– Chris Weitz, Screenwriter, ABOUT A BOY.
Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.
– David Lynch, Screenwriter, Director, Twin Peaks
Discipline, force of will, and passion are qualities that you will need to find your story and bring it into existence. Even without talent, a writer can embrace the fundamentals of story and cinematic structure and develop skills and foster creativity. No one is born with the natural talent to write a screenplay. Talent is always developed over time, with great effort and passion. This flies in the face of the opinion of many members of the film industry and academia who insist that some are born with a natural talent to write cinematically. While it is true that some have greater aptitude for logic and language, the craft of screenwriting is less than 120 years old. We humans have not been at this for very long. The key to learning the craft of screenwriting is the constant exploration of the fundamentals of story and structure.
Momentum is defined by Webster’s dictionary as: Strength or force gained by motion or by a series of events. For screenwriters, momentum is a state of being. Elusive and rare, it is a sense of awareness that one’s efforts are headed in the right direction. Momentum begins with that feeling in one’s gut that they have finally found the way home after being lost. A corner has been turned. That which was foggy, vague, or void of energy now becomes clear. Supercharged images, plot points and dialog enter your mind faster that you can move your fingers, and euphoria has taken over. You have achieved momentum, and you wish that you could catch it like lightning and keep it in a bottle.
There is actually a way to do just that. The process will take thirty days. Consider…
Begin by making an appointment with yourself, each day. Rather, think of it as an appointment to meet your characters, to meet with your story. A daily pilgrimage. This is a sacred time, in a sacred place. By honoring these characters, their world and their conflicts by creating a special place for communication with them, over time you will notice that something very special will happen: They will begin to come out to meet you when you least expect them. But we will get back to that part shortly.
Before entering your sacred space, identify the first aspect of your story that comes to mind and hold that thought. The principle is to not force anything, but to allow your mind to wander through the world of your story. It could be anything, or anyone. It may even be a place, or an action that your character undertakes. The important part is that once you have identified this aspect, keep it in your mind, and then leave yourself alone. It is essential that for the purpose of this exercise, you do not enter your sacred space without having identified the aspect of the story to which you will give your energy upon entering your sacred space.
Enter the room and relax. Set yourself gently down; pen in hand, paper underneath your pen. Peace and comfort are absolutely necessary. Relax your hand. Do not doodle on the paper. Do not scribble or make any mark whatsoever with the pen. Think about the element you have chosen. Focus your mind’s eye. Allow whatever is related to your thoughts to enter or leave your mind as it will. As you consider and explore all of the thoughts flying though your mind, you will have one goal: Immediately before leaving the room, you will write down a single sentence that captures the nature and essence of the character, or action, place, or thing that you have meditated upon.
Here is the fun part. (If you are a fan of Jack Kerouac, you will especially love this!) The sentence can be as long as you chose it to be. No periods, no commas, nothing of the sort. Ramble as freely as you like, but with one rule. The sentence must be one long, continuous, uninterrupted thought on this single element of your story. Your sentences may be very short. In screenwriting, less is more.
If your five word sentences capture the core of the nature of your character, they may indeed be very effective. Conversely, you may create lines of prose of epic length that open your creative floodgates. This is also good. Whatever the length, do not judge what you write. Just keep going! After each day’s writing, do not read or review what you have written. Take that day’s work, and put it somewhere safe. Resist the temptation to read your pages.
Repeat the process each day. Keep going. Do not break your appointment with yourself for any reason. Life happens, and you may indeed miss an appointment. Try not to miss more than one. The key is to continue the exercise, uninterrupted, for thirty days. If you miss more than two appointments, stop the exercise, retrench and regroup. Once you are able to rededicate yourself to the task of meeting your characters and story each day for thirty days in a row, without fail, begin again.
On day thirty, proceed as usual, with one addition to the exercise. After writing your thoughts for that day, take a fifteen minute break. Then, gather your previous twenty nine days work.
Begin the process of reviewing what you have written. Once again in your sacred space, gently read each page. Take in what you have written without judging yourself, or your characters.
Order each page according to its place in the macro-structure of your story. Regardless of what stage of writing you are in, (outline/treatment, beat sheet, character history/monologue) the amount of energy created by the exercise will leave you feeling more confident and will provide you with an improved sense of direction and clarity in forming your screenplay. Also, you will find that instead of struggling to discover plot and character ideas, they will be coming forward to greet you.
If you begin the exercise and find yourself coming up blank after two or three days, do not become discouraged. But should this happen, stop the exercise. This means that you have not yet found your story. Take a break, and then focus on the aspect of your story, or idea, that you have in mind. It may be just a person, or a locale that you have in mind. The conflict, which is necessary to write any story, will eventually reveal itself to you. However, once you complete this exercise, you will have bottled that elusive element that we all seek: Momentum.
Peter J. Fox is founder of The Inside Track Workshops for Story and Cinematic Structure. He has worked at Universal, Paramount, Sony Tri-Star and MGM Pictures as a reader and story analyst. He lectures extensively on screenwriting and is a graduate of The American Film Institute.