The Worst Mistake a Screenwriter Can Make

Every single day, writers make the worst professional mistake they will ever make. We do this by making one, single bad decision. This decision controls how many drafts we write and how quickly our careers develop. Yet, even though it is the most important decision we will ever make, we don’t even make it consciously. We don’t take a moment to think about it. This decision is the root cause of ninety-percent of script problems. And, to fix this all we need to do is to answer one, simple question.

What elements of a story should we create on the page and what should we plan in advance?

The implication of this idea for early-career or struggling screenwriters is simple. By taking some time to think about our writing process we will become better writers. To help us to do this, I want to present the processes of a couple of writers. Each of them has come to a different answer about what they create on-the-page and what they prepare.
The first thing to understand is there isn’t a single, right answer to this question. Every writer is different and so is their process. One of the things that define us as writers is our process. The idea of a writing process is important. Successful writers aren’t defined by a single theory about structure or storytelling. What makes them successful is their process. The way they get from raw idea to the finished script. Good screenwriters tend to have good processes. Bad screenwriters tend to have bad ones. Good screenwriters understand their creative process; bad screenwriters don’t understand the question.

the instinctive writer

Naomi is an early-career, instinctive writer. For her, being a writer is creating on-the-page. When she has a raw idea for a film she sits down in front of a blank page and starts writing. She likes to find her characters, plot, story and fictional world on-the-page. She uses nothing but her writer’s instincts. Any research she needs to do, she does as she writes. Her first drafts are always a mess. She expects this. She knows she won’t really understand her characters or her story until she’s got to the end of her first draft. So, her process is largely one of writing and rewriting until she’s happy with the results.

pros – There is something very natural and appealing about creating on the page. Naomi is right, writing is a creative act. One of the skills we all need to develop is creating our story on the page. She’s also does the one thing that more experienced writers tend to forget. She pays attention to her personal fascination. She’s not thinking about the market, what will sell, what a producer might like or what kind of script won last year’s script competition. She is totally focused on the story that inspires and fascinates her. This is an approach I call, chasing our fascination. When we chase our fascination we cultivate a distinctive voice. It is the thing that makes our work stand out. It is what makes us different from the herd.
cons – Naomi’s likely to have a lot of problems to solve when she’s written her first draft. It’s inevitable the first half of her script will be very weak. This is because she’s discovering her characters on-the-page. This is a much more serious problem than you might think because of two really important facts.

  1. Character problems are the root cause of plot problems.
  2. Every plot-point is totally dependant on what happens before it.

Stories are built from the reactions of characters to challenging circumstances. Let’s use a simple example.

Goldilocks goes for a walk in the woods and gets lost. She spots a house, knocks on the door. There’s no answer, so she lets herself in. We all know what happens next, porridge, broken chairs, a nap and some angry bears.

We only get to the angry bears because of two things, the kind of person Goldilocks is and the decisions she makes. So, let’s alter these factors. Let’s make Goldilocks more self-reliant and prepared.

Goldilocks decides to go for an adventure in the woods. She’s lived in the wilds her whole life so she takes a map, water, provisions and her trusty compound bow. After a fun day exploring, she runs into a family of bears. The bears seem really hostile, probably because they’ve got a baby, so Goldilocks avoids them. On her way home, she bags a deer. That’ll feed the family for a couple of months, she thinks.

If we change Goldilocks’ character, the plot changes. This is because our characters determine the plot. Let’s go back to Naomi’s instinctive, create it on-the-page script. If she has character problems in the first half of her script it’s inevitable she’ll also have plot problems. If she has first act plot problems, then her entire story is in trouble. This is because every plot-point is dependant on what happens before it. Naomi will always have first draft character and plot problems. This because of her zero-planning, create it all on-the-page approach .
Naomi may also have a much bigger problem. Naomi doesn’t worry about a logline until she’s ready to pitch to producers. If her idea is unfocused she may not discover major flaws in her idea until it’s too late.

the structural writer

Kwame is a structural writer. He believes in high-concept ideas. He dogmatically uses the story-cycle (hero’s journey) to structure his plots. He spends a massive amount of time writing and rewriting his logline before he writing. He also creates a twenty-one point plot outline which hits every key point in the story cycle. Kwame believes concepts and plots should be planned ahead of writing. He creates his fictional world, characters and drama on-the-page.

pros – Kwame manages to avoid Naomi’s concept problem. He really nails down his logline before he starts writing. He knows what his concept is. Kwame also knows better than to try to figure out his plot as he goes along. He likes to have a plan. At the end of his first draft, Kwame has a story which has a beginning, a middle and an end. If Kwame has a really good cinematic writing style he may even have a script that sort of looks like a movie.
cons – Kwame’s structural approach has one major problem. He commits to his plot before really understanding his characters. He believes he can find his characters on-the-page. This is problematic because as we saw with Naomi, if a character changes the plot changes. This means Kwame may be stuck with cliched, one-dimensional characters. He can’t let his characters evolve in interesting ways because he’s locked in by his plot choices. His only choice at this point is to try and cover the lack of character with witty dialogue. He has to hope no one notices how hollow his characterisations are.

If we look at these two writers, we can see each one has advantages and weaknesses. Instinctive writer’s can easily ability adapt their characters as they write. Their biggest problems are likely to be their concept and plot. The structural writer overcomes concept and plot problems by planning. They often do this by boxing themselves into a corner when it comes to character development. The real question, at this point, is there a better way to do this?

is there a better way?

Most early-career writers tend to be either instinctive or structural writers. The most common errors readers find in spec scripts are one-dimensional characters, loose plots and lack of concept. These problems are often created by the writer’s process rather than their failings as a writer. So, how can writers improve their process?Script writing is complicated. It is difficult to create a dramatic story within a fictional world. The creative process we develop must include the following

  1. It must help us to develop and focus our primary concept
  2. It must help us understand the motivation and behaviour of our characters
  3. It must allow us to visualise the world our story is set in
  4. It must give the ability to structure a story, rather than a plot

It is possible to develop concepts, understand our characters, visualise our world and structure a story using entirely instinctive, on-the-page techniques. It’s just very difficult to do this well. This is because there are just too many plates to keep spinning. The instinctive writing process will always be more about rewriting than the writing. The only way to get this to work is to write a draft, analyse it and then start with a blank document when you rewrite. This is what I call the messy writing approach. An instinctive writer really needs to commit to four or five drafts, each one starting with a blank page. This is because the early drafts are exploratory. We’re not writing a script, were doing development work. We don’t start on a proper draft until we’ve written enough to nail the four questions. Is our concept focused? Do we understand our characters? Can we visualise the world of the story? Do we understand our story from start to finish?
Structural writers can expand their pre-writing planning in a systematic and focused manner. This is what I call the focused writing approach. Structural writers need to develop their characters before they create their plot. There are a lot of ways to do this. We can write biographies for our characters or write psychological profiles. We each have to find a way to understand characters that work for us. And, we also need to find ways to help us visualise our fictional world. So, what might this process look like?

Tracey is a process-driven screenwriter. She likes to combine messy and focused writing methods in a way that suits her. Tracey has a focused approach to working with ideas, she likes to play with them, develop and hone them before she starts writing. She’s really into getting her logline written prior to writing. As she’s honing her idea, she already starts to get ideas for specific scenes and characters. She makes notes to come back to later in the process. Tracey prefers a messy approach to character development. When she’s ready to start developing her story Tracey writes the scenes that capture her imagination. She’s not even trying to write a story. All she is doing is exploring her characters and her fictional world on-the-page. She calls these writing exercises seed scenes. These writing exercises reveal the limitations of her visualisation. There are things she just doesn’t know. What does Lisbon look like? How much space does a hang-glider need to land? Are there really any pelicans in Norway and can they swallow a mobile phone? So she does some research. She carries on with this back and forth. She shifts between research and seed scenes. She writes until she has nailed her characters and her visualisation of the fictional world. She then reverts to a focused approach to her story. She creates a beat sheet, based on a mixture of structural theory and what she knows about her characters. Only now, when she’s fully prepared, does she start to write her first draft.

Different writers will find different ways to get from point A, the raw idea, to point B, writing the script. There are hundreds of different ways to achieve each part of this process. Some writers like to plot on file cards. Some like to do character development in spreadsheets. Some writers love notebooks. Some need to physically draw their fictional worlds to write about them. We each have to find our own way.
It is a mistake to not address the strengths and weaknesses of our writing process. There is no one right way to approach writing a screenplay, there are definitely a million wrong ways. Any process that doesn’t adequately prepare writers is a bad process. The same is true of any process that automatically builds errors into the script. Far too many writers make their lives miserable by not developing a good writing process.
If you prefer messy writing, your process needs to address that approaches weaknesses. If you are a naturally focussed writer, the same is true for you. However, before you make a hard and fast decisions, I urge each of you to explore other ways of working. We discover the process that works best for us by trying out new techniques. This is a lifelong process. It is also the most important thing we’ll ever do as writers.

For More Screenwriting Techniques

For more techniques to improve your screenwriting Clive has written a ground-breaking book called The Process of Screenwriting.

There is a free sample and other useful handouts here.