Just as every writer should have his or her own “voice”, every writer has a process for developing the story and spitting it onto the page. My own process has evolved significantly since I first sat down behind my mom’s typewriter and banged out a short story. Based on a recurring dream, the story was largely a rip-off of The Empire Strikes Back with telepathic cats. Many years and eight screenplays later, the process still usually begins with a dream.
Inspiration comes in many forms, but an idea is just the beginning of a story. The rough idea for “A Midsummer Nightmare” began when I auditioned for a stage production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Growing up with the stories of Tolkien and other fantasy masters, my take on the hobgoblin Puck was considerably darker than most interpretations. The director didn’t agree with my vision of a psychotic Joker-esque Puck, and I was cast as Lysander instead.
Years later, I dreamt that I was in another production of Midsummer. I wandered through a forest with other actors, looking for the way back to a camp. We were stalked by a creature made of vines, and the actor playing Bottom was transformed into a demonic donkey creature. Dreams are a great incubator where raw ideas can develop into a story. This particular dream took the concept of an evil Puck and turned it into the basic story for “A Midsummer Nightmare”.
Once the story has emerged from the dark recesses of my brain, scenes and characters start to hit the page as notes, sketches, and rough storyboards. With Midsummer, I found further inspiration from the play and decided to develop most of the script’s characters as modern day versions of Shakespeare’s characters. The play’s intertwined stories of a feuding couple, a teen love triangle, and magic gone awry were easily updated to the classic horror setting of a wilderness campground.
My story notes become an outline, and at this point I make the painful decision whether to continue a project. First I check to be sure it has a Hook, a Plot, and a Kick-ass Ending. All these are essential, in my view. The hook is the concept that gets people’s attention. The plot is more than a collection of scenes. It is a journey with multiple arcs. And no horror movie is complete without an Ending that leaves the audience breathless. If my outline has those three essentials, I ask myself “Is this story worth telling?”
Many of my stories never go beyond the outline stage, but “A Midsummer Nightmare” passed the test. The process of transforming an outline into a script is one of my favorite parts of writing. Characters develop their voices. New story arcs develop. Details come alive, often acted out wherever I may be writing. It can take anywhere from a couple weeks to several months for me to write the first screenplay draft.
Then comes the hard part: Editing. It’s like you’ve just given birth to this beautiful new life… then you have to hack it into pieces with a butcher knife. Unfortunately, it’s essential. Editing is not just finding the typos. You have to answer the WHYs of the story. WHY is the villain after so-and-so? WHY would someone go into the dark basement alone? If the answer is “because that would be cool” or “because it helps the story”, it’s time for more thinking.
I usually wait until the second or third draft of a script before I show it to anyone. After I’ve stitched up the baby and tried to make it pretty again, I hand it off to a trusted editor to rip it apart once more. It’s essential to have someone who will give you honest feedback and not just blow smoke up your fanny. A new pair of eyes should find a lot more WHYs. Answering them isn’t always easy.
The final step before a script “goes public”, either in the spec market or as something I plan to direct, is the table read. Hearing your script performed by actors can help expose character issues and dialogue that wouldn’t work even in a Star Wars prequel. And of course there are always more WHYs. Working on those issues with other creative people makes it a lot more fun.
At this point it’s time to introduce the screenplay to the world. When a script is produced, it inevitably evolves again through the various stages of filmmaking. But that’s a topic for another post.
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