Sometimes when it comes to writing, the hardest thing to overcome is the simplest. One such example of this is to overcome the intimidation of a blank page and to simply get started. Those first moments when you sit down in front of the page and tell yourself you’re going to write can be huge, and overwhelming. All sorts of thoughts can pass through your head that make putting the first words down on the page near impossible. Am I good enough? Do I have anything to say? How do I do this? Will anyone want to read it? Etc. These kinds of thoughts can stop your writing in its tracks before you even begin. Knowing how to overcome the blank page can be vital, and while there isn’t a method that works for everyone, there are several things that I find work well.
Free Write First
One of the easiest ways I find to get into writing is to simply allow myself to free write for a while. Even if I have a specific story idea in mind, I will sometimes think of my character or my setting and just write whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t always flow in a pretty way, or even make sense, but it does allow me to explore the characters or setting without restrictions and it gets me writing. Once I start putting words on the page, focusing them becomes easier. I also find that just getting started on the act of writing makes some of the tension around writing dissipate. So however you do it, get started by freewriting and getting words on the page. Even if you have to start by writing about your day or something, see where the freewriting takes you. Once you no longer have a blank page, it’s easier to focus on creating something cohesive that you can turn into a story.
Copy Someone Else
This is a method that has been around for a while, and was even used in the movie Finding Forrester. When you are just getting started writing and struggling, try grabbing a random book and copying down the first paragraph of it. As you are writing, let your mind wander, and when you’re comfortable, stop copying and start making it your own. Sometimes using someone else’s work to get you started writing can help you transition into your own work. Just remember to go back once you finish and to change the beginning so it is no longer copying the original author’s work. The key to this is that it gets words on the page, and in making what you write your own.
Make A Rough Outline
When I have a specific story idea in mind, but am struggling to get started, I find that writing down 3-5 bullet points of where I want the immediate section of story I’m working on to go helps. Usually I will do this when I start each chapter. I grab a piece of paper and jot down the 3-5 key moments of the chapter that form the arc of it, then when I write I have “goals” to write toward. It’s just enough outlining to keep the story focused while I’m writing, but not so much that people who hate outlining will feel like they’ve over planned anything.
It works for me because I prefer abbreviated outlines, and it allows me to discover how the characters get from one big moment to the next as I write. So take a few moments to create a small arc for what you want to write, and then let yourself write to those points. It’ll help you visualize what you’re planning to write, and it’ll give you points in the story to write toward. Just try not to make your bullet points too broad, or you can end up feeling lost as to where to start again.
Try a Different Medium
One of the last things I try when I’m struggling to write is to switch mediums. Sometimes I find that I just can’t write a certain story at the computer, and instead I end up writing with a notepad and pen. It seems silly, but just switching mediums like that can actually help get you started. Sometimes I think the notepad works better than the computer when I’m struggling because the notepad feels less permanent and professional. I’m just jotting down ideas! Not writing for real! Which isn’t true at all, but it feels that way. So allow yourself to try a different medium and see if it changes anything. At the very least, switching to something like a notepad where you can do things by hand can allow you to doodle and jot ideas to brainstorm while you are working on getting to the real writing. Which can be just as productive.
The final thing to remember if you are stuck on the white page is that you don’t have to start by writing right away. If writing simply isn’t working, trying outlining or researching or brainstorming for your story. If you do those things, you’ll still be working on your story in some way, and maybe it’ll help you feel more confident so you can get started. Just remember, at some point you have to stop doing these things and get to the writing, so don’t procrastinate too long!
[Sorry for the delay this week, there was a glitch in posting yesterday.]
I’m off in Gunnison, Colorado this week for a writing conference at my old graduate school, Western State Colorado University. For me, a writing conference is a chance to talk writing and get inspired, so I thought I’d post a writing prompt this week to spread some of the inspiration.
Since I’m in a place that is known for its beautiful scenic views, I thought I’d go with a writing prompt that is all about starting with setting to find your story. Try to use the prompt to help visualize the setting, and see where it takes you for creating a story.
A Tree Grows in the Desert
A tree grows alone in the desert. What kind of tree is it? What does it look like?
Describe every detail you can think of. What do those details tell us about the tree?
How does it grow there?
Who discovers it? Someone has to come across it and be our narrator. So who? Why are they in the desert? How did they find the tree?
Who are they?
What does the tree mean to them? Do they interact with the tree somehow?
Is this all a dream?
Or a vision?
Don’t just have this character be at the tree, give them a reason, a purpose. Why are they there? Why is the tree there? How do the tree and the character impact each other? Where do they go once they part?
This prompt is about character and setting, since they are the two core parts of the prompt. It’s also about using mysterious elements to help draw the plot out. If there is a mystery element to be investigated, and a character to investigate it, then there is a plot in there somewhere. So explore the tree, develop the character who interacts with the tree, and see where the story takes you.
Next week I’ll be back with my usual post, but for now, happy writing! If you want to play with this prompt, you can try to set it in other unusual places if you want (the ocean, a grocery store, etc). The key is, that the tree is somewhere unusual, and the story comes from someone interacting and exploring the tree and why it is there. So explore, have fun, and get writing!
Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
Lately I’ve been coming across a lot of writing where the emotional connection has been lacking. If your audience isn’t invested or connecting with your story somehow, they will not want to stick around to finish it. There are a lot of ways your writing could lack an emotional connection, but the main one I find is when your characters or your plot aren’t ringing true to the audience. When it feels like the characters are just going through the motions of the story, rather than really living and breathing the story, then it starts to feel false. So how do you keep it feeling realistic so your audience is emotionally invested?
Actions and Words
One of the most important elements in a story to help it feel realistic is that your characters dialogue and their actions match up. To do this, make sure your character is behaving in a way that goes with their attitude and dialogue. If your character is angry, and is yelling, don’t have their body language be weak and cowering. If your character is shy and afraid, don’t have them adopting a dominant posture. These things are minor touches in your writing, but if your characters’ words aren’t backed up by their actions and body language, then their words won’t ring true and will make the audience feel as if something is off, even if they can’t put into words what exactly it is.
The exception, of course, is if the character is someone who says one thing and does another, or if your character is purposely behaving in a contradictory way because of anxiety, fear, or ulterior motives. In those cases, you still have to be consistent with that character and continue that behavior throughout the story. If they act irrationally when they’re afraid, then show the audience that and make them behave that way every time. If they are a perpetual liar, or manipulator, then again show that and make sure the audience understands the contradictions.
The second element that helps make your audience emotionally connect is to feel like your characters are behaving sincerely. I don’t mean they have to be telling the truth all the time or behaving kindly, they just have to be behaving true to who they (the characters) are. If a character isn’t behaving the way they would in reality, then the audience will pick up on that and feel like they’re being lied to and not connect with the story.
This comes down to one thing – you want your characters to be people, not actors. If it feels like they’re actors pretending to be someone, then it will create an unnecessary barrier between the story and your audience. You want your characters to always be themselves, and to behave in accordance to how they would naturally behave unless there is a significant reason for them not to.
A lot of people think that the only characters the above stuff matters for is for the main characters, and maybe the secondary or even tertiary characters, but it’s more than that. Every single character in your story matters, and every single character should have a motive for their behavior that they drives their behavior. Without this, minor characters in stories will feel like placeholders and even disrupt the story.
If you have a ton of minor characters who just pass through the story without distinguishing them by giving them their motivations, it’ll be like placing a color photo on all gray background. While that can be pretty and help make the main photo pop, it’ll make the background uninteresting.
In a story, this kind of thing makes the story as a whole suffer because your character is living in this world, and if the world is boring and uninteresting, or unrealistic, then it’ll start to affect the main character. If you give your minor characters one thing, give them a motivation for being in the scene and every action they take. As long as they are clearly motivated, and stick true to these motivations, they’ll help give the scene more purpose and make the story more dynamic, which means it’ll be easier for your audience to get invested.
We’ve looked at how a screenplay goes from idea to beat sheet or outline in Part 1. And we’ve seen that the tools used to sell your screenplay, such as the logline and the pitch, are created before you ever start to actually write the script in Part 2. Last week, in Part 3, we looked at the type of research that goes into writing a screenplay. Today, I’d like to look another important step in creating a finished script.
The final step in completing any writing project is rewriting, or revising, to make sure that the finished piece you’re going to submit is the absolute best it can be. In literary writing, it’s called revision, and there may be several revisions before the piece is ready to be sent off in hopes of discovery. But you finish the first draft, before you start revising, or at least some writers do. Me, I’m a firm believer that the more things I fix as I go, the less I will have to fix later, so I do some revision during the writing process of the first draft. In screenwriting, it’s called is rewriting, and it actually takes place all the way through the writing process, which is more in sync with my writing style.
Once the draft for ACT I is finished, you look it over, get feedback from other screenwriters, if available, and then make changes and adjustments to the sections that aren’t working for whatever reason. You repeat the process when you’ve finished the draft up to the end of ACT II, but this time, you also watch to be sure that the two acts flow together well, in addition to ascertaining that ACT II works well. Again, after ACT III is finished, but on the final rewrite, you must be sure that it work as a whole, the flow of the beats are smooth and you’ve maintained a constant tone throughout. If you’ve done a good job on the prior revisions, there may be very little rewriting to do at this point, and it’s really just a matter of fine tuning your script.
For my thesis, I originally wanted to lead viewers through the story with a series of voice-overs by Bonnie, which included imagined journal entries and letters, as well as some of the poetry she actually wrote. I knew I wanted to do this from the start. However, on the last read through, my peers and my instructor brought it to my attention that the way my script was written, I stuck the poetry into scenes where I thought I wanted it, but the way it was written my audience would be looking at a blank screen while they listened to Bonnie’s voice-over, which was not the way I intended it to be.
The majority of my final rewrite was positioning these voice-overs, especially those with the poetry, some of which were quite long at strategic sections where they would seem to refer to what was happening in the story, and to keep the action going during them. In one scene that meant showing Bonnie writing the letter while the voice-over tells us what that letter said. That’s one that I had right. Other scenes needed to have the voice-over over the action, like a car chase. And in some, like at the end of ACT III, I needed the voice-over to play in sync with a montage of single snapshot scenes. There are different ways to write it, so that the voice-over is played the way I wanted it to in each case, and a good portion of my final rewrite consisted of tweaking the scenes with voice-over so they would play the way I wanted them to.
In the end, I came out with a screenplay that flows together well, tells the story I wanted to tell in a compelling and original way, and has a lot of commercial potential. Maybe someday you’ll see The Life and Times of Bonnie Parker on the marquee at the theater as you’re driving down the street.
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Last week in Part 1, I explored story origins, and the tools you use to shape an idea into a movie plot with a beat sheet. Now I’ll talk about tools, like the step outline, which are used to convince others to read and hopefully, buy your screenplay.
One big difference between screenwriting and literary writing is the way they handle the pitch. While in literary writing, they teach us to do the pitch for our story only when we’re close to having a finished product to sell to an agent or publisher, in screenwriting you write the pitch from the idea, before you ever start writing the actual script. This is because of the difference in the pitch itself, for in literature, your pitch is usually written and submitted in the form of a query, in screenwriting, you must be able to talk about your movie in a brief one line description and in expanded forms that explore more depth and detail, so writing pitches is something we practice a lot. The thing is, often after all the revisions and rewrites, the final product turns out to be something different from what you were pitching. Until I figured out how to write this movie from Bonnie’s perspective, I was just pitching the same movie everybody already knows.
It was during the time I was trying to get my pitch right that the title changed. I had been referring to The Life and Times of Bonnie and Clyde, until I finally figured out that this was really Bonnie’s story, from Bonnie’s perspective. I’d been saying it all along, claiming that was what set my story apart from all the rest, but I hadn’t been doing it. I was still looking at it from the perspective of the two of them as a couple. While I couldn’t change the real life events to fit the formula, I could show different events that gave the story a different perspective, and even a different tone, starting with the title.
In both literary writing and in screenwriting, your pitch is your calling card. It’s your key to the kingdom of either publishing, or production, and it must reach out and grab the reader’s attention and hold it, making them want to know more. They’ll see the pitch first, and it has to tempt them to continue on and read your script or manuscript, and that’s a goal that every writer understands.
A treatment is the outline for your script. It tells everything you want an interested buyer to know about your script. My treatment starts with my logline. A logline is a one to two sentence description of a movie or television series. As a rule, it’s 25 words or less, but it can be presented in longer paragraph form. My logline for The Life and Times of Bonnie Parker is: “The Life and Times of Bonnie Parker is the tragic story of a young woman in the depression era who falls in love with a petty criminal, and is caught up in a whirlwind of lawlessness in their struggle to survive. When theft turns to murder, they’re swept into a life on the road which can only lead to tragedy.”
Character triangles are one thing that actually works in literature a well as in screenwriting. Every character in every story ever written or thought of has a want or desire which motivates them to take action and move the story forward. Likewise, every character has a fear or flaw, which stands in the way of achieving whatever it is that motivates them, and obstacle to achieving their goal, which must be overcome. And, once their flaw has been overcome, a transformation takes place and the character is changed, creating a character arc for your story. At this point we usually learn what it is that the character actually needs, which is usually something different from what the character’s want is, but it’s achievement must be acquired to achieve the completion of the character arc. The need might be a lesson learned, or self-discovery of an aspect of their personality they were unaware of, but it’s always an inner need. As a general rule, the character’s desire is usually an external want, while the need is internal. This applies to storytelling of any type. It works when applied to both literary writing and screenwriting.
My instructor and screenwriting advisor, J.S. Mayank, always has us determine the character triangles for at least two or three of the main characters before we try to write, because he believes that if you have your triangles figured out, the rest will fall into place. Triangles are an area I have a lot of difficulty with for some reason, and I usually make several shots at it before I get it right. My triangle for Bonnie looked like this:
Want: To be with Clyde
Unfortunately, Bonnie never achieves her need.
Also included in your treatment are character bios for at least two or three of the main characters. In storytelling of any kind you must know your characters well. It’s a secret to writing well-rounded characters who readers or viewers can relate to. Characters without background, feel flat and two-dimensional. For my characters, the bios are already written, since they are true life characters, but I still had to write a sketch that tells how I see them.
Then comes the actual treatment, or outline, which tells what happens in your movie beat by beat. I like to write mine like a beat sheet, placing each scene in the beat it should be under. Some beats may have more than one scene, but with the formulaic nature of screenwriting, it’s fairly easy to label each beat once you have all the scenes laid out.
Again, there were a lot of revisions and changes in the rewrite, so my original treatment was different in many ways from how the final product turned out. Some scenes were thrown out and replaced by others, some scenes were just tossed out, and some scenes were added where I felt they were needed. The necessity of a revised treatment once the final screenplay is completed is obvious.
These are the tools of persuasion, or explanation which are used to try to sell a screenplay. Next week in Part 3, I’ll take a look at the research that goes into writing a screenplay. It’s the fun part, so don’t miss it.
Writing for the screen is very different from literary writing, but there are also many similarities. Although my thesis project, The Life and Times of Bonnie Parker, is for the screenwriting emphasis, I obtained the first emphasis for my M.F.A. in Creative Writing in genre fiction, so I tend to make comparisons with my literary experiences naturally. Screenwriting is visual, whereas literature employs the use of all five senses. Screenwriting is also much more formulaic. Where literature tells us we must have a beginning, middle, and end, and we must throw a climax in there somewhere, screenwriting outlines all the beats and tells us approximately where each one should fall within your script. I think you get the idea. What you’re about to read is what goes into the creative process of writing a full length feature screenplay, from a literary perspective.
My thesis project, The Life and Times of Bonnie Parker, is based on the true life story of 1930’s bank robbers, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. It’s not an idea I brilliantly plucked from the idea tree that grows in the backyard of my mind, but rather a different version of a story that’s been told many times before. It is the result of viewing the 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde, with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, as well as numerous documentaries on the couple and their infamous crime spree. From my research, as I compared the many conflicting stories and the different portrayals of this story, it occurred to me, that really, this was a tragic love story, a contemporary Romeo and Juliet, but no one had ever shown that side of it. Their story had always been portrayed with car chases and shoot outs, glamourizing the gangster life, but to me, that wasn’t what Bonnie and Clyde were about. Hence, the idea was born to tell the story of Bonnie and Clyde from Bonnie’s perspective, the story of a young girl caught up in the circumstance of the times, willing to anything for the man she loved, including die for him.
The Beat Sheet
As I mentioned, screenwriting is very formulaic. So, where in literary writing you make an outline before you start writing your novel or book, in screenwriting, you create a beat sheet before you start. The beat sheet outlines each event which propels your story forward, and as I also mentioned each beat is supposed to occur at a certain point within the script.
Now here’s where I had a lot of difficulty, because true life events seldom conform to the formulaic sequence of a screenplay. The story of Bonnie and Clyde was no different. Because of this, and because I still thought of their story as the crime spree they embarked on between 1932 and 1934, the beat sheet I created turned out to be different in many ways from the final script. Once I began looking at things from Bonnie’s perspective, it turned into a very different movie.
In addition to this, a screenwriter must also be able to do a step outline, which chronicles each scene, step by step, very similar to a chapter outline for a literary work. While the beats can be noted in the step outline, this is not the same as the beat sheet.
There’s a lot more that goes into writing a screenplay, but this is how you get started. The beat sheet is a tool for your own use, while the Step Outline is a tool you use to convince a producer or director to buy your screenplay and hopefully, make a movie out of it. Next week, in Part 2 of Making a Screenplay, we’ll talk more about the tools you use to sell your screenplay.