Leonard, who gave up adapting his works in the 80s, although he continues writing novels to this day – and movies continue to be produced (“3:10 to Yuma”) based on his enormous volume of work.

So what should you write about? The answer to that question is as varied as life itself. Material should present itself, whether it comes from a dinner party, a walk to the store or a phone call with a loved one. It’s up to you as a writer to recognize this opportunity and write it down.

Once you’ve finished writing, don’t forget to make sure your work is immune to critical nit-picking. Every successful story, play, screenplay, teleplay and novel became a success because the author took the time to get it right. Story analysis from an experienced professional is the best way to gain perspective on this very personal work. Constructive criticism is the key to refining your project into the ‘bulletproof’ property that will increase your odds of success!