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.