I’m going to do something a bit different today, get a little bit personal, and talk about my writing process.
I’ve been working with Pilar Alessandra’s book, “The Coffee Break Screenwriter” for a few years now. I’ve yet to actually use it all the way through to complete a screenplay but that’s because I forgot I bought the book and not because it hasn’t been helpful. I first found it in the bookstore 3 years ago, shortly after I had first begun writing for the screen, and bought it more on a whim than anything else, along with the shooting script for ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (which I’ve read several times and is still my all-time favorite movie).
Recently I’ve gone back to this book for the script I’m working on, and it’s been enormously helpful.
This is not a how-to book, and that is perhaps its greatest asset. Alessandra doesn’t give you the rules, she doesn’t tell you how you should write a screenplay, or what structure is, or how characters work. She gives you just enough of this information to inform you on what you should be aware of, and that’s all, the rest is up to you.
This is a good thing.
She also breaks the writing process down into steps that really only take 10-20 minutes to do. No more using excuses that you don’t have enough time to write because now you do.
It is my professional opinion that studying traditional structure is almost completely useless to you as a screenwriter. Oh, you should know it, of course, because you need to be able to speak the language of Hollywood if you want to succeed. But after that, you do not need to use 3-act structure or traditional hero’s journeys or anything of the like. These are not writing tools, they are ways of approaching stories from an analytical standpoint.
Of course they are. Every story has 3 Acts if you want it to. You can make a template fit anything if you try hard enough.
Ask yourself, have you ever watched a movie, trying to figure out what the 3 Acts were, and failed to identify them? No, you haven’t.
That’s because you’re putting the overlay of 3 Acts onto an already completed work.
The same can be said about the Hero’s Journey.
Neither of them help you actually write anything. They’re paint-by-the-numbers. Formulas. They were never intended to be used as guides.
So cut that crap out. Write the story the way it needs to be told. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish it, and then write it that way. The story dictates the style, the structure, the act breaks, etc. The story is key.
By the way, there’s nothing wrong with the 3-Act Structure or the Hero’s Journey. They are very useful tools to understanding the cultural and psychological/emotional impact of stories and their purpose in our lives. It’s only when we force our stories to conform to patterns that we kill the organic nature of storytelling and turn it into a machine.
Alessandra’s book is also not a guide on how to write screenplays.
It is a schedule.
One that I’ve found particularly helpful as of late.
Here’s an excerpt:
“It’s not math that determines a “beat” – it’s story. To better define your beats, ask: At what point does the story twist or heighten? At what point does your character come to a new emotional place or make a new choice? That’s your new sequence or “beat.” Don’t think in terms of scenes, think in terms of grouping of scenes. So, your “beat” of story may be ten to fifteen pages.
Now that you have a sense of what the beat might be, we’re going to describe it using three simple sentences. Each sentence will cover the GOAL, ACTIVITY and COMPLICATION of each sequence.
Simply put: You’re telling a small story every ten to fifteen pages or so.”
Notice how she doesn’t tell you what you should do or what you need to do or even what most movies do (and therefore that you should follow the same pattern), but rather just describes an activity for you to write. She’s broken down the writing process into little steps like the one illustrated above that you can complete one at a time, in however much time you need. You can work at your own pace and if you follow all of her steps, you won’t end up with a “proper” screenplay, you’ll simply end up with a finished script that works however you intend for it to work.
It’s a schedule. A template for you to follow to get work done, not to follow a formula.
So far I’ve been following her schedule pretty closely and I’ve had amazing results. I’ve gotten far more work done than I would have if I was just free-writing, and I’ve saved myself a lot of painful editing in the process because she allows you time to correct things at every stage of the writing process instead of leaving it all until after the first draft. It’s easier to edit a one-page outline than a 110-page script, no?
I’m not going to say you have to go out and buy this book. I’ve found it very useful but again, I’ve also abandoned the schedule to use my own in the past. It’s handy to have around though for any time I get stuck. I can whip out one of her exercises and figure out where I am and where I’m going.
The purpose of all of this is to drive home the point that your story has to dictate everything. Story is key.
There are no rules, after all. That was the whole point of the French New Wave, the Independent boom of the 70s and the 90s, and it is still prevalent today. Hollywood will continue to release their traditionally structured movies – and that’s also a good thing because sometimes we just need to stick to the traditional story format, after all, it has tremendous work – but it’s important not to do the same thing over and over again ad infinitum. Find your own way to tell stories. Follow your own path.
And above all else, keep writing and follow your bliss.
I’m including a link to the Kindle edition of the book in case someone out there wants to look at it or something. This is not a promotion, I swear, I get nothing out of this.