First of all, before you read any further, please travel over to the terrific resource that is Go Into the Story over at theblcklst and read Scott Myers’s thoughts on Prep-writing:
(Also, if you’re an aspiring writer on Twitter and not following Scott, you go do that right Goddamned now. He’s an incredible resource for writers of all skill levels and should be a part of your daily educational diet.)
Did you digest that? Good. Because I have some stuff to say on the topic as well.
First of all, let’s talk about where Scott and I agree, because that covers the vast majority of what he’s talking about here. If you’re just starting out as a screenwriter, I have to concur that doing as much prep as possible before writing your screenplay is the right way to go. Why? Statistics. Most pro writers I know do a moderate amount to a metric shit-ton of prepping – from outlines to treatments to notecards to even more detailed outlines to plotboards (usually a white erase board full of bulletpoints on story/character arcs) to writing out short stories to writing out novel-sized stories to whatever you can think of. And for good reason.
Writing is tough, man. It really is, and I’m not even trying to be facetious. Screenwriting is maybe the toughest kind of writing, because in this discipline you’re tasked with not only being uniquely creative every time out, but with cramming said creativity of incredible depth into a relatively short document. That is HARD. And like most things that are difficult, it often requires a lot of planning and decision-making before you even get started. Most of the time, like any big undertaking, it demands that you know where you’re going before you type word one, lest you get to word 1,000 and realize you don’t have the slightest clue what the fuck you’re doing.
Now…if you’re astute (or, really, just awake), you’ll notice I dropped a couple of qualifiers in there. “Often”. “Most of the time”. Obviously, these were intentional and for a very good reason.
Sometimes, Prep-writing doesn’t help at all.
Again, I want to concede Scott’s point – most of the time for most writers, prepping is not only a boon to the process but maybe the most essential component to it. It’s how we are as humans – we learn, through trying, that the more we plan, the smoother the sailing usually is. What I want to take issue with are some of the comments and the way that writers can talk about other writers who don’t prep and/or see it as necessary.
You’ll hear a lot of writers (and people who work with writers) talk about their “process”. It’s kind of a catchall term that gets bandied about a lot, and often by people who have never actually written anything or are terribly shitty at it but like to sound learned and esoteric at parties. All it means is: The Way You Approach Writing. It’s what you do, how you plan, how you write, how you rewrite, etc. – from the first spark of an idea to the finished product. How you WORK.
The “process” for many writers is incredibly similar, but obviously, no two writers work exactly alike. This includes the amount of prepping that is undertaken from one writer to the next.
I am not a Prepper. In fact, I am expressly anti-Prep (for myself, not for others). I feel that it sets me back and that it burgles away any creative cache I have before I even get started.
I like writing; I don’t like planning to write. I don’t like thinking about writing. I don’t like talking about writing. I don’t like doing extensive notes (though sometimes I do a bare minimum, but I wager that they’d not be helpful to anyone but myself). I don’t like outlines (though, depressingly, I must deal with them often), I don’t like notecards, I don’t like whiteboards. To me – and again, this is highly personal – prep-writing, writing ABOUT writing, is wholly counterproductive. I’m lucky in that I can have the salient points of an entire story in my head and that I can extract them over a period of time with relative ease. It may not always be this way, and one day I might by tethered by necessity to prepping. I’m OK with that. But for now, I like to have a shell of an idea, sketches of characters, the major impact moments in my three acts…and I like to sit down and start typing. I like the free-flow of ideas and concepts and story beats, and I like changing things on the fly as I discover more and more. It feels like…telling a good friend’s story, but as you sit down to tell it, your friend gives you another detail. And then another. And wait, no, that didn’t take place there, it took place HERE. And I didn’t say that, I said THIS. And it builds…and builds…and all of a sudden, before I’m even fully cognizant of it, I have full scenes. Dynamic characters. A story.
What? Why? How? Couldn’t tell you. It’s just what works for me. I tried diligently on several occasion to do the notecard thing, the outline thing, whatever. It felt like jail. For some reason, I had a really obscene psychological block in following an outline that continues to this day. It felt like every time I wanted to zig, I’d look at the outline and tell myself, “No, you’d better keep zagging.” It felt like every time a better idea came to me, I’d look at the outline and tell myself, “STAY THE COURSE YOU PUSSY. YOU ARE TALKING YOURSELF OUT OF GENIUS.” I’ve never had any genius to talk myself out of, so this was exceptionally troubling. And sure, I know now and knew then that I very well COULD tweak my plan, flip my script (heh) and change the game. But somehow I had a block. And the harder I tried to conform, the worse my writing was. And the less creative I bothered to be.
This is not to say – in ANY way, shape or form – that my first drafts are perfect, or even great. They are vomit drafts – I let go of everything I have onto the page, and I trust myself and a few other people to figure out what works and what doesn’t going forward. Thinking about it that way…maybe you could even look at it as my first draft being my prepping; I just know innately that I’ll probably have to do an extra draft or two somewhere in there to get my script to a good place. I’m fine with that. Am I writing? Good. I’ll do that. And then more of that, please.
What bothers me is that literally no one should give a shit what I do when I write as long as I’m getting the job done. Even THAT, then, is a very small group of people. And for the most part, no one does. Which is great. But I worry for aspiring writers who – like I once did – believe that they HAVE to Prep-write. Because That’s What Writers Do – They Prep. I’ve talked to dozens of writers who are stunned when I tell them about my “process” (and sorry, I keep putting that in quotations because I feel like I sound like an asshole when I write/say it) and that I don’t do notes, or notecards, or outlines. Their eyes bug. They are taught by the writing establishment that this is how EVERYONE does it, and this is how it HAS to work.
That’s why I was so disappointed in some of the comments on Scott’s blog post. I don’t know if they come from working writers or once-working writers or pure amateurs, but some of their opinions float this tired narrative. One even reduces those who eschew prep as “cocky and cavalier” and describes prepping as “humble”. Bullshit. If prepping works for you, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t. It’s that simple, and you don’t owe it to anyone else to work one way or another.
As I said above: I advise that you go into screenwriting at least attempting a moderate amount of prep. Statistically, most writers do, and so probably will you. But what if it’s not working for you? Or what if you want to try extracting your story from your brain in a different way? Don’t be afraid to toss the notecards and break the whiteboard over your knee. Throw caution to the wind, for Christ’s sake. Fly by the seat of your pants. And other well-worn sayings! It’s your script. Work how you want. The only thing you owe to anyone is the opportunity to figure out what works best for you, and the only person you owe that to is yourself. Don’t let someone tell you your methods are cocky or lazy or that you’re working too hard or planning too much. Worry about you.
The more you do that, the more you’ll inch towards the ultimate validation of your efforts: the sound a bank teller makes when they deposit your paycheck.
I’m with you – I’m a writer who often “figures stuff out” while writing actual pages…but I would still advise new writers to do a lot of prep. I think pro writers internalize structure at some point, while newbies have to think a lot more about that stuff. There’s definitely such a thing as too much prep, but I worry that people get sucked in by those “write a movie in 7 days” kind of things and think they can simply sit down at a blank page and come out with a comprehensible screenplay. I guess I’m also just tired of reading screenplays by people who’ve clearly never read any scripts at all (format is a mess, etc), and I’m just worried that “don’t prep” advice encourages these types of people to write more stuff that annoys me.
Also, if you’re collaborating with producers and such, I feel like people expect to see outlines, treatments, etc. You can’t always say “just trust me, I’ll send you a draft” – but I could be wrong? Maybe I should tell people to fuck off?
No, Amanda, you’re totally right – when working with producers, an outline is part of the process. For the most part an outline is necessary just to GET the job in the first place, and then they don’t care what you do when you go off to write. Sorry I wasn’t clearer about that. But for sure, generally…not the greatest idea to tell people in charge of paying you to fuck off 😉
I’m a prepper but I agree with you, who gives a shit how you write the script? No producer asks how you write. Nobody cares if you use a standing desk, dictate everything to a speech-to-text program or write a rough draft using calf’s blood. The people who matter only care if the finished script is any good.
That said, I think it’s dangerous to tell first-timers that not prepping is an option. This just leads to the cliche of the unfinished screenplay. They run out of steam mid-way through act two because they have no idea where they’re going. A one page outline would have at least given them a road map.
For me I find it easier to fix my problems in outline form. I never understand the whole “write five pages a day” thing because once my outline and notes are done I can write 20+ pages a day. I’ve written a TV spec in one long sitting. Not saying it was fantastic, but it was done.
To each their own. Stay out of my garden.
Bless you, Mr. Mediocre. I get so sick of all the arguing about my way is the best way, the only way, and you’re an amateur (or a newbie…please, we’re all newbies every single day) if you don’t do it my way. Let me fill you in on a little secret, K? You think writing is hard? Try squeezing a baby out of your body. All of a sudden writing is easy, if that’s what you’re designed to do, as a woman is who chooses to do the baby birthing thing is designed to do. There are no stretches or warm-ups or outlines or white boards or bullet points (although there is a point where we’d like to put a bullet through the throat of the guy who did this to us) for giving birth to a human, you just grunt and do it. Most of the time for most of us, we’re quite successful in bringing life into this world, and we can damned well do the same thing with a story. Without prep. You know, like that hack…what’s his name? Was it Shakespeare or Dickens or Twain or Tennessee Something-Or-Another? I forget. Whatever his name, he just hacked it out with no time to spare for process or prep or the histrionics of we modern folk. They didn’t have time because they were flying without a safety net and were born anew each and every day. Hack noobs on the loose was what they were. Thank God those days are over.
I shall not comment on baby-birthing vs. writing. I shall merely take your word for it 🙂
I’m a GITS reader and was a commenter on his original post about Prep Writing… and I’m a total amateur. Hopefully I didn’t come across as an ass or an idiot (although, I’m really good at both), but I’m definitely a hot ‘n heavy prepper.
I’ve tried both ways and have found the more I prep, the easier it is to write dem pages (to echo Eitan’s last ppg). But while I do love my outlines and treatments and relationship wheels, etc, my prepping is a bit different than just sitting and ‘beat’ing it out- I like to brain dump the story in prose form and let it roll out organically. Perhaps I won’t need all that stuff further down the road, but my prose (treatments?) and outlines will always be my little woobie in the writing world. I should clarify that, for me, outlines aren’t vital, but as a rookie they sure as shit help me organize my thoughts and check my timing, flow, etc… an itinerary or map, if you will.
Outlines have also helped when I come to an impasse in the story and have no idea which way to go. It lets me see all the what ifs and coulda-woulda-shouldas before I decide on a given direction. Not that I need it for every story, but it sure does help in the beginning.
It also helps in developing the B/C stories and subtext and helps map out the journey for those complex stories. Which brings me to my virgin outing with notecards – something I shunned and totally blew off in the beginning. Now that I have 2 stories with twists and turns, I can see the benefit of using notecards to see where certain scenes/sequences would fit best.
Everyone has their own flow, though.
I’d definitely tell my fellow noobs to fumble around like it’s prom night and try different things… see what gets your rocks off and gets you more confidence for alllllll the other times to come 😉
Despina, you’re 100% right, and I’m glad you found what works for you – sounds like sort of a hybrid, which, let’s be honest…you know, EVERYONE is working on a hybrid system.
“I’d definitely tell my fellow noobs to fumble around like it’s prom night and try different things…” Brilliantly put 😉
Such insight. I wish I had read this long ago. I’m glad you wrote this to balance the perspectives of the topic at GITS.
I think an unfortunate reality in screenwriting is the obsession over the “right” or “best” way, not for the specific writer but for the entire craft. (They say whatever works works, but do they really believe that?) Pros’ words seem to carry more “authority” than those of amateurs, and many cling to it.
Notecards, beat sheet, diving into Final Draft first… All these didn’t work for me. I didn’t find what worked for me until I threw everything out and looked for it on my own. I think being adaptive to how one writes is the key.
Any writer’s preparation would be just that. As long as one can crank out a draft worth his talent, how only matters to him alone. At the end of the day, it is his own writing.
Excellent points, Geoff. And there are those of us for whom it’s different for different forms. Plays: No outline, though I generally know how they’re going to end. Novel: one-page list of quick events. Screenplays, TV specs: rigorous outlines. Singlecam webseries eps I co-created: No outline needed. Multi-cam full-length webseries I’m staffed on: detailed outline, and glad I did it.
I’ll only say that on two pilots I’m working on right now, I didn’t outline them in previous drafts and lived to regret it. I’m pushing through the outlines now. A rhymes-with-witch and a half.
The epitome of figuring out what works best for you! Thanks for writing, Greg.
Great post, sir.
Process. I like to start by waking up and aimlessly surfing the web for twenty minutes and three hours. Then I go for a walk. To the kitchen. Once fed, I’ll spend the next however-long period of time digesting my breakfast and porn. (HINT: Don’t rush Nature.) During my refractory period I nap, because on a scale of 8-Ball High to In The Grave, masturbation makes me feel like I’ve just eaten a baked turkey. Now I know that *should* count as my second meal of the day, but I’m a total glutton! so when I rise from my post-auto-coital slumber, I chow the fuck down. And since I don’t know anyone who can type and eat simultaneously, I don’t feel the least bit bad about taking my lunch hour to catch up on a couple hundred minutes of YouTube stories. Inevitably one of them makes me horny, so rub-a-dub-dub once more, and BINGO, mind’s right again. Nap. Walk (kitchen). Eat. And if there’s nothing on television and my Facebook adversaries have all been vanquished, you wouldn’t believe the magic that can sometimes happen. Hypothetically. I don’t currently have any ideas. Hope this helps everyone!!!
Thank you for this very interesting post. I consider myself as a inspired amature screenwriter. Unforntunatly English is not my mother tongue so i have to use the google translate now and than, could be curious of course. Still don’t understand why don’t everybody speak dutch?
I am happy to know now that there is something like prep writing. Before, I allways didn’t know what I was doing, now most of the time i have no clue. My process is the following; an example; I read somewhere that ‘internet is worse for one’s health.’ I start thinking about that and ask myself the question why, If that is true would it be possible to kill someone by internet? Or could internet really take out that kind of action? Of course I don’t know and there is where I start thinking about it. Naturally i could go watching movies like; The net and Sneakers but that would be to easy, besides i allready wached them. And it looks a lot like preparation. No i continue thinking and thinking untill I know an for me workable angle. Next step is the determination of beginning and ending of the story. Its obvious that the story has to be foud between that two markers. I invent some inspiring caracters and start writing. Ofcourse i obey the laws of the 3 act screenplay. For the rest i go with the flow. When i start writing new ideas pop up and at the end of the day i could end up on a very different destination. Most of the time I do my first draft with the pencil on a pile of printer paper. Later I ram it in my computer. I know this is not ideal, but don’t know an other way. 0f course there is allways the possibility to let a colleque do some editing, most of the time things get better. I was so sorry to bother you with my therrible english, no thats not true!