Problem 1: Starting to write too early
I began my professional writing career as a news reporter, and for decades, news reporting used to be all about the inverted pyramid: putting the most important information first. It was a convention at least partially necessitated by the way the text had to be typeset manually. The least important information was left last, so that it could be left out easily, in case it didn’t fit the page. In online journalism, this type of writing has partially been replaced by clickbait, so that you will nowadays have to keep on clicking to find out what actually happened.
Putting the most important information in the headline is an important journalistic skill, but it is a rather useless skill when it comes to writing novels or screenplays. It will easily lead to too much exposition, and usually too early in the creative work, rather than letting the reader or the viewer know what is going on only as much as is necessary, which maintains suspension.
Journalism is a craft that works to remove all suspension, whereas novels and screenplays are all about suspension.
When I moved into creative writing around twelve years ago, I had to unlearn many of the sound journalistic practices I had applied when writing news. To start with, I had to let go of the inverted pyramid, because you should really only be fully able to understand the whole story after you have finished it.
The second thing I have had to learn is to not to begin to write too early. Some years ago, a film production company was interested in the rights for a book I had cowritten, The Red Scorpion: A True Russian Mafia Story. It is a true crime account based on the experiences of Rami Kivisalo, who partnered with a Russian mafia group in drug trade before being arrested and imprisoned for a few years for some of his crimes.
As a condition, I wanted to write the screenplay myself. The production company gave me a month to write the screenplay; retrospectively it seems clear that they wanted me to fail, so that they could hire a screenwriter with already existing production credits to package the script better, and to make it more attractive for financing.
I managed to put a script together in a month. The script was duly rejected. I read my script again around a year later, and I had to acknowledge that they were right in their rejection, as the script has the maximum of 15 good pages.
This experience put me off screenwriting for a while. I knew before even trying to write this particular script that, usually, an author is the worst person to adapt a screenplay, as he or she is too close to the original work.
Retrospectively, it seems clear to me that the trick of the production company was to force me to start writing too early. And I took the bait; rather than trying to tell a good story I tried to write a good screenplay.
Trying to write a good screenplay rather than telling a story is like focusing on building the scaffolding rather than the actual building.
It means that you will be sidetracked by the craft and techniques of screenwriting rather than pursuing the best possible story. You are approaching your work at the wrong level, spending too much time in polishing the toolkit, rather than focusing on what you want to do and choosing whichever is the right tool at any given moment.
You can analyse great screenplays, such as Memento, Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects, but if their structure is not the right one for your story, all your learning will only lead you astray. Don’t get me wrong, it is good to know the tools of the trade, but the trade is not about the tools but about the story. You will need to know the tools, but it is your story that should guide you to choose the tools.
I had encountered the first challenge of telling a story. Blindsided by the shiny tools, I had begun to write the story too early. I had all the confidence that the tools would help me to write the story, but I had not imagined the story yet. So, I ended up with a great story told poorly. #sad
Some months ago, I started screenwriting again. First, for an anime series I have been working for with some producer friends in Asia. Second, I started to write yet another screenplay for a film.
This time around, my process has been strikingly different. I am so busy with the other things that I don’t really have time to sit down and write a screenplay. But writing a screenplay doesn’t really take a lot of time, as long as you know what you want to put on the page before you start.
So, rather than writing I take a nap. And I begin to imagine a story. Or, rather, I let my mind travel and drift, but with the starting point of remembering what I have already written. A few scenes come to my mind. Then I get up and write them down. When I have written the scenes I stop, unless new scenes come to mind. Then I reread and revise what I have already written.
I am no more trying to write a screenplay. Instead, I am letting my subconscious imagine and visualise the story in my mind. I only begin to write when I have something in mind.
Over the last few months I have found imagining a story to be a lot better way of writing a screenplay that trying to write a screenplay.
I let my subconscious solve all the problems of the script through restful imagining.
Our subconscious is lot better in ensuring that the scene will actually move the story forward than the technique of putting words on the page straight away. That is because our brain’s neural network is all about creating meaningful links. We tend to remember facts only if they are linked to other facts.
This technique leaves our subconscious in suspense, trying to figure out what happens next.
Because our subconscious doesn’t like suspense, it will come up with a solution which will naturally move the story forward, simply because through the way it works, the subconscious will attempt to create links between the facts, so that we will be able to remember them better. So, our subconscious is well able to create meaningful stories, which have a beginning, middle and end.
It is no wonder that many writers get their best ideas in dreams.
If I don’t imagine the scenes first, I will soon find that my story loses its way, and I end up writing pages after pages of scenes that don’t move the story forward. They will all have to be deleted later. And all these false beginnings will take a lot of time undo.
I never thought that I could achieve my best work simply by lying down on a sofa. But that seems to be the case. So, rather than trying to write a scene I first imagine it. So, the first time I write it down is essentially the first time of rewriting. And rewriting is easy.
I am not sure what is the best way for you to map out your way through a story. But this seems to work for me.