There’s more than one way to skin a cat (not that I’ve tried – even though I hate cats with their smug nine lives) and that statement yields a distinct truth in the world of writing. There’s no one way to develop an idea. True, when it comes to laying down the idea in all of its glory whether it is a screenplay or novel, there is a certain format that needs to be followed but in the early stages when the foundations are being laid each writer has their own unique way of building and developing their story and characters.
I’ve read several screenplay and novel books about the writing process and the right way to go about it but to be honest outside of needing to know the industry standard basics such as plotting, pace, formatting and characterisation, no aspiring writer should be told that there is a certain way of developing an idea and a set of characters. The most interesting part of the entire creative writing process for me is the initial development stage where characters and ideas start to form and you get that buzz when an idea starts to become something worth exploring, so no book should guide you down a particular path for this because this is where you as the writer are using your own creative process using a method you are most comfortable with to get the best out of your initial idea.
A lot of writing advice that is given out often informs that a creative idea should always start from the character and not the concept, but this isn’t something I necessarily aspire to. It’s true that when people say, ‘Honestly they could make a sitcom about where I work it’s just hilarious’ it doesn’t really mean that if it did get turned into a show it would be a huge success as it’d only be funny to about five people that work in that environment, but sometimes the best ideas are built around the initial concept of, ‘What if…’. For me the idea doesn’t need to start with a character it can start with a concept but the key thing is whether a believable, interesting and relatable character can survive in the world that the concept creates. If the idea is great but a character can’t be crafted that both suits the world and can lead the narrative then the idea for me doesn’t work. The two have to go hand in hand. An idea can come to me in a variety of ways and it is most often inspired by my surroundings, by music, by film – it can be anything. The concept for ‘The Wingman’ came to me almost fully formed in blurb format after hearing one single line from Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character in ‘Along Came Polly’ (and that just goes to prove that shit films can also motivate and inspire!). When the concept or the character comes to me, it usually plays around in my head first to see whether the two can be compatible. If I get that gut feeling, which is usually something in my stomach that excites me and tells me that it works, I’ll start developing it.
Though I’ve read many of the industry books I’ve never adopted a single method of idea development. When I first started writing I used to just write. The idea would come to me in my head – whether that would be a character or a scenario – and I would start writing the script or story straight away. This quickly proved difficult for me because you can’t plaster the walls when you’re still digging the foundations. Since then I’ve developed several ways of planning and building my ideas into a manageable story that I can take straight into writing. Depending on the idea I have several ways of developing them but I have two that I most prefer, so the aim of this blog is to highlight these two preferred methods and how they work for me. I don’t wish to preach them as the way of developing an idea; I just think it’s always interesting to get an insight into how writers develop their ideas. If it helps anyone then bonus.
My most preferred method which I adopted for ‘The Wingman’ and ‘No Ordinary Thing’ is what I call ‘The Write Out’ (I’m giving it capital letters to make it an official title – if you hadn’t already gathered this blog post might be a bit of a pretentious one). Once the concept and the character or characters have been batted around in my head for a few days and my gut tells me this is something to explore, I need to start putting it down. Depending on the idea, I most often use the write out. This is basically where I get a small, A5 sized hardcover book and use it to physically regurgitate the inner workings of my brain into something I can see in front of me. I usually start with the basic concept, the blurb that tells the idea in thirty words or less, and then I’ll write down what I know about the characters and who they are, their personalities, their place in the narrative and how they best serve it. Once this is down, I’ll start to write out a really informal play-by-play of what happens in the film and any lines that come to me that I want to include in the film. I’ve since learnt that James Cameron used this method for Avatar and called it a ‘scriptment’, a large document that was part-script, part-treatment. I’d say the way I write mine is a lot more informal as I don’t use this to pitch the idea, I use it more as a solid template for me to follow when writing the actual script. It helps mostly to do it this way because the descriptions are quite involved – I’ll convey the characters emotions, how they’re feeling and how they react rather than just say, ‘Kevin and Lauren argue’. Here is a segment from my write out for ‘No Ordinary Thing’:
“He arrives at the bar on time, his friends sat far away in the corner. The same bartender is on duty and shakes his head immediately once he sees him walk in. He sits at the bar, orders a drink for himself and ‘whatever she was drinking last night’. She’s late. Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. His friends are laughing and the bartender is nearly always shaking his head, now giving him a slight smile that says, ‘Sorry you believed it would happen’. Then she walks in. No music, no slow motion, no gasps from all those that didn’t believe. She just comes in, rushing as she’s late, slides on to the seat next to him and apologises.”
Invariably because I’m writing films, I’ll forget a lot of the particular emotions or nuances that I want the characters to reflect in certain scenes – those little moments that make the film as a whole. If I wrote my key scenes on beat cards when I’m developing the idea I wouldn’t be developing it to its full potential. I’d be leaving a lot to explore when writing the actual script and at that stage I should be tweaking and amending these scenes for the first time and concentrating on bringing the characters to life through the dialogue. That’s why it helps me to write in such detail as that example above; though the line ‘no music, no slow motion, no gasps’ won’t make it into the scene description of the final script, I know the way I pace her entrance in the bar to the moment she sits on the stall will reflect that it’s a quick beat for the audience. The write out also helps because it sometimes becomes an informal and poorly formatted script so I can see at that point as I’m developing the idea what will work and what doesn’t. However, as with every script, as you write it and give the characters their voices your original plans for them don’t always work out as they literally take on a life of their own and start pulling you off in a different direction, but writing out the original film from start to finish as it comes to you in a scratchy, informal way really helps when it comes to writing the script itself. I often find the write out helpful also because when I hit a particular bump in the road where the idea doesn’t seem to go any further and no avenue I can think of gets the characters moving forward, I know I’m only at the development stage so I can relax. I put the pen and book down, sit back in my chair and remove all other distractions from my mind. I play the last five minutes of the film in my head up until the point where I’m stuck and then I linger on that particular moment – rather than think of how to move forward I concentrate on the moment I’m stuck on and soon enough, it comes to me how to move the characters on. It’s so much easier to do at the development stage as there is less pressure to know exactly what should be happening so I’m allowing myself the time and energy to reflect.
The other main method that I use is an A3 flipchart. This is similar to the write out but it breaks the film down into chunks featuring action and key scenes, so for films such as ‘World’s End’ where I have the characters so fully formed and I have faith in them to guide the narrative, I use the A3 flipchart to write out large, detailed character bio’s and then key points for key scenes. I try to make the chart flow as linear as possible to the idea that I have in my head but I often find that as I write the script I chop and change the order as the characters guide me down different paths (see I told you – pretentious). The A3 flipchart is also helpful two-fold: firstly I can (kind of) draw the images that come to my head about the visuals I want to create in particular scenes and these often help when it comes to describing action in a scene; secondly, the chart is more accessible when writing so I can have it up on the wall and see it better. The content that is put into the A3 chart is similar to the write out that I would do in an A5 book, the only difference being that I use it mainly for films that have more action in them.
Research for the ideas are always put into the A5 books or on the A3 flipcharts but they are always kept separate and are usually at the start rather than interspersed between the write out. Research is a critical part of any idea development even if you’re writing an idea in familiar settings. Though the world of writing is creating people and situations into existence, the world in which the characters inhabit is often one the viewer is aware of too so research helps you to factually tell the story you want to tell. The best source for any research these days is the internet but it’s important to know your source is trusted. When writing a particular genre film it’s always important to watch films from that medium. My research for ‘World’s End’ involved me watching and studying copious zombie films, breaking down the film into its genre elements and seeing how the writer has put them together. Familiarising yourself with the genre you’re writing will always help your idea as you will be influenced either way, whether you want to create something akin to a film you’ve seen or something the total opposite and much, much better.
So in not so much of a nutshell, that’s my take on the initial writing process. I could talk more about the process of actually writing the script itself in format but I think that’s something that every writer can identify with as being a similar process. It’s at this part of the script that the writer brings out the character’s voices and in turn the characters dictate to you where they’re going in this story. I have touched upon this aspect of writing in my blog about the first draft so if you’re interested you can read that here. As I said at the beginning of the blog, the aim of this post was to give insight into how I am most comfortable with developing characters and ideas. I’m sure there are others out there that would agree and those that would disagree but in the end it’s all about preference and about how comfortable you are when it comes to bringing your idea to life. As long as you’re doing it your way, you’re going to get the best out of your idea. One piece of advice I would give to any writer is to commit fully to an idea that gives you that initial gut-churning feeling: if as you develop it, it doesn’t form the way you want it to just stick with it because that rut you hit with it you’ll come out of and that feeling will be there again, all the way to the moment you write ‘THE END’.