The Importance of Earnest Planning

Happy St Patrick’s Day everyone! I hope you’re all wearing a wonderful shade of green and drinking copious amounts of Guinness on the one day of the year it is most acceptable.

This post today will have nothing to do with St Patrick’s Day – other than the fact that I’m wearing a green dress and socks with clovers on them as I write this – and more to do with another project I’ve been working on. ‘With A Little Help From Our Friends’ is moving into pre-production as we speak (Oli [the producer] and I have been working hard on tracking down our key crew behind the scenes of these blog posts) and whilst we wait for people to get back to us and find new faces to join our family, I’ve been working on a writer’s treatment for a feature film.

I know it’s a bit of a deviation from the most recent posts on the blog – and fret not, I’ll continue talking about short film structure – but I thought that this was interesting and wanted to share my way of working with the BILLIONS of readers I know read this blog every day. I’m not exaggerating in the slightest there, either.

I’ve always been quite an undisciplined writer. I would always write, but I would never plan anything. Keen to see where the characters would take me, I’d start writing stories but rarely be able to finish them. As a result, I have a lot of half filled notebooks and a lot of half-finished ideas. Some are great, some are rubbish but almost all of them are half-baked. I liked the idea of not having a direction to go in and discovering the story along the way, but I rarely got to the end – and to be honest, endings are the weakest part of my writing (just don’t tell anyone).

What would usually happen is that I turned to a blank page and started writing. I might have a character or a scene in my head and was interested to see how that would turn out. Then, as I wrote, I’d get ideas for things to happen further down the line. Brainwaves – they’re the most wonderful things in the world. That moment of ‘I can’t figure out how – oh. Oh, oh, OH! THIS could happen and THAT SOLVES EVERYTHING AND LEADS PERFECTLY INTO THIS BIT!’ I love them. So I’d scribble down this idea in a random spot in my notebook and plough on, eager to get to that perfect idea I’d just had.

But I’d get caught out by another section before that, get stuck and let it sit.

And get a new idea for a new story and charge off writing that instead.

Then, a few months ago, I was asked to write a synopsis for a feature film. I’d never really done that before – writing down the entire story from beginning to end without working on the script/story alongside it. I almost always wrote stories without knowing the endings because I liked it when the characters surprised me.

I had a rough idea of a concept that I could adapt for the required genre. I pitched this loose idea to the producer who was really keen on it, so I took it away with me to start working on it.

And I struggled.

I felt like I was bashing my head up against a brick wall, I felt like I didn’t know the characters well enough because I hadn’t written them into a scene, I felt like I had no idea how I could get from start to finish. I was changing the whole way I usually worked because I’d been asked for a synopsis and not a script – if the synopsis was good enough, I’d get paid to write the script.

I had no idea how I could fix it.

But luckily for me, there was Scriptchat.

For those of you who don’t know, Scriptchat is a Twitter event that happens every Sunday night at various times (depending on whether you hit up EURO Scriptchat or US Scriptchat) on Twitter. Writers and filmmakers gather together and talk about a different topic each week – often with guests – and you Tweet questions, answers and opinions. It’s a fantastic resource and I’m so grateful for finding it as I’ve found so many fabulous writer friends in London and around the world out of it.

This particular night at Scriptchat – and I can’t even remember who was guesting which is horrible of me – I brought up the fact that I was struggling to write this treatment because I was afraid that the story would change once I actually started writing the script.

And I was told, with a shrug, to let it change if it changes. A synopsis or a writer’s treatment isn’t the final word – it’s a general idea of where the story will go AT THIS STAGE OF DEVELOPMENT. Stories will organically change and grow as they’re written and told.

That was all I needed. Realising that I wasn’t doomed to write the story exactly as it was written in the treatment – that it WOULD change as it went – I was free to write the treatment. And the story I ended up with, I really love. The producer didn’t pick it up in the end, but it doesn’t bother me – I have a story that I’m really passionate about, outlined from beginning to end that I can now pick up in six months time, read the synopsis and say ‘Oh, I remember this – that’s how everything happens!’

As for this recent treatment I was working on, I had no issues with it at all. Once I figured out my main characters, I got to know them and they became more alive as I drafted and re-drafted the treatment. It still needs a lot of work, but I can now look over the story and think to myself ‘This needs to happen here,’ or ‘This character needs more time on screen.’ And it’s helping me so much as a writer. That way, when I get into writing the script, I’ll know where it needs to go and what needs to happen where.

And along the way, I’ll probably find more characters who want to appear in the story, discover new quirks about old characters I thought I knew and have to adjust the plot-line to deal with it. But it feels a lot more secure writing in an intended direction rather than writing by the seat of my green, St Patrick’s Day dress.


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2 thoughts on “The Importance of Earnest Planning

  1. CharlieWarley says:

    Cool post!

    I agree that just putting yourself in the mind-set that a treatment isn’t necessarily the be all and end all helps. I find that these kind of dry documents can sometimes feel as though they take a bit of the creativity away, but you have to just push through and whilst you’re writing major turning points and what not, still question what the character would do… Still allow yourself to change things. In fact, questioning the sporadic choices of characters at this stage can help solve any issues with how it changes the overall structure.

    Anyway, I waffle – good luck getting the script down on paper one day!

  2. Alli Parker says:

    Thanks Charlie! I never thought that a treatment could help for exactly that reason – they seemed so tedious. But it’s such a useful tool that I never really understood until I was forced to write one and now I don’t understand why I didn’t try earlier.

    I think it’s the way that they’re pitched to writers – I was told about them at university by a lecturer who knew very little about writing, so the idea didn’t seem any more exciting or practical to me.

    Not only that, but it’s going to end up being the strongest tool in your arsenal when you come to write the script – you already know the characters so well that everything is a reflex and if you get lost or muddled, you’ve got the treatment to put you back on track. Perfect!

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