The Creative Process of an Amateur

Genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, so always wear a white shirt when writing

Genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, so always wear a white shirt when writing

Writing a script is hard when you’re an amateur.

First, and most difficult of all, you need a good idea, for which you need to spend hours filtering out of your brain all the ideas you’ve inadvertently stolen from television, films and books you’ve seen recently. Then you’ll probably have an idea that you know you haven’t stolen, but you have to check in case someone did exactly the same thing before, but better. When you look in a big book of every mainstream film released since 1900 you find a few that are similar, but not exactly the same, and you have to work out whether you can get away with it or not, or whether you care because let’s face it, you wouldn’t be the first person to rip off someone else’s storyline.

So once you have your idea, which could be as simple as girl meets girl, you need to flesh it out a bit. Why are these girls worthy of a film? Do they come from vastly different cultures? Do they have an unusual job where it’s difficult to find love? Are they married to other people? From this development of the characters, hopefully, the conflict will arise, and conflict is what makes a story interesting. (Imagine Harry Potter when all the wizards are good. Casablanca where Ingrid Bergman’s character isn’t married. Trainspotting with no drugs.) Perhaps their families disapprove (sort of a Romeo and Juliet), or the pressures of their unusual jobs are keeping them apart, or their husbands stand in the way. How will they get over these barriers? And once you’ve worked that out, ta-da: plot. It needs a bit of dressing, such as the setting (although this will often come naturally from the plot), but once you’ve dealt with that you can get on with the next bit.

Actually writing the script isn’t the hardest part (coming up with a good and relatively original idea is these days, trust me), but it is the most painful and requires the most actual work. Dialogue is fun, but tough – it has to be interesting without being forced. I love witty characters whose every line is quotable, but you can’t make them all like that. Zingy one-liners are all well and good, but if that’s all your character speaks in, they’ll come across as shallow and unrealistic.

CSI Miami's Horatio Caine, more known for his one-liners than having a personality

You need to remember that dialogue serves two main purposes: establishing character, and moving the plot on. Waste too much time on the first, however, and you’ll end up with a bloated story that moves at a snail’s pace. If your story is a good one, it will be a character’s actions as much as their speech that shows what the character is really like. On the other hand, if your dialogue is solely to move the plot along, you might as well cast sock-puppets for all the personality your characters will have. There’s no ideal ratio for character-driven speech versus plot-driven speech, and you’ll find different stories require different amounts. For example, a romantic comedy will put a lot of emphasis on the characters – the story is about them, after all – whereas a crime thriller will focus more on solving the case, or hunting down the villain.

Pacing is hard, but if you’re finding it difficult, stick to the three-part rule: beginning, middle and end. In our love story, we’d have the beginning of the girls meeting, the middle where they encounter the conflict, and the end where they jump over the hurdle and run into the sunset. The middle bit is the juicy bit, so that should probably make up the bulk of the time. Use the beginning as an introduction to the main story, and don’t dwell on it or people watching will wonder if you’re ever going to move the plot on. The end, well, that’s a bit more difficult. It can be tempting to drag it out for a bit, and if it’s interesting enough then go for it. If, however, you just want to dwell on your characters getting a happy ending, then STOP RIGHT NOW. Conflict, as I said before, is the whole point. Once the characters have resolved the conflict, there’s no more story. Wrap it up, then move on.

You should now have a nice script that has engaging characters, an interesting plot which moves along at the right pace, and enjoyable and useful dialogue. It doesn’t matter whether you have or whether it’s a load of rubbish, though, because now you have to go back and edit it. You have to be ruthless for this bit. Anything you put in because it was cute and quirky, cut – not because you want to get rid of the cute and quirky bits, but because other people probably won’t find it cute and quirky at all.  If it came up naturally as part of the plot or dialogue, on the other hand, it’s probably worth saving. Anything that bloats out the time without adding anything to the story, strike out. Once you’ve done it, give it the once over to make sure it still makes sense, and that, finally is your script: the culmination of hours, maybe days, of hard work and brutal self-discipline, finally sitting in front of you.

Alternatively, do what I did with my last script: get drunk, stumble back home and bang something random out in just under three hours. Less creative, true, but just a little bit more fun.

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