By Jennie Jarvis
Growing up, I always heard the well-known expression “Writing is Rewriting.” But once I started my formal training as a screenwriter, I heard something much different – “Writing is Prewriting.”
What is Prewriting, you may ask? Prewriting is all the prep work you do before you sit down to actually write out the pages of your screenplay or novel. For me, prewriting includes world and character building, creating a treatment (basically, a summary of the story), and the outline. Prewriting is all the work that I do before sitting down at my keyboard.
When I mention that, in screenwriting, Writing is more about Prewriting than Rewriting, I tend to get odd looks from writers of other narrative formats (novelists, short story writers, etc). If this seems odd to you, you have to keep in mind how movies are made. Many times, a story will be sold based on the treatment because multiple screenwriters are often brought in to write various versions of the same script. It’s rare that only one screenwriter will see their work from script to screen. So it makes sense that the actual screenplay isn’t quite as important as the story, and it’s in Prewriting where that story can evolve into its final structure.
So, when it comes time for me to write a new story – whether as a screenplay or a novel – I dedicate more time to Prewriting than anything else.
Whatever idea has come to me, I take that idea and start with the broad strokes. Since the idea is still rough and ragged, I know that trying to figure out all the details is just plain silly. So, I spend my first few weeks (or months) working on the world and character building. For me, this means creating a character bible and a world-building page.
My character bible is basically a template that I complete for each of my major characters. This template includes information such as character backstory, relationships, core traits, physical attributes, fears, dreams and so much more. Most of this information, I don’t know about my character until I force myself to write it out. As I create the character bible, that person reveals her or himself to me.
Next, I turn to world building. For this process, I use Pinterest – the website that has a lot more practical uses than just planning weddings and other “chick stuff.” I use Pinterest to gather visual images from all over the internet. These images help me to shape the world in which my characters live. In fact, I often find photos of actors that I think could play my characters as part of that world building so I can really see the entire world of my story on the page. Oftentimes, when I’m finding these visuals from around the internet, I find really inspiring pictures that help to shape scenes or other plot points in my mind.
Once my character and world building has been completed, I move to the treatment stage. The idea of my story at this point is still rather rough, but the previous steps have made it much less ragged.
At this point, I sit down, and I write out the synopsis of my story. When I first sit down, I don’t know what that story will be entirely, but I force myself to write my way through the entire thing anyway. It’s a painful process, but it’s also really rewarding because my subconscious begins plugging in the holes of the overall story that I was considering. Oftentimes, struggling to get out that treatment is the most rewarding part of my entire writing process because I can finally see that story coming together. I can see if it will work or if it’s too flawed or clichéd.
Once that treatment is completed, I make sure to take it to my writing group to get feedback. It’s so much easier to rewrite four – ten pages of synopsis than to rewrite a 110 page screenplay or a 65,000 word novel, so I get as much story feedback as I can at this stage. I work and rework that treatment until the story works from a big-picture point of view.
Once I finalize my treatment, I convert it into an outline. I break down the synopsis and figure out what events will happen in each chapter or each scene. This tends to be a much more mechanical (read: boring) stage of the writing process, but it’s just as essential as every other step. I don’t just beat out the story elements; I also look at the dramatic function of each character in each scene, their goals, their obstacles, their conflict and their development. I make sure things that have a late pay off are set up appropriately, and that my structure reflects the underlying themes or messages of the story.
Once that outline is done, I sit down and actually write out the script or the novel. It’s a surprisingly fast process once I’ve completed the Prewriting, mostly because the story has lived in my head for so long that I’m really just transcribing those images and words to the page.
Plus, because I spent so much time rewriting my treatment, the rewriting stage of my screenplay or novel is significantly shorter than most other writers. I don’t have to move major scenes around or cut huge sections of my work because I already figured out where everything needs to go. My rewrites are usually smaller issues like finessing dialogue, eliminating redundant words or fixing grammar.
It’s a far different process than other people use, but it’s what works for me. At the end of the day, we all have to learn the individual and unique process of story evolution that works for each of us as writers.
How do you evolve your story from idea to its final version?