What Is the Prewriting Process in Developing a Screenplay?

The writing behind the writing that maps out your film.

“However many drafts, however many crumpled balls of paper, however many exercises and pages of pre-writing you did – it’s none of the reader’s business. They’ll never see anything aside from the screenplay.”

As many seasoned writers can attest, for every screenplay that makes it in front of a reader, there’s a lot of writing that gets left behind – most of which will only ever be seen by the scribe.

I’m not necessarily pointing to a wastepaper basket full of balled-up pieces of paper (although I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve frustratedly crumpled up my fair share of papers)! Instead, this “for-the-writer’s-eyes-only” writing that I’m talking about is what we call “pre-writing”, a process through which the ideas for and structure of a screenplay can be discovered.

Pre-writing is the writing a writer does before, well, the writing. It includes exercises we can do as writers to help us wrap our minds around the substance and trajectory of a project.

You can think of it like planning – or let’s be honest, asking Siri to plan! – a route for a road trip before you start the actual driving. In other words, pre-writing is the act of planning your screenplay before you actually write it.

So why don’t we just call it “planning,” then?

Because that wouldn’t acknowledge the “writing” in “pre-writing”. We’re putting our pens to paper, our fingers to keyboards, and we’re creating story beyond the boundaries of the screenplay.

Is pre-writing required when developing a screenplay?

Teaching screenwriting with Lights Film School over the years, I’ve had students ask me: what type of pre-writing work is required?

Before I can answer that question, I must entertain a brief detour. To generalize the business of screenwriting in context of traditional Hollywood, screenplays tend to come about in one of three ways:

  • A writer creates a “spec script”. A spec script is a script that’s written “on speculation”. In other words, you, a writer, have an idea that you think is really great, and you decide to dedicate your time to writing it, including any necessary pre-writing work. You do all of this on the speculation that someone – a producer, a production company, a studio head – will say “Hey, this script is fantastic!”, and then pay you for the rights to it so that they can turn it into a movie.In today’s age of crowdfunding and digital cinema, we should take a moment to acknowledge that this is a process by which some indie scripts get made. A writer (sometimes writer/director) creates a script on the speculation that money can be raised to transform it into an independently-produced film.
  • A producer, production company, or studio owns a property – a novel, a comic book, the rights to someone’s life story – and they hire a writer to adapt that property into a screenplay.
  • There’s a third, less common path, whereby someone has an idea for a screenplay but not the interest or ability to write it, so they hire a screenwriter to bring their original idea to life and usually act as producer. Such work-for-hire scenarios vary in credibility, however, so be sure to check the hiring party’s credentials, the payment arrangement, and any other logistical and legal considerations.

With these three scenarios in mind, let’s return to the topic at hand!

When a writer develops a spec script, it’s often a no-strings-attached scenario wherein the writer is not beholden to anyone but him or herself. Although pre-writing may be helpful, it’s not like someone’s standing over the writer’s shoulder making them do it! Whether or not the writer engages in it is entirely up to them.

The biggest piece of advice I can give to the solo writer is that your writing process is yours and yours alone.

Remember, when all is said and done, the only thing that the reader is going to see is the finished screenplay. That means that whatever you did leading up to that point – however many drafts, however many crumpled balls of paper, however many exercises and pages of pre-writing you did – it’s none of the reader’s business. They’ll never see anything aside from the screenplay.

In the second and third scenarios above, the process may not be as free and open. If a producer, production company, or studio has hired you to write a script, then there’s a good chance that the person who hired you – AKA, your boss! – will want to ensure that you’re taking the project in a direction that they agree with and are excited about. To that end, they may require you to do some specific pre-writing tasks.

For example, on a television series, writers often must create a “show bible”, which is effectively a document describing the characters, setting, tone, story, and at least a few specific plot points of the show. This is less common in feature film screenwriting, since unlike a TV show, a film is self-contained (cinematic universes like the MCU not withstanding) and doesn’t require a commitment of, say, ten or twenty episodes.

Still, a feature film treatment can accomplish a similar result, in terms of casting the writer’s vision for the characters, setting, tone, story, and the like.

But I fall into the “Solo Writer” camp. Nobody’s forcing me to do any pre-writing. So why should I bother with it?

Something caught my eye as I was writing it, and I wonder if it jumped out at you, too:

“…however many drafts, however many crumpled balls of paper, however many exercises and pages of pre-writing you did – it’s none of the reader’s business. They’ll never see anything aside from the screenplay.”

Some writers write for the joy of writing – “the doing itself is the reward” which is a healthy perspective. This can motivate your pre-writing work, rendering it a natural part of the screenwriting process. When it’s about the journey as much as the destination, any writing you do in preparation can feel like play, in addition to sharpening your project and your craft.

However, if you’re someone who struggles with the idea of investing time in something that no one will see, pre-writing can be a harder sell. It’s kind of like putting your heart in a jar and hiding it away. It’s normal to want to put that jar on display, right? It’s the writer’s job to write things that other people will read, after all! So why should you write page after page of stuff no one knows exists, let alone appreciates?

I ask myself this from time to time. I’ll come up with something awesome in the pre-writing process and suddenly think, “What the heck, no one’s even going to read this!” The feeling is exacerbated by our social media-saturated age, which (arguably) has cultivated a desire for near-instantaneous public validation.

So I remind myself of the paradox.

Lean in, here, friends, because this is very important: the writing you do in pre-writing will be seen by the masses, albeit indirectly. Every little discovery you make throughout the process will make the “actual writing” in your screenplay that much stronger. The better you know your characters, setting, story, and the rest, the better you’ll be able to communicate your vision on the page; to figure out the puzzle of its structure.

Let’s imagine you’re writing a scene in a restaurant, where two people are eating bowls of soup. A clown comes over to their table uninvited and starts juggling. He loses control of one of the balls, and it lands in the soup.

Now, pick two people you know really well. Imagine that they’re the two people eating soup. How would they react to the clown’s mistake? What would they say or do in that situation? Is one angry and the other amused? Are both shocked? Are they afraid of clowns? Or does one get up and show the clown how juggling’s really done?

You may not be spot-on in predicting their reactions, but you’ll be closer than if you had to predict two strangers’ reactions, right?

Try imagining this same scene with two strangers. You don’t know anything about them. Are they quick-tempered? Good-humored? Easily startled or scared? Rigid or improvisational? You just don’t know.

So how could you write the scene convincingly?

Among other things, pre-writing can help you build relationships with your characters. You can get to know them as intimately as you know good friends and family members. This will allow you to write naturally, consistently, and with authenticity. The pre-writing helps you discover the foundation upon which your screenplay will be built.

Okay, you’ve convinced me. How do I actually do pre-writing?

Just as there aren’t necessarily hard-and-fast rules requiring you to do pre-writing work (depending on the scenario), so there aren’t necessarily hard-and-fast rules governing the type of pre-writing work you should do.

Let’s review three of the most common forms of pre-writing exercises, so that you can pick and choose according to what best serves you and your project.

I. Free-Writing

You could call this “brainstorming”.

It’s one of the most valuable aspects of my own pre-writing process and is precisely what it sounds like: an opportunity to write freely and brainstorm around your screenplay, letting the ideas flow, without putting any sort of obligations or pressure on yourself. I’ll sit down for 30 minutes a day and spend that time scribbling down anything and everything that occurs to me in relation to my project.

In her book The Artist’s Way, screenwriter Julia Cameron proposes free-writing as a technique to combat the demons of doubt many writers face. As Carrie Battan summarizes for The New Yorker:

“At the core of the process is a ritual called ‘morning pages,’ based on the belief that writing out three pages of free-form writing, in longhand, each morning, will unclog one’s mental and emotional channels of all the muck that gets in the way of being happy, productive, and creative.”

Cameron measures free-writing progress in terms of pages. Other writers find it helpful to measure progress in terms of of time. Show up for a set amount of time each day, brainstorm, and see how much (or how little) happens. It doesn’t matter. Just serve as a conduit for your ideas, be they many or few.

A little note about time limits, here. It’s not about cutting yourself off after, say, thirty minutes, so much as it is about your spending at least thirty minutes free-writing (or for whatever block of time you choose). Imposing a time limit holds you accountable to actually doing the work.

If you want to go beyond your designated block of time, then by all means, do so, assuming your schedule allows!

II. Character Studies

Many writers use some form of “character questionnaire” – also referred to as “character interview” – in their pre-writing process. Such a questionnaire helps them get to know their characters outside the confines of the screenplay. It often takes the form of a series of questions that you answer about (or on behalf of) each character.

The end result is pre-writing that leads to details and discoveries you otherwise might not make.

Personally, I’ve found character questionnaires to be incredibly useful pre-writing exercises! The more time you spend with someone, the better you get to know them, right? The same is true for your characters. I always love when I stumble across an insight that surprises me, sometimes prompted by a question I didn’t expect or that doesn’t seem at all related to the plot of my screenplay.

For example, here are some questions from a character questionnaire I used recently:

  • What do you consider the most important event of your life so far?
  • Who has had the most influence on you?
  • What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  • What is your greatest regret?
  • What is the most evil thing you have ever done?
  • Do you have a criminal record of any kind?
  • When was the time you were the most frightened?

The more you know about your characters, the more realistic, fleshed-out, and convincing they tend to be on the page!

III. Screenplay Outlines

A screenplay outline is essentially a map drawn with words. It lists the events that take place in your film, organized in the order that they occur. It can serve as a sort of to-do list while writing your script.

In practice, an outline can be as simple or as complex as is useful to you. For example, you could make a straightforward, bullet-pointed list of story beats:

  • Susie enters the cafe, where she meets John.
  • Susie and John leave and hang out all night – it’s obvious there’s chemistry between them.
  • They kiss for the first time.

Or you could have your outline assume the shape of an informal screenplay:

INT. CAFE – NIGHT

Susie’s waitressing when John enters for the first time. He’s into her, and she likes the attention. John asks Susie if she’d like to get a drink when she gets off work.

 

INT. BAR – LATER

Susie and John hang out all night. It’s obvious that there’s chemistry between them.

 

EXT. PARKING LOT – LATER

Susie and John kiss for the first time outside Susie’s car.

Outlining in a form that borrows from screenplay format – with scene headings, action descriptions, even bits of dialogue, and the like – can make it easier to envision the final product.

But again, pre-writing is all about what works best for you! Bullet points, screenplay notation, longhand scribbles in a notebook, gobs of text in a Google document… Or index cards, where each scene gets its own card, so that they can be arranged and re-arranged as you see fit. It depends on your unique process.

An outline is naturally a more organized form of pre-writing than brainstorming and character studies, which is why it appears third in our investigation of specific pre-writing exercises. You may find it helpful to try the preceding two exercises first.

Pre-writing sounds like a lot of work!

It is!

Or at least, it can be. Remember, pre-writing is all about you and what works for you creatively.

Whatever pre-writing exercises you explore, they should make you feel like your ideas are taking flight and the way forward is becoming clear. If you find that an exercise is exhausting you, consider taking a break or trying something else altogether.

Pre-writing shouldn’t be a burden. It’s the time you’re gifting yourself and your project – time that’s spent sharpening the details that enable you to write a screenplay that’s the fullest possible expression of itself.

The more you discover about your characters, setting, and story, the more solid its foundation, and the less likely you are to get lost when you transition into actually writing your screenplay. I love a good analogy, so here’s another one – it’s like packing a really good lunch for a long hike. The more nourishment you have, the more fulfilling the journey will be.

In Conclusion

Throughout our discussion, I’ve worked to acknowledge as much as I can that pre-writing is an individual process. It’s not necessarily for everyone. The last thing I want is for you to think, “Ugh. I can’t even go ahead and write my screenplay because I have to get through all of this pre-writing!”

In fact, some writers don’t do much, if any, pre-writing. For example, legendary author Stephen King is known for not plotting his stories in advance. He reveals this in his book On Writing:

“When asked, “How do you write?” I invariably answer, “One word at a time,” and the answer is invariably dismissed. But that is all it is. It sounds too simple to be true, but consider the Great Wall of China, if you will: one stone at a time, man. That’s all. One stone at a time. But I’ve read you can see that motherfucker from space without a telescope.”

King’s not alone in letting the journey take him where it wills. As Anne Lamott expresses beautifully in Bird by Bird:

“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

For others, it’s essential to know where you’re headed, and getting to the point of knowing where you’re headed tends to be hard work. “Easy reading is damn hard writing,” Maya Angelou shared in an interview. “It’s the other way round, too. If it’s slovenly written, then it’s hard to read. It doesn’t give the reader what the careful writer can give the reader.”

Yes, screenwriting can feel intimidating and scary sometimes, especially when you’re stuck or altogether lost in your story. Pre-writing can help you find your way. I can almost promise you that if you truly engage in some sort of pre-writing process, you’ll feel much more confident when putting pen to page for your screenplay.

So, what do you think? What pre-writing processes work for you? Which ones don’t? What exercises do you do; what techniques do you use to help plan the characters, setting, tone, and story of your screenplay?

We’d love to hear your perspective and experiences in the comments below!

 Lauren McGrail, with


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