I’ve been busy reading an inspiring and wonderfully written book by Tom Lazarus called Rewriting Secrets For Screenwriters. The book is chock-full of very practical tips and humorous, familiar-sounding anecdotes.
Among the techniques Lazarus describes, is the way he sets about developing an idea for a story, using what he calls the incremental method.
This basically involves writing down, off the top of your head, a shorthand list of all the scenes, events, characters etc., that are involved in your story idea. It doesn’t have to make any sense to anyone other than yourself, and it doesn’t have to meet any kind of standards at all. It’s just a rough list of thoughts about an idea you have for a story.
This way of working isn’t revolutionary, it’s completely intuitive and logical, but what’s so good about getting the idea for your story down on paper this way, is that you avoid the trap of thinking too much, too early on in the process.
There’s nothing that can nip a potentially good story idea in the bud more effectively than a bit of premature rational, critical brain work. Especially if (mis)guided by official structure manuals that tell you on what page to put plot points and act breaks.
Not that screenwriting manuals aren’t extremely valuable, but focusing on structure too early on can be devastating for the creative process.
Once you have the list, it becomes the starting point for elaboration. A place from which to ask yourself questions about what might have happened to cause a particular event, what the consequences could be, what the characters want, what their emotions and conflicts are, what locations might look like and why, and so on.
As you add more details, scenes and characters begin to emerge, and it will become clear whether the story is viable or not. If it is, perhaps a more structured outline is called for. If it’s not, better to know now than half way through the first draft.
The reason the incremental method works so well, as does the rewriting method Lazarus sets out, is this: By going back over the same list again and again, you gradually notice and adjust more and more detail every time. It’s a great way to avoid writing clichés and stereotypes, because when you come back to the same beat for the tenth time and it still feels fresh and surprising, you know it’s good writing. If you come back to a scene and it feels tired and too familiar, you know you need to move it up a gear or two.
Another great (re)writing tip from Tom Lazarus is to check what new information the scene is delivering. But more about that next time.