When I made my first film, THE CYCLIST, I made mistakes every step of the way, thus providing myself with valuable learning opportunities. The one aspect I would change that would have improved the film from start to finish, from casting to distribution, is the script.
I knew the script needed help. I stared at it for days. I took notes for months. I tweaked lines for years and called it a rewrite. I worked on new scripts. I paid a “script doctor” to tell me, “Make your script better.” But I did not how to make it better, that was the problem! I did not know what questions to ask, what techniques to use. I lacked the craft to improve the story. So what do you do if your script is not the brilliant story you envisioned? First, know that you are in good company.
Ed Catmull (President Pixar/Disney Animation) in his excellent book, CREATIVITY, INC, writes,
“Pixar ﬁlms are not good at ﬁrst, and our job is to make them so — to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.”
That’s Pixar admitting they work hard to make their films great. The book talks about how they do that with a team, the braintrust. A short version of the lessons from Pixar’s braintrust can be read HERE.
I wish I had Brad Bird criticizing my scripts. Instead, here are a few lessons I learned that would have improved my first film and that I apply to all my new scripts in anticipation of filming a better second one.
SCREENWRITING LESSONS I WISH I UNDERSTOOD BEFORE MY FIRST FILM
(AKA: Famous film question 101, what have you learned Dorothy?)
1. KNOW YOUR LOGLINE BEFORE YOU START WRITING
I.e. know what you are writing before you start. That statement is ridiculously obvious, right? Know what story you are telling. If you enjoy exercises in futility, try hitting a target without knowing where or what it is. Your logline is that target.
My elevator pitch for THE CYCLIST was mostly an apology because I never had that logline. It’s so important I will say it again: Know your logline before you write; it will be a compass mark for when you get lost in Act II or anywhere else. Spend time distilling your story into one or two sentences. Practice and pitch it until it is the compelling North Star to guide your writing. Then enjoy the journey, wherever your story may go.
2. FIRST DRAFT – GET IT WRITTEN
You can think, dream, structure, outline, do whatever fits your process but at some point (once you know your logline) just start writing and don’t stop. It’s a first draft. You need your first draft out of your thinking head onto the intimidating blank page in front of you. The BAFTA screenwriting series offers an incredible group of master screenwriters discussing their processes – and they all differ widely in their approach. My thoughts, on the first draft – write fast, and stealing from CREATIVITY INC., (PIXAR): Fail Fast.
The first draft helps you to discover your story and to see what works and what does not – both very valuable. Don’t get hung up attempting to write the immaculate and perfect first draft. The notion of perfection is a fallacy, let it go as soon as you are able. Concerns about perfection only cause delay of anything productive. You can only fix what is on the page, not what is in your head… so write, write fast, write well, but do write. It’s only a first draft and you will be surprised at all the good things that pour on the page if you have prepared properly.
“Writing is Rewriting.”
This is where I wish I had possessed the tools and techniques that I did not, i.e. craft. Pick up “THE COFFEE BREAK SCREENWRITER” by Pilar Alessandra. Her lectures are packed at the London Screenwriters’ Festival (editor: use Writesofluid’s discount code SOFLUID15 for this year’s ticket!) because she knows what she’s talking about and she teaches craft – by which I mean usable, repeatable, practical techniques that troubleshoot, challenge, improve your script and inspire your creative mind. These are not cookie-cutter steps to write a script. The execution remains in your head, fingers and imagination. I have read many, many, screenwriting books and Pilar’s is one that teaches craft, not theory, to improve your script and storytelling skills.
The “concept” rewrite pass is one such technique that brings you back your original story concept. The concept that got you excited about the story in the first place is often lost during the actual writing of the script. The concept pass brings that concept back into specific story structure. It was that original great story idea that made you write this script and by making sure that concept is honored, the script becomes stronger. Following the exercise I not only discovered where the script needs strengthening to focus the story on the concept, but I also discovered new ideas that strengthen the overall story. It brings you back to what you are writing about and I WISH I had had that book for THE CYCLIST!
4. BE COMPELLING
Well that’s a jolly good idea we hear all the time. We all want compelling stories, but what technique/craft do you fall back on when somebody advises you, “Make your characters more compelling with specific wants and obstacles.” Believe me, I knew that statement on every single draft of THE CYCLIST. But it didn’t mean I could do anything about it without technique or tools. Craft/technique gives you tools to make the script compelling.
A statement from Pilar: “Emotions trigger action, action triggers emotion.” Examine your structure: is there compelling movement from scene to scene, act to act because of what pushed the character there? What triggered an action/reaction that triggered conflict that led to new emotion? Every action, every emotion, every obstacle should be compellingly present because of the action, emotion or obstacle that proceeded it. That structure propels the story forward.
Examine every scene to see if you have emotion triggering action and action triggering emotion.
Along those lines:
This might not be so much a lesson, but something I wrestle with on scripts. William Nicholson (GLADIATOR) has a wonderful talk in the BAFTA screenwriting series in which he states,
“We are in the business of generating emotion.”
I like that. But how do you do it? He explained it well at the 2014 London Screenwriters’ Festival – to use your own emotions, tap into all you have experienced and to write them into your film. Don’t be afraid to tap into your emotional well of experience; that’s where you uncover the good stuff. It was not about being weepy but using those visceral emotions you have had in life; triumph, joy, terror, frustration, and honoring how you felt – then imagining how would you act, react… USE IT!
What happens if characters don’t get what they want? That statement makes good sense to me – I believe it to be good advice for your characters, but it did not help me improve my script. I love the POV pass to help with stakes. From Pilar, again – what if your story was seen from the POV of a different character? Everybody wants something and that desire is their stakes in the scene, the moment, the film.
[Supporting characters] are in that world for their personal reasons, not just to fulfill the needs of your main character.
If you know their story, your main character starts existing in a three-dimensional world that offers challenges, obstacles and competing stakes which causes conflict and you, the writer, want lots of conflict. Write the story from the POV of each character, just a paragraph, and it is amazing what comes out when every character has a defined purpose for being in the scene.
When I found myself in a troubling spot on my script for THE CYCLIST, every single other project looked infinitely more interesting and ready to write itself than what was in front of me. To give you hope when you are lost in rewrites and are uncertain if your script is worthwhile, Frank Cottrell Boyce (24 Hour Party People, Millions, The Railway man), says in his BAFTA screenwriting lecture:
“The number of things that have been rubbish until the last minute is legion.”
Have faith and keep going. I hope one of these ideas helps unlock a problem in your script. Thank you and good luck writing! John
You can watch the trailer to THE CYCLIST and purchase/rent to view HERE!
London Screenwriters’ Festival is a great place to learn about scriptwriting and filmmaking, and is a place where you can meet the people who could help you take the next step in your writing and filmmaking careers. Sound good? Get your £25 DISCOUNT for London Screenwriters’ Festival 2015 using code: SOFLUID15 in the checkout HERE.