Creativity ebbs and flows. Flows and ebbs. It is finite, yet it is infinite. Sometimes there’s a story inside us dying to get written. Sometimes, there isn’t. As screenwriters, our creative juices don’t flow at will. Their will, not ours. But it doesn’t all have to be doom and gloom. Embrace the messiness of the screenwriting process.
Here are some stages of screenplay genesis. They are not absolute. They may overlap. But they are discrete stages nonetheless.
This is when you activate your boundless imagination. Mine it for story ideas.
You may be tossing around some unformed concepts in your head. They may be a scene, an image, a line of dialogue, a dream, or a question of what if? These thoughts can be disconnected or partially formed. These thoughts are the ingredients of your screenplay. They may not all get used, but you need to consider them all. Think hard until your mind gets tired. This is the brainstorming process.
Don’t start writing yet. Your story is barely at the formulation stage. A far cry from an outline, let alone a completed screenplay. Let your thoughts ferment for a while. Put them in mental storage to settle.
Bring your thoughts back into the light and look at them with fresh eyes in a few days. Massage these fragmented thoughts into more fully-formed ideas. Flesh them out. Are they grounded? Can these ideas be attached to a character? Sort your ideas into those that definitely, possibly and certainly don’t belong in your screenplay. Let your thoughts have a boxing match in your mind. May the best thoughts win.
You can start making some concrete decisions about theme, tone, genre, and plot. Think about your story and what your screenplay might look like. This is the first part of the screenplay execution phase.
You can start taking some general story notes at this stage., but do not start writing. Think of this stage as beating story cake batter. Essential, but inedible.
This is the period of too much thought, self-doubt, and fatigue. This is the stage where screenwriters think of dozens of reasons why they shouldn’t write their screenplay. Is the story any good, are the characters strong enough, am I good enough?
This is the sweet, but frustrating, spot in the creative process. Swim in your sea of excuses for a short time, but do not drown in it. Wait until your creative urges cannot be suppressed any longer.
This is all part of the process when you’re at creative war with yourself. Your willpower to start writing begins to overshadow your excuses for not writing. Don’t fight these feelings. But don’t fully succumb to them just yet. Meditate on your desire to write.
You can’t take your excuses any longer. You spend some more time getting agitated and refining the thoughts in your head. You obsessively read your story notes.
You start forming the screenplay spine in your head. There is a definite beginning, middle and an end. it takes shape. You look at your previous story notes and edit them. You keep and expand on what story elements belong in your screenplay, and remove what those that aren’t.
You have entered into the next phase of the screenwriting process.
You are now ready to write a screenplay outline. It could be two or three pages. It could be ten or twenty. Just keep writing until you get to the end of your story. Then let it rest for a while. Return to the first stage of the process; your thoughts. But not for too long or you risk falling back into the excuse phase. It no longer serves you. Let it go.
While writing your script outline consider both the philosophical and the granular aspects of your story.
Think about what inspired you to write this screenplay. Why it demands to be written by you, and why does it deserve to be written now? Get angry and excited at the same time. Have your thoughts been expressed in the sharpest way possible? Do you have a main character and a theme? Have you decided on key plot points and scenes?
Refine. Give yourself a fixed time to write your outline. This is the most dangerous creative phase because screenwriters are at most risk of either abandoning or procrastinating their stories. Endure the pain.
Enjoy it because the next stage will finally bring you relief.
This step is a pivotal step in the story creation process. It is the next part of the story execution stage. You need to switch your mind from a creative one into a mechanical one. Start writing your screenplay based on your revised outline.
Don’t stop until you reach the end of your script. At various points in the execution phase, your mind will revert to its primal creative impulses. You will discover character traits, plot holes and new ways to tighten your screenplay. Incorporate these elements into your first draft, but don’t dwell on them for too long. If your creative mind brings up unanswered story questions, jot them down for later. Don’t fall into the trap of reimagining your initial story yet.
Stick to your outline as much as possible. Your subconscious mind has invested a ton of time in the process. Don’t derail it by overthinking. If you find that your initial outline no longer serves the revised story you want to write, consider rewriting the entire outline. If your story takes a markedly different turn so that it becomes a totally new story, you may need to go back to the thought and agitation stages to gather and refine your thoughts. This is the nuclear option. Take it only if absolutely necessary.
Your rejected, partial draft is never a waste of time. It may end up in a different screenplay. It means that the story you chose to write was not the one most burning to get written. Heck, you’re a screenwriter and you probably have a dozen ideas in various stages of development. However, screenwriting is a bottleneck. You can really only focus on one quality screenplay at a time.
This is the first stage of accomplishment. You become elevated and bathe in positive serotonin-laden bliss. You are a screenwriter and you have completed a screenplay. You have something tangible. Think about that.
Put your screenplay aside for a few weeks. Not a day or two, but weeks. Your story is still too fresh to be rewritten. You didn’t really think the first draft of your screenplay was ready to be circulated to talent, did you? Not now, but in a few drafts time, it will be.