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Old 03-29-2012, 06:59 PM   #1
ShannonR.
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Scene by scene?

I have a question. I'm working on a story that started as a novel and will probably continue that way, but I am also thinking of making it a screenplay. There are so many visual elements that can't be seen in a novel! Anyway, do you all write your scripts from beginning to end, or is it 'okay' to write them scene-by-scene and piece them together later? I have several dialogue scenes written for the novel, since that is what I like the most in a story. I don't think it would be hard to piece the scenes together at all, but I wasn't sure how 'pros' worked. Thanks!

This is my first major fiction project. I have nonfiction blogs, written PSAs that only got produced in college and one article about Christianity published on ReligiousTolerance.org, but I've never done fiction before. My education is in electronic media, though.
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Old 03-30-2012, 12:34 AM   #2
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Originally Posted by ShannonR. View Post
I have a question. I'm working on a story that started as a novel and will probably continue that way, but I am also thinking of making it a screenplay. There are so many visual elements that can't be seen in a novel! Anyway, do you all write your scripts from beginning to end, or is it 'okay' to write them scene-by-scene and piece them together later? I have several dialogue scenes written for the novel, since that is what I like the most in a story. I don't think it would be hard to piece the scenes together at all, but I wasn't sure how 'pros' worked. Thanks!

This is my first major fiction project. I have nonfiction blogs, written PSAs that only got produced in college and one article about Christianity published on ReligiousTolerance.org, but I've never done fiction before. My education is in electronic media, though.

There's no particular rule about it. Writers approach this question according to whatever works for them.

There are writers who always work from a detailed outline, others who don't.

Writers who work on various scenes and piece the final product together. Others who start at the beginning and work through to the end.

Writers who always know the end before they begin. Others who never know how their story is going to end when they start.

Writers who rewrite and polish as they go, others who never rewrite anything until they get through to the end.

Writers who'll use "place-holder" dialogue and scenes -- things that they never intend to be part of the final script but are simply meant to roughly suggest something that they plan to come up with later.

Others have to come up with exactly what they intend every scene to be before they can move forward.

Some writers work out complex biographies and backstories for their characters. Others (like me) never bother with that and tend to define characters in terms of internal and external needs -- that is, in story terms.

So what's "okay?" -- Anything that helps you to produce a finished work of high quality is always okay -- and that's not only going to be different from one writer to another, it can sometimes be different from one project to another.

I've written screenplays with highly detailed outlines, some without. Sometimes I've known the ending, sometimes I haven't. Sometimes I thought I knew the ending, only to realize that it was wrong and I changed it.

On the other hand, I've always started at the beginning and written straight through to the end and I've never used "place-holder" dialogue or scenes (at least not intentionally).

NMS
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Old 03-30-2012, 01:06 AM   #3
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I'm not a pro, but I have written several screenplays. I am currently adapting one of my mother's published novels into a screenplay. Screenplays and novels are different beasts. Some techniques that work in a novel don't work in a screenplay, and vice versa. For example, the opening scene in the novel I'm adapting is a girl sitting in the family kitchen worrying about the imminent visit of the mine owner and what bad news of many bad options he might be bringing. The reason she is focusing on the negative is the family has had a very difficult year. I can't film her thinking. Film can't look inside a characters head like text on a page can. I can add another person and have the two of them talking about everything she's thinking—very clunky writing. I could add a voice over narration—generally considered old fashioned. I could add scenes before the first scene and show the events that have her so worried. I could start with the mine owner's arrival and add dialog that reveals how anxious she was and why. Novel scenes and screenplay scenes rarely have a nice one-to-one association.

Screenplays are short. It is usually impossible to cram every significant event of a novel into a screenplay. So you need to choose the most significant, the ones that drive the core story. The dialog scenes might seem like the most obvious to include in the screenplay version, but are they the most important?

I think outlining is more common among screenwriters than novelists. The space constraints in a screenplay are so tight. But there are certainly screenwriters that work without outlines. As for writing scenes and stitching them together, I know some screenwriters do that. I write scenes before I outline in order to explore how an idea would work on screen. I don't stitch these scenes together. They are just explorations. Bits and pieces might end up in final scenes.

Again, consider the extreme shortness of screenplays. Short novels are around 200 pages in paperback. Most of the novels on my shelves are 300 to 500 pages. Say your novel is 300 pages. A one page dialog scene is 1/300th of your novel. That same scene formatted for a screenplay will probably run two pages even after all the tags and interstitials are removed. That's two pages out of a typical 100 page screenplay. That same scene consumes six times as much space in your screenplay than it did in your novel. Is it important enough to justify that?

What is important to carry over from novel to screenplay are ideas contained in scenes. You won't have enough space for every idea, just the most important ones. Most scenes in your novel will include a mix of ideas that make the cut and that don't. The ideas that make the cut will probably be rearranged to have the most pleasing structure in the new form.

For example, say your novel includes a scene in which Mary and Jack search an office and find a letter that implicate Susan in the crime they are investigating. In the novel version, this scene reveals:
  • Mary's policeman father taught her how to search a room and how to use a gun.
  • Jack is a coward. This is important later when justifying why he betrays Mary.
  • Susan is involved in the crime.
What if this is the only scene that takes place in this office? You might cut the location in the film version in favour of locations that host multiple scenes.

What if Susan is only a stepping stone to Harold and she doesn't know details about the crime? You might cut her character to save time.

So you cut the location, Susan, and the discovery of the letter that implicates her. You cut the scene. But there are still important character points about Mary and Jack that you want to keep. Put them in different scenes. That's what I mean when I say a dialogue scene you write for the novel is not necessarily a scene in the screenplay. Parts of it might be, and parts not.
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Old 03-30-2012, 06:03 AM   #4
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Put the pen to the paper or your fingertips to the keyboard and let it flow. Why worry so much about structure with the first draft? You're not going to sell it.

Imo, and I'm way way way down there on the totem pole, that first draft is all about unleashing a wonderful burst of creative energy, seeing what you've got, where it's going. After too many hours to count, when you're ready... that second draft is when you start piecing together the pace of the work with proper structure.
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Old 03-31-2012, 08:50 PM   #5
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Thanks! It seems like most of what I come up with is scene-by-scene dialogue, many times when I'm not even really trying. I've never written a long screenplay before, but I suppose the biggest part of the first draft is getting what is in your head down on paper...do you ever find that the story kind of leads you rather than the other way around? Meaning, you start writing one thing and something else comes to mind from it?
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Old 03-31-2012, 11:44 PM   #6
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I suppose the biggest part of the first draft is getting what is in your head down on paper...do you ever find that the story kind of leads you rather than the other way around? Meaning, you start writing one thing and something else comes to mind from it?
I outline heavily when writing screenplays. I play around with index cards. I know what I want each scene to accomplish in terms of moving the story forward or revealing character. When writing my first draft over these bones, I still find things changing under my fingers. A different character than I planned carries a theme. An entirely new confrontation sets up the crisis. The shape of the crisis changes. A new, better ending emerges.

So, yes, it is normal to find yourself following the story. I would say one thing, know your ending before you start a full draft. It helps enormously to have a target. You may end up somewhere other than where you first planned, but you'll still know you've reached the end.

Another suggestion is to give yourself a deadline. Work to hire includes a schedule of deliverables. Give yourself say 12 weeks to complete a first draft from initial idea to FADE OUT. Sign a contract with yourself. By the deadline you must have something on the page with a beginning, middle, and end. Then set it aside for a few weeks while an imaginary producer reads it.
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Old 04-01-2012, 01:31 AM   #7
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Thanks! I'm actually participating in Script Frenzy (basically NaNoWrMo for screenplays) in April...100 pages in 30 days...it's not really a contest but it will be a good thing to give me a kick in the pants to at least get things down.

But I'm glad to know I'm not the only one whose stories take her in different directions. I do have the ending...actually, probably what would end up being the last twenty minutes of a screenplay. I have a few ideas for 'stops' along the way (important scenes), but I have to find a way to piece them together...Do you ever write your scenes down on index cards and shuffle them that way, or how do you use index cards?
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Old 04-01-2012, 02:13 AM   #8
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Do you ever write your scenes down on index cards and shuffle them that way, or how do you use index cards?
Once a project is more than a few vague ideas, I write moments on cards. Then I lay out the moments in order and move them around to try out different structures. A scene might be one card or several cards depending on how many moments are place in one time and place with one set of characters. I also note what change occurs in each scene and what the conflict is. I'm checking that each scene moves the story forward.

For example, here are two random cards from one of my screenplays (random because I dropped the stack picking it up just now):

Deidre w/ Bud finds street kid
Kid doesn't know Deidre
Kid realizes Deidre is cop girl was looking for
Girl was in trouble w/ bad guys
± ignorant --> aware & complacent --> guilty
>< Deidre v kid

In this scene, Deidre gets some critical information from a street kid. She goes from ignorant of the situation to aware. This information also shakes her from her complacency of being a good cop doing her job to feeling guilty about brushing off the girl who came to her for help and is now missing.

Deidre has lunch w/ Hugo
Discontents are shared
Secrets hinted
Plans laid
± Rudderless --> Determined
>< Deidre v Hugo

Deidre starts this scene not knowing what to do next. She ends it with renewed drive and direction.
Even though Deidre and Hugo are forging an alliance in this scene, they have different agendas for the partnership and different goals.

You might recognize the ± and >< notations from Blake Snyder's Save the Cat. I find a lot of what Blake Snyder says absolute crap. And a lot is gold.
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Old 04-01-2012, 03:25 AM   #9
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That's usually the way it goes...some of the best and worst stuff comes out of the same person.

That's a really interesting way to plan things out. I wasn't sure if you would write the entire scene (lines and all) on the cards, or the basic ideas.

Do you (or does anyone else) end up writing the dialogue for a scene, only to totally scrap it later? I come up with conversations in my head (or I will adapt conversations I've heard or had with others), only to find that they don't really fit what the story is about.
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Old 04-01-2012, 04:15 AM   #10
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I'm taking your advice on the index cards...I'm also writing down moments that may or may not be in the final draft (minor things like if something is said to a character privately before being said to a larger group, or if something is said to everyone at the same time, etc), hopefully that will help in terms of setting things in order...has that ever helped you? Meaning, writing an idea on a card that may or may not be scrapped later just so you have the visual to work with?
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Old 04-01-2012, 04:24 AM   #11
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That's a really interesting way to plan things out. I wasn't sure if you would write the entire scene (lines and all) on the cards, or the basic ideas.
Everyone who uses a card system has their own method.
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Do you (or does anyone else) end up writing the dialogue for a scene, only to totally scrap it later? I come up with conversations in my head (or I will adapt conversations I've heard or had with others), only to find that they don't really fit what the story is about.
All the time. Much of what I write in the planning stages doesn't end up in the final draft. Once I start a project in earnest, I do a lot of structural planning. I've found I work most efficiently that way. Then I write a first draft over the structure. I put it aside for a little while and work on something else. When I come back to it, I do a page one rewrite. Major changes to plot, character, or theme can and do happen. This second draft is the first one I'd show anyone else. I call my first and second drafts together my first draft.

I scribble many stand-alone scenes that might grow into full projects, or that might get combined with other stand-alone scenes in a project. The vast majority of the text of these scenes is not in the complete draft. Once I start writing on cards for a project, I do not write any scenes for that project until I am at the stage of writing a complete draft. I have learned that for me writing scenes at this stage wastes time. That brilliant exchange that came to me? I'll come up with something better later. It works for me.

You will need to write two or three complete screenplays from FADE IN to FADE OUT—different screenplays, not drafts—before you find a method of working that works for you.

Some people do write scene by scene. I'm in a playwright's workshop right now, and I am the only person who works from a complete plan. Everyone else discovers their characters and sees where the story leads them. They don't know what their play is about because they haven't finished it yet. Drives me batty.
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Old 04-09-2012, 04:38 AM   #12
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Most writers try to write in a way that allows them to finish the work and it is rarely in order or even in full scenes. Just write and discover what works for you.
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Old 04-09-2012, 11:05 PM   #13
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While I believe you can more easily get away with writing a novel as it flows, a screenplay must be tight. While some rules can always be broken, there are other rules (like the pages 10, 30, 90 rule) that really can't be abused.

A simple outline (sometimes even just a sketched out hero's journey) is enough for a novel, but I always spend more time outlining my screenplays. I usually write the story with all the scenes I know in paragraph form synopsis-style. Then I continue to flesh it out until it's a 10-12 page treatment (I spend less than a week on this usually). Sometimes I'll share this with a few trusted readers to make sure the story flows effectively. If you plan effectively, you can write whatever way you want: from FADE IN to FADE OUT, or jumping around from scene to scene. With a good outline you'll always need to know what's happening page 30ish, page 60ish, etc.
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Old 04-09-2012, 11:31 PM   #14
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As usual, nmstevens pretty much nails it. Each writer will have to develop the workflow that suits their own particular creative energy.

I tried doing a very detailed treatment on a screenplay once. By the time I had tuned up the treatment, I felt as if the story had left me. As if there were nothing to be discovered by accident. In short, I had gotten the story 'out of my system' by dumping it into a detailed treatment. I lost my enthusiasm for writing that particular script.

Perhaps I'll return to it in the future, it's not a wasted effort. But I found that it did not help, but rather hindered my workflow.

Sure, I usually have a good idea of where I want the story to go. I might have a particular ending with a big surprise twist that I'm writing toward.

But I like to discover things along the way. I love being surprised by what my mind comes up with in the act of writing and being 'in the flow'. I find those moments are usually my best writing.

And yes, I understand that when I'm done - there will be LOTS of re-writing and polishing to do. "Don't get it right, get it written" is my mantra. Get it out of my head and on to the page.

I've sometime put in a 'place holder' for dialog or scene - because I want to skip on to the next scene in my head while it's hot. A place holder might be a paragraph that says, "They discuss how the package will be delivered" - or "We find out why she has the scar." - whatever. I'll go back in and fill it in later.

And I always leave the page 'hot'. I stop writing, with a little something left in my imagination. Perhaps I'll even stop in mid dialog - knowing where to pick it up. This leaves me with something already primed to start writing with the next time I sit down.

But that's what works for ME. Each writer has their own approach. You can only find it by trial and error.

Yeah, I tried writing while standing up barefoot on a piece of leather like Hemmingway... it's vastly overrated.
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Old 04-10-2012, 01:37 AM   #15
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LOL @ Hemmingway!

Kelsey, I haven't written a major screenplay before...is the 10-30-90 referring to what I've heard referred to as a 'three-act structure'? 10 being the conflict being introduced, 30 where resolution is started and 90 when conflict should be resolved? That's just trying to work from memory of school.
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Old 04-10-2012, 07:06 PM   #16
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There are various schools of thought about actions on act-breaks, where they should fall, number of 'beats' in a script. All of them are good templates for helping you structure your story.

I've got a shelf full of screenwriting books. I've gotten SOMETHING from all of them. Understanding structure and timing and rythm and beats is important to writing. But for me - when I write, I WRITE. I get the script out and onto the page/screen. After it's done, I'll pull out the books - the templates, the hero's journey, etc. etc. - and I'll see if they help in the RE-WRITE. "Oh, yeah, perhaps this moment should come a little earlier... or perhaps I'm missing a moment where the Mentor gives the sage advice... it should go HERE." I can't keep checking the books while I'm writing - it inteferes with the creative process. I have to let the story flow organically. Trust the fact that I have an inherent understanding of the syntax of film (I've worked professionally in television and film all my life.) The books help me find the points I might have missed.
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