Wednesday, April 11, 2012

My writing process

In the post about dealing with writer's block, I talked about my process in a random, scattershot way, so I thought I'd put it all in one post to explain it a bit better. This is NOT me telling you how to do it, or that my way is the best - it's just what I do, a method I've put together over several years, that works for *me*. It may not work for you. It may even hurt you, or cause scabies, or something. Anyway, onwards. Here's what I do.

Step 1 - The Idea


Sometimes an idea pops into my head, at random. This is great, because it saves me having to think of one. Or I'll see something happen, someone walking down the street, or a news story, and think "hmm, what if...?" Most ideas are variations on "what if" questions. What if me and all the passengers in this tube train were taken hostage by terrorists/bank robbers/aliens? What if that guy over there was a serial killer, and I'm his next target?

For my Torchwood episode Sleeper, the idea was "what if you discovered you were actually an alien in disguise?" That's literally all I had at first. The idea itself doesn't have to be much, it can even be a concept, or a vague direction, like a buddy cop thriller, or something about mountain climbers. It can be anything, as long as the idea excites me.

That seems an obvious thing to say, but you'd be surprised at how many people write things they don't care about, to fill some perceived market need. Don't. Ever. By the time you get your script together, the market will have moved on. And even if your timing is perfect, nobody wants to read a script written with no love or passion.

Step 2 - Brainstorm


This is the fun, easy part. Once I have the core idea, I open a new text file, and brainstorm everything and anything that could possibly be related to it, anything that pops into my head, typing it all into the text file, in a stream of consciousness - sentences, fragments, paragraphs, asking myself questions, answering them, jokes, dialogue lines, random scenes, characters who might be interesting to put into this type of story, anything at all, even if it doesn't fit.

For Sleeper, it was fairly easy to brainstorm, because the initial idea was a mystery - so I'm an alien in disguise, why am I in disguise? What am I doing here? Why the secrecy? If it's so secret that even *I* don't know, what the hell's going on? Clearly it's not a mission of peace, so what's the plan? Who else has that level of secrecy? Spies? Terror cells? Etc.

For a more detailed example, let's take a silly idea for a movie: "MonkeySpank, the Movie". The core idea: "What if a man was turned into a monkey for 24 hours, and framed for murder?" It's an idea, but there's not much to it. How do you spin a 90 minute movie script out of that? Is it enough? What happens? What is it about?

Here's how a typical section of brainstorming would look, based on that idea:

---
There could be a bit with a car chase, where the monkey has to learn how to drive, maybe it steals a special toy car for kids so it can reach the pedals?? tense car chase but with comedy from the tiny car, risking getting crushed under real car wheels
--"Follow that monkey!"

Who framed him for murder? Why? Maybe the murderer knows the monkey is the framed man, and is trying to kill it, but maybe an animal rights group is trying to stop him, or maybe there's an outbreak of MonkeyFlu and the government has ordered a cull on all wild monkeys, so the police are after him too - lots of different groups chasing a sentient monkey...
--animals rights activist trying to save the monkey, doesn't realise it's a human- violent activist willing to injure or kill humans to protect an animal? or hippy fun character trying to stop violence, but ends up causing more than everyone else, by accident??

How did he get turned into a monkey? Does the real killer have magic powers to curse people into monkey form, or is the hero a scientist who invented a transmogrification machine? Hey, maybe the monkey guy was the scientist and the killer threw him into the machine and turned him into a monkey to steal his idea, maybe the machine gets out of control and starts changing other people, maybe animals become humans, etc etc.
---

Items linked to the previous paragraph are typed directly underneath, with double dashes to indicate that they're related. Everything else has a line break between them. Helps keep related things together, without cluttering up into one giant paragraph. Having said that, it is usually a gigantic mess, and looks like the ravings of a serial killer. Doesn't matter, as long as I can understand it.

I write pages and pages of this. Just thinking it through, working out things to do, things I want to say. I research real life stories and people related to the subject, find links, photos, songs, anything that might come in handy. It allows me to be completely creative without limiting myself, letting my mind explore the idea, characters and world fully. I write down *anything* that could be in the story, without second guessing it or trying to make it work. That way, I come up with things that would never occur to me if I just went straight to an outline first.

Now, most of that couldn't possibly be in the same film, it'd be a total mess. But it gives me options - even, as you can see, two ways of going with one character. I can spin random stuff off from any of it, come up with random characters who want different things, random tangents, and so on. Any characters that interest me, I'll think about who they are and what they want, what they might bring to this type of story.

Step 3 - Putting it together


This step can take a long time, as it's the most complicated. After several pages of thinking up stuff, some of it will naturally stick together, and a proper plot will start to form out of all the pieces that stick. I'll have so much stuff in the brainstorm text file, there will be lots of possibilities.

Once I've figured out the best plot line to take, I can ditch anything that doesn't fit (or make it fit), and keep everything that does. The plot gets refined, so that it flows and sticks to a rough structure, at which point other bits might not fit, and need to be ditched or adapted.

At this point, there will be gaps or weird transitions - the hero is in one place, then in the next scene they're somewhere else and the villain is missing an arm. Plot holes, leaps in logic, or even a huge gap in the middle of the story, in between the setup and ending. What does everyone *do* during that??

To go back to "MonkeySpank, the Movie", at the start the guy gets framed for murder and turned into a monkey. At the end, he (presumably) unmasks the real killer, clears his own name, and gets turned back into a human. What does he do in between those, apart from the random, unlinked scenes? When that happens, I put myself in the main character's position. If I found myself in that situation, what would I do to try and get out of it? I'd probably try to communicate with someone - but I can only make monkey noises. Okay, so I'd probably try to write things down - but my monkey dexterity only helps with running and climbing, I can't really hold a pen properly. Well then I'd point at things - but how would I get people to take me seriously?? I'm a monkey!

I think of everything I might try, and make the hero try them too. But I make sure he fails, or is stopped by the villain. That way, the hero is constantly active, trying to solve his problems, and constantly getting thwarted. The audience will be thinking of all the sensible things they'd do, and will get annoyed if the characters don't try them. One of my biggest complaints when watching movies are characters with no common sense. Why don't they just call the police/get out of town/leave the creepy cabin in the woods/etc etc? Well, why don't they?? Let them try! Then throw obstacles in their path. It'll keep it surprising and exciting. Give them missions to go on, plans to try, places to investigate. Keep them active.

But I don't just put myself in the hero's shoes, I must also put myself in the villain's shoes, to make sure they're complex and consistent. Pretend the villain is the hero, the main character. What does he want? How will he accomplish it? What would *I* do if I desperately wanted the hero dead? Pretend the hero is the villain, how would I punish them, and stop them achieving their plans? If the villain has a solid plan, their actions will be consistent all the way through, just like the hero is in trying to escape them.

Sure, the hero would *never* go to the creepy old sawmill, but if I was the villain, how could I make sure they went there? Take them there at gunpoint? Trap their friend there? Make sure that the only possible solution to their current problem is hidden under a floorboard in the sawmill?? This can require a lot of time thinking about how to trap, hurt and kill people. Don't worry, it's normal.

Mild spoilers for Jurassic Park 3 and Serenity: For example, Dr Grant in Jurassic Park 3 refuses to go back to the island ever again. They promise him a large amount of money just to fly over it, so he can point things out from the air - they won't even land. He reluctantly agrees, then they land anyway. They tricked him, and now Sam Neill is stuck on the island - and it's not even the right island, he was only ever on the other one (by the way, for fun, try to count the amount of dramatic camera moves towards Sam Neill's face as he makes an ominous statement, there are TONS of them). In Serenity, the crew constantly try to keep themselves out of trouble, but things just get worse and worse, until they have no choice but to face the threat head on.

Pretty soon, the gaps start getting filled in, and there's plenty of plot and fun to go around. I'll also do work in a separate file on the main characters, working out who they are and what they want. I'll custom design characters specifically for the story, so that the events of this movie are the worst possible thing that could happen to them, giving them a compelling reason to want to fix things. Ideally, they are changed somehow by the end of the story, otherwise they've learned nothing. Life changes us in lots of ways, so I want to put them through the wringer.

All during this, I'll keep reminding myself of that original core idea - is that still the core idea? What got me excited about the idea in the first place? Does this scene/line/sequence/character/moment fit in with that core idea? If not, can I make it fit? If not, can I lose it or replace it?

I don't edit the original brainstorm file, by the way - I either copy it all into a new file, and work on that, or just copy bits and pieces into a new file as I go along. Never delete anything!

Step 4 - Outline


Now I can put it all into an outline, usually 3 to 6 pages, keeping it fairly lean and not too detailed - I've got all the detail I need in the brainstorm notes. If the outline is to help pitch/sell the story, then I'll make it fun and clear to read, like a trailer or short story. A bit like this:

Harold/Monkey escapes the laboratory in a hilarious sequence involving him freeing the other animals, including the massive gorilla. He hides out in a nearby shopping centre, managing to steal some food to survive, and tries to figure out how to communicate his plight. But his efforts at writing his name with a crayon lead to him getting sold to a circus, where another monkey is starting to take a romantic interest in him... Meanwhile, the villains realise they've lost him, and launch an all out effort to re-capture him at all costs.

Obviously, I must point out that this is a terrible, fake movie, and not something I'm actually writing.

If it's just a guideline for me when writing the script, then I keep it very lean and functional, more of a bullet point breakdown without too much description. Roughly like this:

--Monkey escapes from lab, villains realise it's on the loose

--Monkey tries to communicate with crayons, gets taken to circus


--Escape from circus, comedy car chase with kid's pedal car


--Hero sneaks into villain's house to search for clues, takes gun


And so on. Even if I have a prettier, pitch outline, I will then do the bullet point version for myself when writing, so I can see the flow more clearly. I'll break it into three acts, so I can see if the structure is flowing nicely. If I'm doing a non-linear type of story, I'll still work out the chronological three act structure first, to make sure it all fits together, and then shuffle it. I use the three act structure because even if you use the 5 act, 7 act, or 17 sequence & 83 mini-moment-event-bollocks approach, every story has a Beginning, Middle and End. Or, if you prefer, Setup, Shenanigans, Climax. Hero gets trapped up tree, hero tries to get out of tree and fails, hero finally escapes tree.

Step 5 - Playlist


This is a step that's not for everyone, but crucial for me. Before I go to script, I put together a new playlist in iTunes, of every song or piece of score that fits the mood and tone of this new story. In the order it would appear in the film/episode/etc. This can take days and days.

The playlist can be quite varied. Many of them are a mix of pop, rock, metal, classical, movie score, anything that might conceivably be on the soundtrack. For the Highlander audio play I wrote, the playlist didn't work, and I couldn't write with it - so I just stuck all of my Queen songs into one playlist, and listened to that over and over. The writing flowed from that point on.

Yes, it's procrastination, but it's something that really helps me get into the right mood when I start writing. I'll even listen to it when I'm out travelling, just to keep my head in the zone. It works for me, as I need to have music playing when I write.

Here's a small section of the 70-track playlist I used while writing Cockneys Vs Zombies:


One of these may have made it into the actual movie. I'm not telling. Wait and see.

Step 6 - Rough draft


Rough draft, or draft zero, or the vomit draft, it has many names. Anything other than "first draft", because it isn't, yet. Nobody's going to read this, ever, I'll be doing another pass on it before it becomes the first draft, so there's no need to worry about making it good yet - just get it all down. Jason "Satan" Arnopp calls it Draft Zero, and he bloody loves it.

Now I have an outline, I know where I'm going, I've got my characters, I can get on with it. I copy the bullet point outline into a blank script file, fire up my playlist, and get moving. I usually can't get stuck anywhere, because at every stage I know what the next sequence is. Now it's about translating it into script format, and letting the characters talk.

The best thing about having the outline worked out so clearly is that it lets me go really fast. So fast, in fact, that I don't have to stop to think - my brain goes into that slightly disengaged, slightly zoned out mode, that lets the words flow and the characters say things before I've even worked out what they're going to say. Obviously it's still me thinking up the words, but it makes it feel like some weird magic is afoot. Gets me in the zone, and I can storm ahead.

The trick is to never look back, or correct anything. If I think of something that needs fixing, I'll just make a note in a separate text file, "Notes for next pass". If it's something from ten pages ago that affects things from now on, I just write as if I've already made the change. Don't fix it now, keep moving forwards. Anything that distracts from that relentless forward motion must be ignored.

At the end, I'll have no idea if the script is any good or not. I leave it for a few days, then open my notes for the next pass, copy the rough draft to a new file (never delete anything, remember), and start working on refining it, fixing the choppy parts, holes, inconsistencies, bad dialogue, trimming out redundant bits, etc etc. Once I've done that, I take a full day to go through it one more time without stopping, just as a general check through. THEN it's a first draft.

Of course, I'll usually go over it several more times, making sure it's as good as I can possibly get it for now. Depends how much time I have. But at some point, it's time to let go, and let people read it. If there are still things that need fixing or editing, then you always have the second draft. And third. And so on. Writing is rewriting. And procrastinating.

The End


And that's my process. Sometimes it doesn't work like that, sometimes I'll come up with a fully formed idea with a beginning, middle and end that just needs fleshing out. Sometimes it'll be a character I want to see, or a scene, or just an image.

Sometimes I'll think of the ending first, and work backwards: the monkey hero traps the villain in the transmogrifier, turns him into a chicken, and cooks and eats it. How do I get there? How would a monkey trap a man in a machine? What would he need to set up? How would he lure him there? How would I do it, if I was in that situation? And so on.

I never think about theme during all this - if I'm excited about the core idea, the bits of the brainstorm that stick together will mostly suggest a theme by themselves. Sometimes I'll see the theme while planning, and it can help to stick to the core concept. But I usually don't know what the theme is until I've finished. It should ideally be in my subconscious, the reason I've been dying to tell this story, without ever realising.

However the idea comes to me, the brainstorm process will hopefully prevent me getting stuck later, as I'll have lots of possible solutions, and can always go back to my notes and find things to use. With writing, meetings, or anything, it's best to overprepare and have too much, then you'll never run out of stuff. I've skimmed over some of it, I spend a long time on characters and setting, but you get the general idea. It has adapted and changed over the years, and I think this is the best way for me to work. But I'm always fiddling with new methods, trying bits of other people's process, you never stop learning.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have another massive playlist to construct. After I've carefully compared 5 slightly different versions of the same opening song.