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?
About The Author
Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film
Festival for LOVE LIZA, Gordy Hoffman has written and directed three
digital shorts for Fox Searchlight. He made his feature directorial
debut with his script, A COAT OF SNOW, which world premiered at the
2005 Locarno International Film Festival. He is also the founder of the
BlueCat Screenplay Competition. Dedicated to develop and celebrate the
undiscovered screenwriter, BlueCat provides written screenplay analysis
on every script entered. In addition, Gordy offers screenwriters
personalized feedback on their scripts through his consultation
Copyright © 2006 BlueCat Screenplay Competition