How to Start a Screenplay: Treatment or Free Fall?
By Gordy Hoffman
Starting a screenplay can sometimes be as hard as finishing one. Impatient to pull up to the front door of a classic motion picture, I want to get everything right so quickly. This impatience challenges my trust in the work, the creative process of screenwriting. What exactly does trust mean? If I don't trust my writing, then what am I? Frightened. This is the battle. If I'm scared that everything I'm typing is worthless, then what? My hands find something else to do. So trust is good and important and essential to beginning this journey, alone, a trip that will eventually take what comes out of you into millions of people. But it's just you now. And your trust.
Now, does trusting your writing mean sitting down with no ideas, opening a new document, and starting to type? Of course. And no. What I need to do is make a decision and execute. And this decision often comes back to whether I should write an outline or treatment before I start writing my screenplay, or, with a rough idea, a shadowy shadow of something calling from my brain, start writing?
I have done both in the past. When I wrote the first draft of LOVE LIZA, I really had very little idea of where the story was going. I had a few things to start off with, and somewhere I wanted to end up down the road, but that was it. It was terrifying and difficult to remain seated. But the most original characteristics of the screenplay came out of the immediacy of trying to come up with what's next, with my fingers resting on the keyboard. I became sold on this process. Outlines killed creativity, because writing an outline is not actual screenwriting. It's outlining.
But then I came to Hollywood and tried to tell executives the little ideas I had. I would very proudly announce an image, a picture in my head, that I knew contained the fire of an entire epic. I was shocked when they asked, "Then what happens?" I didn't have an answer. Why? Well. BECAUSE I HADN'T WRITTEN IT YET. It seemed like a completely stupid question. What happens? What happens?? Did I say I had a complete screenplay to show you?!
You know the rest. No phone calls and bewilderment and then I found myself in the city of pitches, and starting to flesh out things into 14 page screenplay treatments. I did so, convinced that it could never be that good, that it was forced, and staged, and predictable. I was shocked to find out that it did not destroy my creativity. I was still able to come up with interesting, original things. But deep down I knew. This was still not screenwriting. This was not the art of screenwriting. And I'm right.
So now what was I going to do? What was better? If I was to sit down and spec something out, how was I supposed to go about it? First off, I'm lazy, so having a treatment or an outline sitting next to my laptop to walk me through the first draft is very appealing, despite knowing that the inspiration driving a treatment is different than the juice that comes when writing the screenplay blindly. And I have sat down and written 90 pages, trying to find the story, only to simply start over. This is a lot of work, but I've come to recognize that this work is not lost. This is the path. It hurts, it kills, it bludgeons, it fatigues, it flattens, but it's the road. Believe me.
But what about a heist movie, or a mystery? A thriller with twists? Aren't movies sometimes puzzles? Can we find this stuff without a plan? Don't you have to figure this stuff out? Yes and no. Flying by the seat of your pants often produces jaw-dropping turns the audience will never see coming. Why? The writer didn't. This is the largest reason why studio movies are predictable----the fabric of the script is shot through with the knowledge of the ending of the story.
If we are to plot out the map of our movie with a treatment, beat sheet or outline, we better be damn sure it's the real thing. Putting our best foot forward with a very strong outline is only the start of what will end up as a screenplay. Despite putting that golden outline next to our keyboard, we will find that turning it into a screenplay is still, I'm awfully sorry, a lot of work. Scenes that we imagined to be amazing will suddenly be impossible to write. And why does that upset us? Why does that frustrate the writer?
Well, we thought we had a short cut. We thought we were going to sneak into the back of a classic movie. My journey as a writer has been marked by the learning and relearning that all that wood has to be cut out there in the back yard, whether I like it or not. If I wanna do this, I have to swing the axe.
But we know, if we trust our gift, that something beautiful is coming, regardless if we have an outline or not. Perhaps the writers who work from outlines should throw them out. Perhaps the writers who write like the house is on fire, with nary a note within miles, should sit down and write a treatment. Treatments are fun, too.
I do both, switching back and forth when I need to. When I'm writing and I start to feel blindfolded, I turn to jot down a few notes, sketch a few ideas, track a character arc, reorder an act. But when I think I'm caught up in pitches and notes and beat sheets and the safety of plans, I chuck it all and write like I did when I was a kid.
Did we use notes when we were kids?
Bio of Gordy Hoffman
Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival for LOVE LIZA, Gordy Hoffman made his feature directorial debut with his script, A COAT OF SNOW, which world premiered at the 2005 Locarno Intl Film Festival. The movie would go on to win the Domani Vision Award at VisionFest, held at the Tribeca Cinemas. He has conducted screenwriting workshops all over North America, Poland and the UK.He recently taught screenwriting at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and the University of Kansas, and he's serving as a panelist for the 2010 IFP Script to Screen Conference in New York City, as well as a judge for the 2010 McKnight Screenwriting Fellowships. He's attached to direct CORDELIA, written by Melissa Brandt, a love story inspired by KING LEAR, and he's writing a comedy set in the Gaza Strip. Gordy Hoffman founded the BlueCat Screenplay Competition in 1998.
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