Screenwriter of Revolutionary Road, Justin Haythe, recently did a Q+A on the Creative Screenwriting Magazine podcast. He makes a wonderful observation while describing the way he outlines before sitting down to write the actual first draft:
"… it never ceases to amaze me how much happens on the page that wasn’t planned for."
In other words, no matter how meticulously you outline and plot out the scenes before you start writing them, once you let the characters loose in the script, unexpected things start to happen.
I guess this particular remark struck a chord with me because I’m in the middle of precisely that process, turning an extensive scriptment into a fully-fledged first draft. And it always is a truly amazing sensation. Almost as if the characters are taking over.
Of course the important thing is to remain in charge, even whilst allowing events in the scene to unfold organically, in accordance with who the characters are. I think the key to achieving this balance is knowing what you’re writing about.
That may sound obvious, but a lot of scripts don’t make it to the screen because they don’t have a clear focus. Which doesn’t necessarily mean you absolutely must have that focus before you start writing. Sometimes it’s the writing and rewriting itself which clarifies what you want to focus on. But once you have a focus, you have to be true to it.
This focus transcends genre and style. Regardless of whether you’re writing a period piece, a comedic short, or an animated children’s feature. The focus might be a social issue, it might be a philosophical question, a mystery, an emotion, a psychological transition, and so on. Whatever your focus is, all the characters need to relate to it in one way or another.
This focus is what gives a script a feeling of being about something, without hitting the audience/reader over the head with “messages.”
One of my favourite examples of this kind of writing, is Paul Haggis’s Crash, in which the writer focuses every scene on the same issue: how astonishingly prejudiced and bigoted people of all races can be. (Click here to download a PDF of the script under "film scripts A-C.")
Armed with this kind of clear focus, you are free to let the magic happen on the page. You can let your characters loose in your story world, because you will always know when they’re straying outside of the focus of the story. Which is when you get to play God, using the backspace key.