Getting to grips with your story

First I write a sentence. I get a tickle of an idea for how the words might come together, like an angler feeling a tug on the rod’s line. Then I sound out the sentence in my head. Then I tap it on my keyboard, trying to recall its shape. Then I look at it and say it aloud, to see if it sings. Then I tweak, rejig, shave off a syllable, swap a word for a phrase or a phrase for a word. Then I sit it next to other sentences to see how it behaves in company. And then I delete it all and start again.”

Joe Moran, First You Write A Sentence

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure”

Dr Samuel Johnson

You’ve chosen your story and the time has come to get down to work on turning it into a bril­liant script. You sit down at the keyboard and the words just seem to flow. You’re obsessed with your plot and your char­ac­ters; they take you over and occupy every waking moment of your life.

As your work progresses, you make discov­eries that often take you in new and unex­pected direc­tions. It’s a hugely demanding process but also exhil­ar­ating and there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing.

Hearing some writers being inter­viewed might lead you to believe that this is what a writer’s life is like. These fortu­nate men and women never seem to be afflicted with self-doubt or lassitude. They never prevar­icate or waste time, they never have trouble making decisions or sit for a whole morning staring at a blank sheet of paper.

In our world, the real world, we know very well that writing is a tough busi­ness and being a writer means that sooner or later you get to exper­i­ence both the highs and the lows; the frus­trating times as well as the times when inspir­a­tion comes easily.

The one essen­tial require­ment of a writer is, of course, the will to do it – and to keep on doing it even when it doesn’t come easily (as Mark Twain famously explained, ‘Writing is the applic­a­tion of the seat of the pants to the chair.’) Everything else rests on that attribute.

But for those of us who do have the occa­sional diffi­culty in building up momentum in our writing, there are a few useful ques­tions we can ask about our work habits and our approach to the task. Being aware of poten­tial prob­lems in this area may not solve them auto­mat­ic­ally but it can show us where we should be concen­trating our ener­gies, as well as relaxing and letting ourselves ‘go with the flow’.


Right-brained or left-brained?

It can be helpful, espe­cially when you’re starting a new project, to be aware of your natural instincts as a writer because everyone approaches their work slightly differently.

An iden­ti­fi­able differ­ence is between those with a ‘left-brained’ or ‘right-brained’ orient­a­tion. Few writers belong entirely to one camp but most of us show a definite tend­ency towards one or the other.

Left-brained writers like to plan. Typic­ally they will take lots of notes on their char­ac­ters and their plot in the initial stages of their work. They will not begin writing their scripts until they have metic­u­lously worked out their story outline and some­times written detailed biographies for every char­acter. Index cards are a left-brained writer’s friend; every scene, every act and every major plot turning point is usually care­fully mapped out.

If your heart and imagin­a­tion rebels against this, you are not alone in feeling that way. Quite a few successful screen­writers describe them­selves as purely instinctive writers who do little planning.

The right-brained writer believes that creativity is all about discovery. Knowing too much in advance about your story or char­ac­ters kills the creative impulse. Being too self-conscious about the struc­ture of your script inhibits you and is often the death of origin­ality. Instead of plan­ning metic­u­lously, you should develop a ‘feel’ for your story and let that lead you where it wants you to go. Above all else, you must try to hang on to the initial excite­ment and enthu­siasm that drew you to the story in the first place.

(Charles Deemer refers to these two very different kinds of writers as ‘Tree People’ and ‘Forest People’ in his book “Prac­tical Screen­writing”. You can read an extract here).

It has to be said that most of the books on screen­writing are aimed at promul­gating a ‘left-brained approach’ to screen­writing. Many are about teaching a formula for success that’s based on struc­tural prin­ciples and a prescriptive way of doing things. The danger is that the tech­niques used by ‘left-brained’ writers can some­times frus­trate and alienate those with a ‘right-brain’ inclin­a­tion, yet this is the area where most can be accom­plished in terms of shaping and discip­lining – and there­fore effect­ively ‘improving’ – your writing.

A plan of attack

Being aware of your predilec­tions is another way of identi­fying your strengths as a writer and building your confid­ence. It should also help you guard against your more self-indulgent traits and deal with the things that block you and frus­trate you.

Let’s talk about the way right-brainers work first:

Typic­ally the right brainer likes to hit the ground running and will appear to be very productive, turning out page after page of their script without any seeming hesit­a­tion. There is a lot of ‘tortoise and hare’ in the way that right-brainers and left-brainers tackle a project but not neces­sarily always in the way that you’d expect.

Writers who work at this pace success­fully rely on a very developed sense of form. They will be working on a scene or a sequence but simul­tan­eously their minds will be ‘scouting ahead,’ looking at the overall shape of the story and devel­oping little decisions into big ones. Quite often, this talent is a sublim­inal one and the writer isn’t even aware that she’s doing it.

The pitfalls of working this way are that it can use up a lot of energy without produ­cing the desired result –  that is a script that someone would want to produce. While there are a few excep­tional talents who can get it right first time, a common fault is for a writer to become stub­bornly attached to work that is essen­tially flawed.

Because you have created a body of work, and invested time and energy in it (even though it seemed to come quite easily), you find it diffi­cult to admit that you were following ‘a false trail’. What you really need to do is throw it all away and start again; but doesn’t that mean you’ve wasted all that time and energy? You bet.

Many cannot bring them­selves to do it and this is poten­tially fatal. There is a rigidity that sets in; because some of it works, you become reluctant to jettison those bits. In the worst instance, you pretzel your story into an ungainly and clumsy shape in order to cling on to them. Even­tu­ally, you lose all sense of what works and what doesn’t.

Flex­ib­ility is key. It is most likely that your first draft will be flawed in all kinds of ways and that is fine providing you acknow­ledge that you wrote it as part of an explor­atory process. If you do decide to dive right in and ‘see what happens’, then you’ve got to be prepared to throw it all away and start over again. In fact, you can’t afford to become too attached too early to your writing because you end up blocking any further useful exploration.

The right-brained approach only looks to be faster but actu­ally making real progress can be pain­fully slow. It can also be much harder work. If you are a writer who abso­lutely has to work this way, don’t try to suppress your instincts but do try to keep open and receptive to making changes.

The left-brained approach

The left-brained writer goes through the same process of explor­a­tion but in a very different way. Typic­ally the approach is much more analyt­ical and intel­lec­tual. The left-brained writer has to get to know his or her story as intim­ately as possible before they’ll commit one scene of action to paper.

The left-brainer focuses on the decision making aspect of writing, one of the crucial tasks a writer has to perform. Every step of story construc­tion involves a decision; these vary from small decisions (the name of a char­acter, the colour of his tie) to big ones (the fate of indi­viduals or nations) and they all need to be made at some point.

The left-brainer wants to make as many of these decisions as possible in advance but he also wants and needs them to be the correct ones. The dilemma that the left-brainer faces is that some of these decisions will need to be tested. The left brainer will need to get their hands dirty, in other words, to commit some­thing to paper and left-brainers can be notori­ously commitment-phobic and insecure.

The pitfall for writers with a left-brained tend­ency is either to prolong the plan­ning stage indef­in­itely in a quest for some­thing that abso­lutely ‘feels right’ or to keep chan­ging their mind over elementary things like the premise of their story.

The only cure for this is to take ‘a leap of faith’. If you don’t, there is the danger that your original feeling for your story will wither and die before it ever flowers.

Making a start

Don’t get it right, get it written … “

James Thurber

The most pois­onous phrase in the English language is: “The work begins tomorrow.”

Read the biographies of famous writers and you’ll discover that many of them adopt a policy of just grit­ting their teeth and ‘getting on with it’, rain or shine, inspired or not. This is not a form of masochism, it is based on the simple notion that writing is an exer­cise like any other. It’s important to keep in prac­tice, to main­tain the habit. Even if what you write isn’t good, the activity itself keeps those all important ‘writing muscles’ lubric­ated and working.

Novel­ists like Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham set them­selves a target number of words to be written and would stop the minute their target was reached –  however exciting the story was getting. Discip­line and stamina are the hall­marks of profes­sional writers and the chief attrib­utes that distin­guish them from the amateur.

But if you are really so stuck that you can’t even make a start with your script, here are a couple of exer­cises that might help to get you off the fence and taking that neces­sary first step. (Any kind of action is better than inac­tion  – any day of the week).

Exer­cise 1: Write a ‘key’ scene first

When you first conceive of your story, it’s likely that certain parts of it will be in ‘sharper focus’ than others in your imagin­a­tion. You may not know the name of your prot­ag­onist, for example, or exactly what she wants just yet but you do know that there will be a scene in your film where she says goodbye to her family and boards a plane to New York.

Write that scene first. Writing it will compel you to make a lot of ‘small’ decisions. What colour is her hair? Her eyes? How tall is she and what is she wearing? These are easy choices but they will lead you inex­or­ably towards the bigger ones. You’ll be surprised how much else you already instinct­ively ‘know’ about your story.

This is a good exer­cise for ‘left-brainers’ who may be having trouble commit­ting them­selves to make decisions.

Exer­cise 2: Write a step outline

This means breaking a story down into the steps that make up its basic progres­sion. It’s a useful exer­cise but it’s important to keep it simple. You shouldn’t be thinking yet about scenes, acts or any other struc­tural units. Just concen­trate on the story itself:

Step 1:  Goldilocks gets lost in the woods
Step 2:  She finds the three bears’ house.
Step 3:  She goes into the house and finds it empty … and so on.

The steps can be as small or large as you feel comfort­able with. If it feels like too large a task, a vari­ation on this exer­cise is to work out the steps between two plot points (a ‘plot point’ is a signi­ficant ‘land­mark’ in the plot narrative) and focus just on that segment.

For example:

(1) A young girl witnesses the murder of her family. (2) She finds a martial arts master and (3) trains until she is a deadly warrior. (4) She returns and avenges the death of her family.

There are many poten­tial ‘steps’ between each of these plot-points but if we focus just on those between (2) and (3), this might be one possible step progression:

Step 1:  She is rescued from bandits by an old man with amazing sword skills.
Step 2:  She begs the old man to teach her his skills but he refuses because she is female.
Step 3:  She follows the old man and even­tu­ally persuades him to relent … and so on.

This is a good exer­cise for ‘right brainers’ who often need sign­posts to keep their stories on track. By breaking the story down into units and thinking care­fully about the plot­ting, right-brainers can more effect­ively focus and harness their energy.

David Clough©2011

What to read next
From Script To Screen – six useful tips for writing in a filmic fashion


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