Traditional screenwriting is kaput, in my humble opinion.
For those of you who follow my tweets and Facebook status updates, you might recall that a few weeks ago I finished the first draft of my latest feature-length script Caput, a hyperbolic Hudson Hawk of an action drama that centers around a mafia hit man who’s peculiar quirk inhibits him from “getting out” for good.
Back in December I was determined to write Caput “the right way” which meant sketching some character bios, finishing a full outline, organizing a scene-by-scene breakdown on index cards, and getting through all the other step-by-step instructions that you’ll read in just about any book on screenwriting. It works for so many of my friends and colleagues whom I respect a great deal, but I found that it just doesn’t work for me.
When I write, the words need to flow. I can’t put too much thought behind them. I spent January, February, and March doing absolutely nothing with Caput except a very rough outline, which only got me up to the midpoint (in Syd Fieldian terms) before I was completely stumped. I spent a few days ruminating over it, sketching out some possible directions, but nothing seemed to work. So I put it aside, defeated for the time being.
Then I woke up on the morning of April 4th and got ready for my normal Monday teaching back-to-back Civilizations courses at one of my universities. I had packed my laptop since I was showing The Passion of the Christ as part of our chapter on Christianity, so I had a good five hours to sit down in that dark room amongst my students and write ten pages. That was my goal. It sounded reasonable enough. Ten pages, and that was all I wrote. And even though I felt the drive to continue, I parked my thoughts at page 10.
The next day, after a modest workout and even more modest breakfast, I sat at my little faux-wood table and wrote another ten pages. And ten pages a day it would be for the next two weeks, typing practically non-stop for an average of between two to three hours. By getting into “The Zone,” and most importantly by not thinking too hard about what I was writing, I was organically creating a bigger story with new characters, an entire subplot, twists and more twists with MacGuffens and other textbook elements strewn in here and there. It’s a beautiful mess of a script, I’m sure. But it’s fresh! And beginning this week, I’ll be putting together a tight revision of this first very rough draft that no eyes but mine will see.
Now I suppose it’s the poet in me, working from inspiration, letting the words flow from brain to page as if they were being whispered into my ear by some magical muse with a thick Italian accent (and pointing a gun at my ribs, too!) And although the two mediums are not worlds, but galaxies apart nowadays, one feature is the same for both: Words. If we spend too much time in our minds plotting and re-plotting, nothing gets written.) Just write out that first draft! It’s only when you have it writ that you can tell if it’s a hit.
So then, back to what I stated earlier, that traditional screenwriting is kaput. Okay, not quite. Though many script coaches and analysts will disagree with me here, I’ve found you don’t have to spend your time writing those character sketches, outlining on index cards. Just get the basic story and scenes written out and run with it. And most importantly, don’t overdo it. If you’re a writer in this day and age, you’ve probably got a job to go to at some point in the day, so write what and when you can. Tennessee Williams used to get up at 6am and write until noon every day. Well, we’re not him; most of us have to squeeze in our daily dose of writing with our morning orange juice. For me, it’s ten pages a day. For others it may be Pilar Alessandra’s Coffee Break Screenwriter approach or the “Million Dollar Method” popularized by Chris Soth and USC. And still some may simply learn tips and tricks of the trade by following the insightful tweets of The Script Lab, Screenwriting U, and Raindance Film Festival amongst others.
Whatever your method and however you do it, just write that script!