My writing methods have changed. I’m not really sure why or when, but I’ve gone from being a firm believer of the “chaos” draft (or, what some refer to as the ‘vomit’ draft, the ‘just get the fucking thing on the page’ draft) to…whatever this thing I do now would be called. Visually, my process is best represented by the final scene of I AM LEGEND, where the mutant bangs his head against the 2 inch thick glass repeatedly till it (glass and/or head) cracks.
Above: Look, Dan’s writing again.
I come from a background in playwriting, where I mainly wrote plays nobody wanted to stage. Nobody. When asked what genre of plays I write, I reply without hesitation, “Unwanted.” But one thing that is great about writing a play is, since it is largely about ideas, hopefully big ideas, the chaos draft is wonderful. You start with a very loose idea of structure but with some ideas about the ‘thing’ you want to write about. The chaos draft works well for plays, because to explore an idea, it helps to sort, well, explore it freely. To NOT have a predetermined path of how you’ll do it; just knowing the neighborhood in which you want to tromp around is enough to get started. You tappity-tap some characters, then THEY start telling you what THEY think about your idea, and little by little, like chipping away the marble, your theme is articulated and you then you can develop the structure that helps you say what you must say about it.
For me, there are limitations to using this approach with screenwriting. I feel like I just don’t have the leisure time within a screenplay to do this tromping around. The narrative thrust required in a screenplay is simply more demanding (at least to me it is, and I’m not sure why). I can’t skip past shit beats that I know are shit because I just can’t leave that mess behind me. Somehow I’ve lost the ability to do the “oh I’ll fix that beat later thing.” And the thing is, I teach the chaos draft when I teach screenwriting. Because for everyone, especially young writers, The Most Important Thing is finishing (it’s even part of my favorite writing saying, at the bottom of this entry). In short: An unfinished work is an obscenity.
I don’t think my approach is healthy, to be honest. Because writing is so damn hard (not physical labor hard and not working 3 jobs to pay rent hard, but still pretty damn hard), you need victories to pull you along. Script deals? Options? Meetings with potential producers or reps, sure, those are all great victories that we each dream of. But more importantly, we also need to proudly lay claim to DAILY writing victories (at least I do): “Finish Act I,” “hit the midpoint,” “finally nail the monologue,” “find the missing, unifying metaphor or image.” Page count, moving forward, bit by bit, is absolutely a victory, and one not to be taken lightly. So why do I dismiss it so easily?
I think what’s happened to me is somewhere I’ve either redefined ‘victory’ for myself, or maybe it’s more like, I’ve created a hierarchy of writing victories, and page count just isn’t as high for me. Maybe because now I’m at the point where I know I’m going to finish it, because I’ve done it successfully a few times now. Here’s what I do now, and it’s sort of simple:
1) I treat the first half of the screenplay as its own movie, and I start on page one each day. Page one, each day. My goal is to make that first half a fantastic movie that culminates in an emotionally gripping, visually arresting way (what will be the full movie’s midpoint).
2) Once I hit the midpoint, I write the second half of the screenplay, and the midpoint becomes my new page one, and I make THAT half an awesome movie that’s even better than the first half.
This isn’t to say the two ‘movies’ aren’t connected; obviously they’re the front and back of the same damn movie, and I’ll do a full polish. And when I do that polish, I do jump from one to the other, but at first, by and large I try to really focus one half at a time. By focusing my attention like this, I make sure the create a sense of rising action that sets a distinct emotional tent pole in the midpoint (and then crisis) for the audience to hang on to. Then I do it again for climax. (I’ll write about structure another time, if anyone wants to chat about it).
I’ve done this on the last 3 scripts, and it works really well (for me). I had been doing it for a script when I went to Austin Film Festival, and heard Eric Roth (who I want to be) say he does this—he starts on page one every day. That was a huge thing for me to hear at that time. It was like he gave me permission to ignore the vomit draft theory and do what works for me. The result, for me, is a ‘first’ draft that is, literally, more like a 4th draft if I had I gone the chaos draft route, then revise, and revise, and….
What do you do? What’s your approach to completing the “first” draft? Your daily writing routine? Are you a chaos drafter, or do you (like me*) keep going over beats until you’re satisfied, and then (and only then) move on?
Write hard and finish.
*Isn’t THIS what all blogs are really about? What all dialogue is really about? What all writing is really about: “Like me. Please.”