HOW TO START
You've got an idea. Now what?
The great news is that you've got an idea. I'd love to tell you that that is half the battle, but I'd be lying and y'all are serious people who don't want lies. You want results. It's more like, you want to climb to the top of Everest, and your idea is the new backpack.
Ideas, as exciting as they seem in the moment we conceive of them, aren't hard to come by. What separates the girls from the women is what one does with the idea. In years hence, when your eyes set upon the backpack nestled in the back of your closet, will you be flush with feelings of pride or will it be a symbol of dreams deferred? Depends on what you do with the backpack. YA FEEL ME? IT'S A METAPHOR.
I'm going to take you through the process of developing a project from idea to first draft. This is an exercise designed to do on the fly. No preparation needed. You can do this completely cold, no ideas prepared and keep doing it until you find an idea you love, or you can do it with an idea you love but can't crack.
Remember this, hiker-writers: you are scared, but that is no excuse. We all have a fear of what we don't know when we start a project. We're often afraid to face the abyss, the blank page, the unanswered questions. Rest assured that everyone feels this fear, and that everyone must do the same thing: face the fear. There's no way out but through. No way to fill the page but to fill the page, dammit! Here we go.
a. Write down your idea in 1 or 2 sentences:
b. Good. Now write down your idea in a paragraph.
c. What you have learned? Maybe something about your character's journey, her enemies, her world. Now, write about her. Who is she when we meet her? What does she want and what does she need? Remember that these are different.
For example: She wants to have the money to leave this shit town behind. She needs to resolve her problems at home before she'll truly be free.
d. How does the journey of the film help your heroine move from her want to her need?
Remember, great films are about transformation. Transformation in life is difficult as hell and mysterious as well which is perhaps why we love watching it in movies and reading about it in books. Your character's journey ends with her as a different person capable of more than she was when the film started. You want to know who she is when she starts, and what she experiences -- be it through joy, or trial or intimacy with another person -- that changes her such that she can see the RIGHT way to pursue her goal.
e. Be more specific. What specific thing does your heroine want when the film begins? Specific! Specific means you don't explain it in lengthy dialogue. It is something we can SEE and dramatize. Not a concept.
Sally wants her own restaurant and she's drawn up the plans. Rita wants to run away from home and she's packed a bag and does trial runs at night. Bonnie wants to murder the man who stole her dog and she's stalking him.
f. What does this dream look like at the end?
Sally opens her restaurant but it's nothing like she thought it'd be - it's better. Rita goes to live with her sister the road over because she's realized she needs to leave home, but not family. Bonnie pities the man and realizes her dog is happier with him.
g. You have a sense of your character's journey. That feels good, right? Let's move on to message of the film. What is this film about? About about. More than the plot. The message...
Plot: Humans use robot soldiers in their wars against each other. An ordinary human is caught up in this conflict and must bring justice for ordinary people and for robots.
Aboutabout: This film is about power and class. This film is about how the mighty use the powerless. This film is about the power of one ordinary human being who cares about justice in the fight against injustice. The film is about how even the most powerful forces are vulnerable if they stand for nothing.
h. Do you care about what this film is about? Does that stir some fire in you, that message? You want it to, because everything in this film will come back to your central message. And because you don't want to work hard on something you don't fundamentally believe in -- not as a commercial enterprise, but as a piece of culture that you are putting out into the world. If you don't care, keep working on what it's about until you like what it's about-about. If you do care, let's move on to the next step. A three page treatment. I don't wannnnaaaaa, you're thinking right now. I know. I don't want to either. But like flossing, in the long run you'll be happy you did it.
Your 3 page treatment should contain all the major news about your film, including character journey, major turning points, supporting characters, a couple set pieces, how it ends. In roughly this order:
Summary sentence, like the one you wrote above, about what the film is. 'When we meet her' paragraph about who your heroine is, what she does, what she wants, and what stands in the way of what she wants when the film begins.
Inciting incident. I'll paraphrase a Pixar rule of storytelling to help us with Inciting Incidents. It's a MadLibs exercise: "Once upon a time there was ___.Every day ___. Until one day ___. Because of this ___ "
What happens immediately in the wake of the inciting incident: Heroine tries x,y, and z to deal with the inciting incident. Your heroine is pulled deeper into the drama, and by the end of Act 1 she takes action, and thereby changes the course of the film.
Summary sentence about what happens in Act 2:. Here's the paradigm, and you fill in the specifics: Heroine pursues her specific goal (the go-cart championship, getting mom out of prison), using specific means (her growing knowledge of magic, the confidence her new relationship is giving her), as specific force of opposition (aliens, local government, Dad) works against her, until she is brought down by (head alien, mayor, surprise enemy/former best friend) x force.
Describe some Act 2 set pieces in which she will be up against increasing odds. Remember, Act 2s can too often be repetitive or stagnant. The way out of that is designing INCREASING ODDS. The gun fight comes after the knife fight and after the threatening photos. The eviction comes after the gas is shut off and after she loses her job.
A paragraph on how she IMPROVES her skills to fight the increasing odds. This means transformation: even as the odds are stacked against her, your heroine is pursuing her goal and is thereby changing and growing.
Detail the villain's motive... Maybe it's a family member, maybe it's an alien force. Be specific about your opposing force and what they want.
Something goes wrong to lead us to the end of Act 2.
Description of the end of 2, 'all is lost moment'. When this moment is done right, your audience can not think of a way that your character will find herself out of this mess. But you can and have...
How does it all turn around to propel you toward Act 3 & your resolution? Something your heroine set in motion in Act 2 comes back to save the day in Act 3. Again, not gonna lie, this moment is a tricky piece of business. I've found that it helps to think of this moment as related to your character's karma. You've taken her on this journey toward where she needs to be, but she's been going about it in the wrong way (she wants to exact revenge, but she's cut her old friends out of her life on the way). And as such, there is this moment of reckoning at the end of Act 2 wherein it appear she won't get to the end of her arc, the place where she needs to be. But due to your character's basic integrity, that seed of truth, or guts or whatever it is that you decide is her strength, she has in one moment acted in a pure & true way in Act 2, and that act of purity comes back to help. The Universe is paying your character back for moment of truthfulness. The character's NEED is what helps her in this moment, not her WANT (She's forgiven someone -- a moment of emotional bravery she can't seem to muster in her A storyline -- and that person returns to help her.)
This moment can happen during the final setpiece to end it happily, or it can lead to the final setpiece by providing your heroine with what she needs to fight her final battle. What is your final setpiece?
Resolution of final set piece: Describe. The world of your film looks more like it should, but there's one tiny thing your character still needs to resolve - what?
Final image of the movie. In which the tiny thing is resolved.
HOT DAMN. YOU DID IT. Take a sec. Look at that. That's a movie you just made there. Do you love it? Great. If not, do this exercise again on another day!
i) So now you're got a treatment, and the treatment has forced you to come up with all the big bones of your story. Now write down what you know in outline form. It's a lot, right? Read through it. What are you missing? Fill it in. Fill it in until it feels like a movie from start to finish. This is called outlining. It's a little painful. But you're SO CLOSE to the good stuff...
j) Not yet. Now it's time to perfect your outline, because this thing will save your life as you are drowning in your script. Read your outline and ask yourself: does something happen in each scene that moves the story forward? Are there scenes that can be combined because they're repetitive? Do the concept for these scenes fulfill what Mamet says about drama? (And I quote: START, EVERY TIME, WITH THIS INVIOLABLE RULE: THE *SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC*. it must start because the hero HAS A PROBLEM, AND IT MUST CULMINATE WITH THE HERO FINDING HIM OR HERSELF EITHER THWARTED OR EDUCATED THAT ANOTHER WAY EXISTS.)
It is DRAMA? Is it taut (not repetitive) and the scenes don't dribble after one another, they LEAD to each other? Your character, does she start in one place and by repeatedly taking action against increasing odds she ends in another?
k) Write your first draft.