Work smarter, not quicker

by Jason Benoit, Esq.

I have found that as a writer my wandering, overstimulated mind stays best occupied when it has multiple projects to work on at once. Which is both a blessing and a curse.

It’s great to have a manager whom I trust that can gently nudge me in the right direction for my wavering focus. I’m very much a list person. It helps me organize and prioritize my thoughts and responsibilities.

I’ve always been this way. When I was younger, I’d make a list of all the tasks I had to get done that day. Usually that meant homework. In college, that meant which papers were due first and which carried more weight. In my adult life, it’s turned to sticky notes – even if just on my laptop’s desktop.

It’s the same theory as to why I love having thorough outlines.

Every writer has their own process. John August recently shared his process for how he writes scenes. It’s worth taking a look at – and maybe experimenting with yourself – if you haven’t already seen it.

Perusing John’s suggestions, I started thinking more about my own process. How I go from empty, blank slate to idea to execution to completion… though, if writing in Hollywood has taught me anything – besides flattery gets you everywhere – it’s that nothing is ever ‘completed’.

So, how do I find an idea that is worthy of writing an actual movie about? This is basically the equivalent of finding someone to date. Are they worthy of this time commitment? Of spending what little money you have on them? Because who really wants to fork down a couple hundred bucks for two or three dates only to realize it was a waste of everyone’s time (and booze/rent money)?

Certainly not this guy.

Ideas can come from anywhere. Lines of dialogue you hear. Clips of news stories. Movies you’ve seen that you decide to reinvent or put a new slant on. Stories about errant bags of poop you hear through college friends. Good ideas, on the other hand, are rare. I like to separate mine into TV ideas and film ideas – though that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t examine every idea with an eye towards both mediums. Or, entirely other mediums, in fact.

I’ll jot down what makes the idea interesting to me. Physically write it down because I’m of the belief that once you’ve put something down on paper it becomes real.

Like planting a seed. You can’t grow a plant without first planting that seed into the soil/pot.

Once I have an inkling of an idea I will begin to figure out how to pitch it. I don’t mean a full-fledged story with character arcs and whatnot. More simply, how do I tell my girlfriend, my manager or my friends what this idea is so I can figure out if it’s intriguing to them or not. It’s what I call the: “Would you pay to see this in a theatre?” pitching. Some call it the elevator pitch.

Being precious with your ideas is something that a professional writer can’t be. You have to test things. You need to see if someone leans into the idea or if their eyes glaze over. For me, I know I’ve truly hit on something when they begin rambling with their own ideas/jokes/scenes/characters.

Then, I’ll tuck the idea away. Coming back to it between projects to add tidbits here and there. To flesh out the idea further until I have a full grasp on the arc of the story.

From there, I will outline the major movements of the script. Some people like to do this with notecards. Others do it with sequences. I’ll usually break mine down into acts. I don’t need the full story just yet because what I am trying to lock in here is the major movements and moments. If I have those motivations and those turns of the story, then I can start the process of making it breathe.

At this point, I have to have already latched onto something about the story that speaks particularly to me. This is what I refer to as the “write what you know” part of the process. People will tell you to write what you know but – and I hope this isn’t the first time you’re hearing this – but they don’t mean actually write what you know. Like if I was a baker, for instance, I wouldn’t only write about baking.

For the record, I’m a horrible baker.

Instead, I find what is going on in my life that might work in this particular story. Is it at its base dealing with someone torn between two lovers? Is it someone who is too competitive for their own good? What’s the thing I can relate to or have been able to relate to at some point in my life? If I can’t find my voice in the story, then ultimately this will be a waste of my time.

From there, I can further flesh out my main character/s. Though, I believe one of the joys of writing for myself is to be able to discover some of this on the page. My character will evolve as the writing progresses. I’ll go into a script thinking it’s about one thing only to get to the end and realize (or be told by someone else) that it’s actually about this entirely different thing.

So, that’s when you go back and rewrite. You hone in on the theme and you start curtailing the story and script to feed what the story is really about.

Okay, so after I’ve fleshed out my main character, I can begin to populate his/her life. I’ll go into super detaily detail. I’ll basically do a full scriptment. Be it ten pages or thirty, I’ll essentially write the movie sans dialogue – save for lines I like that come up in this process. It’s much less daunting for me to commit to a scriptment than it is to actually write the actual script.

Once I have a full scriptment I’m happy with – then I’ll share it with my manager to get notes and thoughts. You can do the same with friends, other writers you trust, etc. I like to go back to the people I originally pitched the idea to and get their thoughts. My way of backtracking and reconfirming that the idea still is exciting.

Then, after some tweaks and changes, it’s time to write the actual script. At this point, I am basically transcribing the scriptment into actual script form. I’ll find new things along the way, but as someone who likes order and lists, this is an easy way for me to see progress and progression. I tend to write linearly and by having my documents, I can actively cross things/scenes/sequences off as I complete them. This allows me to see a physical progress of the work that needs to be done.

Also, nothing feels better than accomplishing something and being able to put a literal line through that completed work.

At this point, it’s all about getting the script on the page and trusting that the homework you’ve done leading up to this point is leading you down the right path. If it’s not, don’t be afraid to diverge off course. The outline/scriptment, at least for me, is just a roadmap – but one that I trust will lead me ultimately where I need to be. If I just sat down and started writing without this pre-work then I might churn up a mangled mess. Sure, the writing may be ‘pretty’ but chances are I am just creating much more work for myself down the road. So, I try to resist the urge to just dive in right away.

When I’m not doing a good enough job at curtailing this eager passion, my manager will tell me to “work smarter, not quicker.”

Each writer’s process is unique and their own. Ultimately, all that really matters is… can you get from blank page to completed script? If you can, then you’re doing something right even if you’re the only person doing it the way that you are.

I always enjoy hearing other people’s processes. Their most creative hours of writing. Where they write. What they write to, if anything.

What process works best for you?

Jason Benoit, Esq.

About Jason Benoit, Esq.

Jason Benoit is a young screenwriter based in Los Angeles, California. He has developed projects in both film and television with producers around town. He was reared on Cheetos and nightly doses of Tylenol PM and is adamant about attaching the suffix Esquire to his name. We've agreed to humor his request. Follow him on Twitter @jbenoitfilm

Tags: , , , , , ,