Before you first consumed an article or book on how to write a better screenplay, or attended your first screenwriting seminar, you had intuitive ideas about how to write movie scripts. These intuitive ideas excited you, you were passionate about them. They were the fuel that drove you to write.
Most of the advice given to screenwriters is specifically designed to beat those intuitive approaches out of you. You are told that in order to succeed you must replace your intuitive approaches to writing, with a systematic way of working. You must employ methods that change the way you intuitively tell stories, into a shape that conforms to “industry standards.” However, in the process of becoming a better, more bankable, screenwriter, it is possible to reach a point where although you are technically competent, you become disenchanted with your own work. Somewhere in the process of becoming a better writer, it is possible to lose part of what made you want to be a writer in the first place. This is an uncomfortable place to live as a creative.
This article is about one way you can claim back the intuitive writer within you. Regardless of whether it’s industry specs, working as a “gun for hire,” or living out on the ragged edge of alt-cinema. After years of struggling with this issue, I’ve discovered that I always get better results when both my technical head and my passionate intuitive side are working together rather than fighting each other for control of the script.
To understand the solution, first we have to understand the problem. In this case, understanding the problem is as simple as understanding systematic screenwriting. Systematic screenwriting is when you apply a staged process to your writing which breaks the work down into smaller steps. Although different people use different workflows for their writing, there are good reasons for doing each step in turn.
This is the workflow I’ve developed over the past twelve years:
- Develop a compass logline (this is a forty word pitch for the film, designed to test both the script’s commercial potential and its focus as an idea - there’s very little point is starting a script if the central concept isn’t both clear and simple).
- Character development sheets (designed to define the protagonist, antagonist, mentor, stakes character etc etc… and to develop where their desires and needs are in conflict).
- Plotting/Structuring (four acts, eight sequences per act - one paragraph per sequence)
- Write the damn thing (10-15 pages a day).
My writing technique is pretty locked down. Not because I’m interested in creating formulaic movies. I write this way because I’m not smart enough to be able to think about five things at the same time. I can’t look at a blank page and develop characters I don’t know fully, whilst moving a plot forward in a coherent manner, whilst writing cinematically interesting action, and sharp dialogue… and, all the time I’m doing that, hold the movie to a tight concept. Basically, breaking the process down into steps, means the actual writing is purely about cinematic action and dialogue. Everything else is already in place.
This process works well for me. However, it has one fatal weakness - not every idea for a movie starts with a focussed idea. Like any step-by-step process, it falls down if you get hung up on always starting on step one.
Why is Step One, Step One?
There is a reason I work in the order I do. Scripts without clear focus, as defined by a concise pitchable logline, don’t survive in either the spec script market or as produced films. One of the most depressing experiences of my life was trying to write a logline for a completed film, at the end of a three-year production process. It’s a horrifically humbling experience to get to the end of an arduous production, only to slam your face into the mistake you made at the very beginning of the script stage.
So, here’s the conundrum, if the first step has to be the nailing down of a compass logline (compass because it points in the direction the script needs to travel), then how does this tie in with a more intuitive approach to screenwriting? There is a good answer to this question, but before we get to it, let’s look at the bad answer.
The Bad Answer
A few years ago I used to hang out in screenwriting forums, a lot. I was looking to get a better understanding of my craft and it was fun to swap ideas with other writers. A couple of times a year a massive fight would break out between those who believed in structural/systematic screenwriting and those who hate it. This polarised argument always played out the same way. The structuralists calling the free-form writers naive, the free-form writers calling the structuralists “formulaic hacks.”
As a structural writer, I’ve always seen the free-form, no structure, no methodology as a bad answer to the question “what do you do if your idea won’t lead you to step one of a systematic approach?” However, despite that, I do understand why writers are tempted to dump the system and embrace free-form. It makes sense, sort of. If the system you’re using starts to get in the way of writing, if it cuts you off from your intuitive ability to create, then it makes sense to abandon it and to trust solely on your instincts. Totally sensible reaction. And, all writers have an innate desire to connect with their instinctive, creative self. However, all the benefits of writing free-form are outweighed by the downsides. The downside being that unstructured drafts require more radical and complicated rewrites than structured ones… and, rewrites where you impose order on a free-form script are way more difficult to do right than rewrites from a structured first draft
The Seed Scene Method
If going free-form feels good, but ultimately is counter-productive, is there a better answer?
I believe there is. The alternative answers is “the seed scene” method.
Before I learned how to write screenplays “properly,” a big part of how I got ideas was by visualising little flashes of story. They were usually images of a character, either a protagonist or an antagonist in a very particular location or circumstance. I used to define these as “what if” moments. For example, what if a bully mistook a psychopath for a victim? I would see a moment from this embryonic film, very clearly in my mind. A moment which embodied this idea. For instance, it could be the moment at which the tables are turned and the bully discovers that rather than being in control, they are in fact the real victim. These flashes, I call “seed moments.” And, these seed moments are completely intuitive. They go to the core of how my creative self works, outside of any restraining methodology.
One of the biggest changes I’ve made in my writing recently, is to embrace my intuitive writing process and incorporate it into my story development. And, for me, the most important thing about seed moments is to abandon all the rules you’ve learned and work with them in a totally intuitive way. So, I now either story-board or write the scene that inspired me to consider this particular story. If this scene fires off other seed scenes, I get those down as well. Quite often, when getting these moments down, I will describe specific shots or write extended paragraphs about what’s happening in the character’s mind. Sometimes I don’t even write it, I go straight to story-boarding the scene. And, because this is outside of the formal writing process, I don’t feel the slightest moment of guilt about story-boarding a script that could end up being a spec.
What Happens in Story Development, Stays in Story Development
What I’ve learned from integrating my intuitive writing approach into my work again is that it is possible to have the best of both worlds. It is possible to develop projects in ways that are totally intuitive, without sacrificing the benefits of a formal, structured approach to writing.
There is another by-product of this process. Because I am now more open to working outside of the rules and more intuitively, I have found myself able to turn around little art-house films effortlessly. Something I haven’t ever allowed myself to do in the past, because these films serve no purpose apart from being ideas I want to play with. As a result of that, one of these little play dates with my intuitive writer just won a local film competition. And, what’s remarkable about the whole thing is, it took me half an hour to sketch, an hour to write, half an hour to do the pre-production, an hour to shoot and about four hours work of editing. It was the simplest piece of work I’ve ever done… and, it turned out exactly the way I visualised it.
That’s the point I really want to get across in this article. Once a structured writer reconnects with their intuitive self, wonderful things happen.
- More Alt Script articles by Clive Davies-Frayne
- Alt Script: Screenwriting Careers - How Many of Your Scripts Will Be Made This Year?
- Write, Direct, Repeat: Film Festivals and the Short Film, Part 2
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