I’ve been struck again recently with the degree to which playwrights and screenwriters I work with often tend to be unaware of, downplay, or largely ignore the importance of pre-writing work before going to draft. Talented as they are, a number of my script consulting clients and students in the MFA program I run are not adequately familiar with the pre-writing tools available to them and that are, in my opinion, essential for thorough character exploration and for laying the structural groundwork for any good script.
There are a number of basic principles that need to be embraced as you plunge into a new project, all of which point to the importance of undertaking extensive pre-writing work:
— Getting to know all your characters well. Over and over again writers I work with are amazed by what happens when they take the time upfront to really explore in depth who their people are–their pasts, their inner life, their fears, their dreams, their loves, their hates, and on and on. I mean really digging deep and getting to know the characters as real people with all their baggage. Writers discover that by doing this work their characters suddenly spring to life and start taking over the story with all its twists and turns. They take the reins–which is the best of all possible situations for the writer.
–Determining who’s the central character of your story. In most successful stories (most but not all) there is one central figure that takes the lead in terms of main dilemma or problem or struggle that’s being dealt with. Sometimes it turns out that this character may not have the most lines or screen time as another character, but the main thrust of the story involves this person’s struggle to deal with an issue. You need to determine who this is–who the story is about.
–Figuring out what you’re hoping to ultimately communicate to your audience. This is a somewhat controversial element in the pre-writing lexicon, but I always ask a simple two-part question to those who resist it: How can you create the plot of a story if you don’t have a good idea of where your central character ultimately is going to land and by determining your ending point how are you not giving the audience a definite message about the central issue being dealt with in the script? Your ending is your message in other words. Obviously this can change as more discoveries are made in the writing process, but I think considering this upfront is unavoidable. Driving blind doesn’t get you far.
–Creating a solid structural framework that supports the arc of your central character’s journey. Developing the working drawings of your story from beginning to end is sometimes avoided because writers are afraid of diminishing the sense of adventure of discovering the story as the first draft is being written. My experience as a writer and in working with writers is that the opposite is true–that the real adventure in writing scripts happens when you have charted your route and you know where you’re going and as a result you can concentrate your skill on bringing scene after scene to full life.
–Staying patient and fighting the urge to plunge into draft before you’re ready. I think the biggest problem most writers have is controlling their impatience to get into draft. Somehow they convince themselves that all of the needed discoveries can best be made only when they are actually into the writing of the actual script. It amazes me when writers are willing to write reams of exploratory scenes (because that is all they are) thinking they are actually writing their award-winning screenplay or play. For some writers, this is the only process that works for them. More power to them. But in contrast, if a writer’s talent and skill is focused on a first draft of a project that has had what I think is the necessary pre-writing work, then the chances are probably much greater that the resulting script will be a true winner. And patience pays off because it can be written in half the time.
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In addition to being an independent film producer and script consultant, I’m the Program Director for a low-residency MFA degree in Writing for Stage and Screen offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.
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