Welcome to the next installment of “Ask the Coach.” As a writing coach, I answer questions from writers about making the work of writing happen, tackling craft, business, and personal questions along the way. (Have a question you’d like answered? Check the details at the end of the article about how to submit one.)
Today I’m responding to a question about how much to develop a story before starting to write:
“How do you move forward with a script when you have a lot of the elements figured out (protagonist, plot points, etc), but still have a lot of questions about exactly how the story will unfold and have the most impact? Should you trust your judgment that this will all come together as you write, or should you spend more time developing characters/plot/settings before you begin writing?“
In the novel writing realm, there’s the idea that writers lean toward being a pantser or plotter. Some novelists prefer figuring out the story as they go along, thought of as “writing by the seat of their pants” (being a pantser). Others prefer working the story out in advance (being a plotter). Many novelists fall somewhere in between, working out some but not all of their stories before they begin writing pages. And even those who tend more toward the plotter approach will say there’s room for inspiration and for new and better ideas to strike as they move deeper into their stories. The most thorough among plotters will also update their outlines to match as the story evolves.
In the screenwriting world, it’s a little different. Screenplays, by virtue of their shorter, succinct nature, benefit from tighter problem solving before writing. Having said that, some screenwriting instructors recommend writing “lightning drafts” or “discovery drafts,” which are quick drafts written with the intent of discovering who your characters are and finding scenes you might not otherwise land on, surprising and inspiring yourself along the way. Very little of a draft like this may see the light of day, but it can be a creative way to learn more about your story, if you have the patience to write that way.
I’ve recently taken some screenwriting classes with Jeff Howard, a professional screenwriter known for Oculus, Midnight Mass, and Hill House, among others. Jeff recommends a thorough, three-stage outlining approach, so writers are able to:
- Get back into a script more readily if life interrupts
- Meet contractual obligations to outline once working professionally
- Layer a story more effectively (easier to do at the outline stage)
- Maintain a consistent tone throughout the entirety of the script once you’re writing pages
Jeff’s method involves building an outline in three major passes. His first stage outline serves as his “proof of concept,” so he knows he has a complete story, and his third stage outline is so detailed he jokes that if you were the first one to find his body with his outline clutched in his cold, dead hands after he’d been run over by a bus, you could write his script yourself.
While I’m still learning and experimenting with his method, I’ve always preferred to work out most if not all of a story in advance, so I know where I’m going (and so I’m not staring at a blank page unsure where to start). What I’ve discovered through attending his online sessions is that where I’ve tended to say “I don’t know, I’ll figure it out later” is where I’ve often gotten hung up. So I’m leaning into his method and giving it a go with my current story.
And, let’s remember this: No writers are ever exactly the same, no writing process works for everyone, and there’s no one right way to write. It’s all about experimenting and finding what works best for you.
My instinct as I read your question is that it’s worth spending extra time developing your story, particularly since you mentioned having “a lot of questions about exactly how the story will unfold and have the most impact.” It’s always tempting to want to skip over the hard part of solving those issues and just writing what you know so far, but you may well be writing yourself into a corner. As writers, we often get attached to what we’ve written, and it’s doubly hard to backtrack from something you’ve fallen in love with, even if it’s not working.
My recommendation is to make a list of all the questions you have about your story. They’ll percolate through your mind, and then when you next sit down to write, spend time brainstorming possible solutions — no ideas are too dumb or out there to consider. Play, wonder, experiment, write, brainstorm, and see where you land. I have every reason to believe you’ll find the answers you’re looking for if you stick with it. And I suspect writing your draft will be much more enjoyable as a result.
That’s a Wrap
To reiterate: there’s no one right way to write, and the key is finding the methods that work best for you, regardless of what they are. At the same time, you’ll want to make it as easy as possible on yourself to succeed. If you’re the kind of writer who feels tired by the idea of writing “wasted” pages or having to cut-cut-cut if you’ve written down the “wrong” track, it’s probably wise to invest time into working out the story out in advance. If you’re the kind of writer who writes quickly and easily, doesn’t get overly attached, and has lots of extra time, it might work to write your way through it and see what you discover.
Either way, enjoy!
Outlining & Story Development Resources
- Find out more about Jeff Howard’s next Outlining class by sending an email to here: email@example.com
- Check out Lynn Beck’s Story Development and Outlining class at Script University starting 12/15, here: https://www.screenwritersuniversity.com/courses/story-development-and-outlining
- Check out Donald Hewitt’s Beginning Feature Film Writing: Outline and Act One starting 12/22, here: https://www.screenwritersuniversity.com/courses/beginning-feature-film-writing
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Submit your question to be answered anonymously via my online form here or email directly to firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for answers to selected questions in my monthly “Ask the Coach” column on the third Thursday of the month. And reach out to me on Twitter to share your thoughts: @JennaAvery.