The Screenwriter’s Creative Process

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by Fiona Wheeler

Do you write every day? Do you plan and outline, or is each new screenplay discovered as you write that first draft? How often do you take the time to think about your creative process?

When most screenwriters are asked about their process, they reply that they write a bit every day, or that they set aside one day a week when they turn off their technologies and just immerse themselves in the world of their current screen project.

To me, the creative process means thinking not just about the ‘how and when’ of  writing, but considering the ‘why.’ It also means taking a step back from the actual act of writing, analyzing what methods have worked in the past, and trying to figure out why some methods are less effective than others.

What Works For Others

It’s extremely useful to read interviews of other writers, not just screenwriters but also authors and poets. My favorite interviews are without a doubt those conducted for the Paris Review. I’m currently rereading The Paris Review Interviews Volume Four, which has a great introduction by Salman Rushdie.

Over the course of several days, one established writer will interview another. Both parties are then involved in editing the transcript of the sessions, which is printed with a one page writing sample, so you can see how the writer in question marks their work when rewriting. And of course, there are many published ‘Screenwriters on Screenwriting’ collections.

The screenwriter and screenwriting blogger, Scott Myers (K-9, Alaska, Trojan War) swears by the formula ‘1, 2, 7, 14,’ meaning you should read one screenplay a week, watch a couple of films, write seven pages and spend fourteen hours each week developing your story and characters.

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What Works For Me

When I first started writing, I did find it a useful discipline to write every day and to have a daily minimum, but after about a decade I weaned myself off the habit. Busy work isn’t always a good thing. I found that by taking the keyboard out of the equation, I was forced to think more deeply about what I was writing.

Not jotting down every little thought meant that each new evolution of the story had to justify its mental space or I just didn’t bother to remember it the next time I played the whole story over in my mind.

It’s much easier to do that when you’re writing plays (as I was at the time), which are literally all set on one stage over a two hour period. It’s much harder to do that with screen stories, at least for me, because the type of screen story you’re telling and the way you’re telling it are inextricably linked to the casting and locations, and therefore the budget.

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These days, I have one period each year where I come up with new concepts for screen projects. I get the producing elements out of the way by deciding which concepts will work as films (low budget, independent producer) and which can only work as movies (mid or big budget, made by a studio). Obviously, those of us who are relatively early in their screenwriting careers, aren’t likely to have our specs made into movies, but I still think it’s important to get into the habit of writing for larger budgets because they’re so very different. That way, if you are one of the few writers who make it to the A-list, you’ll have the required skills to make a real go of it.

Once I’ve decided on my slate for the year and what the general scope of each project would be, I take the producers hat off. I basically spend the rest of the year developing and eventually writing (and rewriting) a handful of the slated projects.

I can see why other writers find the rhythm of a defined daily routine easier to maintain, but for me a big part of the reason I write is to challenge myself. I tend to get quite frustrated and disappointed with myself if I feel I haven’t been pushing myself hard enough and haven’t evolved enough in the past six months.

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I recently reread William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. He mentions that whereas novelists and poets most often keep improving with each work they produce, most screenwriters tend to plateau after their second or third hit on the board. Their craft as a screenwriter either atrophies or stays the same after that. How depressing is that?

The only writer I’m ever in competition with is myself, so the idea that I might one day get that blasé about my craft is alarming. I don’t ever want to be the sort of writer who just phones it in. It’s also one of the reasons why I set very high goals for myself. If I’m always striving towards some perfect, huge goals, hopefully I’ll never get complacent.

The Day to Day of Writing

I like to juggle a couple of projects at once.  Not because I have a particularly short attention span, or because I use the same generic formula for each work.

Back in film school, students sure weren’t shy about expressing their thoughts on why other students chose the various themes and depictions they did, and as writers we spend a significant part of our time analyzing what makes a character say and think what they do. Of course we screenwriters are automatically going to psychoanalyze every other writer, and perhaps worry that they (and our audiences) will do it to us too, in turn.

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I find that if I set aside one project, when I feel that urge to self-censor coming on, and move for a time to another project, then my work as a whole is more emotionally honest and raw. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my writing practice, it’s that it’s much easier to tone down rawness and individuality than it is to inject uniqueness into something generic and emotionally closed down.

Often we hear of Olympic swimmers who retire and just don’t get in a pool for three or four years. I worry that if a writer constantly dips into their reserve and never steps back and takes a break from their writing, one day the same will happen. They’ll lose their love of the writing process and just walk away from the art form altogether.

Experimenting not just with your content, but also with the way that you write can help a writer find balance, allowing their relationship with writing to stay fresh, rewarding and interesting.

~

Fiona Wheeler began writing for the stage, has a Master’s in Screenwriting from a top film school (VCA), and has a feature in development. Born in Australia, she’s lived in several different countries and cultures. This is reflected in the diverse, global screen stories she tells.

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