We’ve been talking for the past couple of weeks about first drafts. Bottom line message: Get through them fast and with aggression, even if the final product is imperfect and riddled with TKs (placeholder scenes, descriptions, and dialogue). In other words, “Cover the Canvas.

Al Pacino knocks 'em dead in "The Godfather." Before we start, we wanna be sure we've got a couple of scenes this good.

Al Pacino knocks ’em dead in “The Godfather.” Before we start, we wanna be sure we’ve got a couple of scenes this good.

That’s fine. It works.

But what do we do before we cover the canvas?

Plunge in blindly? Start writing from Page One?

I’m gonna take the next few weeks to address these questions. What I have to say is purely my own idiosyncratic thinking and experience.

Okay? Here goes …

Before I start a first draft I lay out three files, to which I give the following titles:

1) Foolscap

2) 3Acts

3) 60Scenes

I also start a file called “Theme” and three more titled “Hero,” “Villain,” and “Payoff.” (And a few more that I’ll get into as we go along.)

Why am I doing this? I’m trying to get the story straight in my mind from CHAPTER ONE to THE END. I want a snapshot, a blueprint I can refer to. I’m asking myself, “Is this a good idea? Will anyone want to read this? Is it about something? Does it possess dramatic horsepower? Does it progress from A to Z? Does it pay off in the climax? Do I love it? Can I spend the next two or three years working on it?”

I won’t start the first draft till I can say yes to all those questions (and to a lot of others.)

I won’t start until I can “see the whole movie.”

Did I always work like this? No. For years I dove in on Page One, put my head down and started hammering keys. That’s not always a bad idea. Sometimes it works. But what usually happened for me was I’d get halfway through before it hit me that I was totally lost. Or I’d finish completely only to realize that I basically had to tear the whole house down and start over.

Working in Hollywood taught me to plan ahead. “Screenplays are structure,” William Goldman famously declared. I learned from writing movie scripts to pin sixty index cards to the wall, one for each scene, and to not type a word onto paper till I had those 3X5 cards all working and all in order.

I carry over that same thinking to novels, even though I know from experience that a long-form narrative will morph and evolve wildly over the two or three years it takes to complete it. “It wouldn’t be a plan,” they say in the Marine Corps, “if it didn’t change.”

In the next few weeks I’m gonna get into detail about “Foolscap,” “3Acts,” and “60Scenes.” But for today let’s start with another lesson from the movie biz: Paul Schrader’s theory of pitching.

Paul Schrader is the writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and the director of eighteen movies including Light Sleeper, Affliction, and 2013’s The Canyons. Here’s what he wrote about pitching:

 

Have a strong early scene, preferably the opening, a clear but simple spine to the story, one or two killer scenes, and a clear sense of the evolution of the main character or central relationship. And an ending. Any more gets in the way.

 

Paul Schrader was talking (I think) about condensing for presentation a project that was already complete, at least in his mind. He was boiling it down to its pitchable essentials.

I use his technique the opposite way. I ask those questions at the very start, to test my new idea, to see if it might work. In other words, I ask myself Paul Schrader’s questions before I start a first draft.

Do I have a “strong early scene,” i.e. an Inciting Incident?

Does my story have a spine? Can I see a six-lane freeway propelling it from beginning to end?

Do I have at least a few killer scenes? Do I have Michael Corleone gunning down Virgil Sollozzo and Capt. McCluskey at Louis’ restaurant in the Bronx? Do I have the Indominus Rex breaking free and terrorizing thousands at Jurassic World?

Do I have a hero who evolves powerfully from the story’s start to its finish?

And have I got a gangbusters climax? Do Harry and Sally finally get together? Does Matt Damon get back safely from Mars? Does Jay Gatsby’s West Egg mansion devolve into a tragic ruin?

When I can say yes to all these, I’m ready to start putting together a formal Foolscap and to start thinking about “3Acts” and “60Scenes.”

We’re still a long way from “Just Write the Damn Thing!” But we’re getting closer. More on this next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Jim

    Thanks for this Steve. Your transparency is always helpful. In the context of this post, is the “spine or six-lane freeway” the same as theme? Thanks again.

    • No, Jim. The spine is the run of events/scene from the story’s beginning to the story’s end, e.g. Capt Ahab starts in search of Moby Dick, chases Moby Dick around the globe, fights it out with Moby Dick in the climax.

  • Tony levelle

    Superb post. Useful to see how a pro does first draft. Much here that I can use.
    Thanks!

  • Kathleen

    Wonderful post, perfect timing. I’ve abandoned more that a few projects around the middle of the 2nd act because I had just started writing … but then I’ve also used “planning” to avoid starting. I’m excited to find out how you prepare, thank you Steve for so generously sharing.

  • BING

    Over the weekend I saw the coast guard movie The Finest Hours based on a true story. I kept saying to myself, “ooooh this is so Pressfield”. My favorite line was “either we all live or we all die”. This movie had all the Steve/Shawn stuff.

    I am a artist not a writer, I am doing some illustrations for a writer. I have to draw over and over a drawing before I like it. It is a numbers game for the most part. Out of a hundred drawings maybe one I really love, a couple I really like and five are
    OK. I will spend hours on a OK drawing to get so I like it, sometimes I have to set it aside. I only ship work I like and love.

  • Steve, I have a question….

    I thought I was doing this sixty scene thing, too.

    Then I did the math….

    3 Acts.
    5 Commandments of Story telling.
    That’s 3 x 5 = 15

    Then, each of the five has it’s own inciting incident, complication, crisis, climax, resolution.

    So, 15 x 5 = 75

    I realized I was telling people: “I outline with 60 scenes” when in fact I was outlining with 75 “story points” (not necessarily scenes, but could be).

    Do you think instead of the (seemingly arbitrary, if it’s not explain please) 60 scenes, it’s a good idea to write out the 75 actual “Commandments of Storytelling” story points?

    The Middle Build, for instance, has a Crisis, but in the Middle Build Big Story Crisis we have an Inciting Incident, Complication, Crisis, Climax, and Resolution.

    If you are only doing 60 story points (scenes), how do you know which of the 15 points to neglect or leave out?

    And if you don’t write them down, how do you know that one of the 15 you’ve dismissed isn’t stronger than the one you’ve decided to include in the 60?

    Thank you.

    Side Bar: Of course the crisis of the inciting incident in the ending payoff might be off screen and not a scene, but you still need to know what it is.

    • Excellent questions, Michael. For me “60 Scenes” is arbitrary, just a number I use because it works for screenplays. Basically I’m just trying to get a run of scenes that string together to make a story. Could be 40, could be 100.

      For me, the file I call 60Scenes is a step up in terms of detail from the file I call 3Acts, which is much shorter and much simpler.

      More on this in the coming weeks.

  • Mary Doyle

    This is a terrific series – thanks for sharing all of your “inside baseball” with us!

  • SO FUNNY – When I saw the Headline “Just Write The Damn Thing” – I screamed to myself “All right already” – I know what is going on and “the meaning” of and for “the scream”

  • Another great column, Steve, one that generated a lot of comments. I had my own reaction, one I wanted to share it with you.

    I have a slightly different approach to the plotting/pre-writing structuring of the book. Looking back, this is pretty much how all my fiction, even the unpublished novels, got written. In the novel I set aside, having gotten 40-50% through (the abandoned first try at a sequel to Assault in Forgotten Alley) I  tried to follow the foolscap set-up (designated theme, identified 3 acts, etc.) and even tried to lay out all the scenes beforehand. Now I admit a large part of the problem was the plot itself; it just wasn’t working, though I had a good sense of it all as I was actually writing, and some of the scenes were really pretty good, even for a first draft. But the plot wasn’t moving and the whole wasn’t harmonious. Still, I think I also felt a bit constrained by the structure. (I read Save the Cat, and while I got a lot out of it, same issue. I guess that’s why I’m not a screenwriter or a comic book writer. I wonder if I could do a drama, 1 or 3 act. Still need scenes, but see below.)

    I start with a basic problem, which is in part the inciting incident – what happens to start the story, but also what’s the McGuffin, what the story’s about (the central conflict). I then have in mind a general sense of the ending – in part the climax/resolution, in part the conclusion – where I want the reader to be (other than exhilarated :). I then think about the characters – not just the protagonist but the immediate circle that impacts him. Inevitably as I’m writing other characters introduce themselves and become players, large or small. The antagonist is usually shadowy, becoming more solid as the story develops. I know who the villain or culprit is, especially in the mysteries but even when they’re central, they’re often off-stage; and the villain isn’t necessarily the protagonist, if that makes sense.

    From there I develop the basics of the plot, not by acts but by scenes, which almost always correspond to the chapters. 

    In the course of writing, as the characters start emerging (Stacey in Assault… is an example of a minor character who demanded to be promoted) or others appear on the stage, as part of writing the scene and often incidental to the main action of the scene, the plot complicates beyond the initial scene outline and scenes are added. (One reason I suspect I don’t do so well with short stories. The characters and stories/plot grow as I write, try I as I might to stay on script/outline.) I invariably hit a wall, a point of strong resistance, where the plot seems to go awry or be stuck. (Not uncommon. I remember how Stephen King, when writing The Sand, I think, got halfway through and hit a plot wall. He went back to his theme – actually, I think he discovered it – and the plot difficulties resolved themselves. J.K. Rowling in her third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, realized she’d written herself into a corner – she couldn’t plausibly get to the ending – and came up with a plot device, a “gimmick” (I say that with respect), the time clock thing.)

    I then go back to the drawing board, the scene by scene progression, drop scenes, add scenes and get the story back on track. This does involve thinking about the ending payoff and theme a bit.

    I find the theme, not necessarily coalesced, a not yet concrete single statement, sort of floats in the unconscious, guiding things behind the scenes, until it emerges some time in the writing process, not always when I’m stuck but also when the plot is fixed (allowing it to emerge?). It’s there and clear to me before I finish the first draft, and informs the revisions. 

    I never thought about this process this consciously before. So I do a lot of the things you suggest, but perhaps with a tinge of “pantsing.” I have a scene structure, which probably (obviously) divides itself into the three acts, but I don’t do that part consciously.

    I apologize for the length of this response. One other point: your blog drove home the point that not only do we need to do some planning but we also need to know our structuring strengths and weaknesses – how we plot and construct. (Theme first? Three acts first? Scenes or characters first? etc.)

    Thanks and double thanks