I’m pretty new to the craft of writing (formally, anyway). I’ve been immersing myself in the art of story and structure since I was in my teens, so I have a pretty good understanding of the fundamentals, but a lot of my professional writing work has been done by the seat of my pants with only a vague idea of where I was going. I’m currently at work on a ‘proper’ script for my next project but I thought it might be interesting to break down my process here. It’s as much for me as it is for you–I’m hoping to better understand how my own ideas come about and how to deal with them when they do so I waste less time in the future fumbling around in the dark.
So here’s how I do it. Your way might be a lot better.
- GET INSPIRED – Literally, ‘inhabited by a spirit’. This can come from anywhere, and I don’t know how to describe it except that I know it when it happens. Something out of the blue grabs me and shakes me to my core and won’t let go until I address it. It’s the germ of an idea that could turn into something meaningful, but only if I…
- WRITE IT DOWN! – Seriously. It’s the first rule of actually ‘writing’. If I don’t write it down it’s not writing; it’s just an unformed idea in the aether and I’m guilty of doing this all the time, trusting that I’ll come back to it at some later date. Not writing it down is as good as saying ‘I’m not that into you’ to the idea at which point it will leave and find someone better to latch onto.
- DAYDREAM – Let the idea permeate my consciousness so that everything I see or hear or watch feels like food for the story. This can actually be annoying because I can only see things through the lens of the story and my family and friends look at me like I’m not there. Which is true. I become a complete space-case. But this is where visual ideas start coming into the picture, key scenes of things I’d really like to see; scenes that give me goosebumps, that feel like parts of a movie trailer. They probably don’t make sense together yet, but hopefully they will later.
- MAKE A PLAYLIST – This is a huge step for me. I put together a playlist of music that acts as a soundtrack to the story–whatever goes with the theme or tone or genre. It’s usually orchestral stuff but not always. Remember when every movie in the 80s and 90s (and maybe still?) had a crappy pop song that played as soon as the end credits started to roll? Find that song, as dumb as it sounds, and it’ll help you pinpoint the exact feeling or image that your story ends on, which in turn helps you find the image that your story begins on and boom–you’re halfway there. ..Not really. There’s a long way to go.
- GO FOR WALKS/RUNS – (or take long showers, but walks are better) Structuring a story that makes sense is hard as hell and I can quickly fall into despair when it feels like it’s not working. That’s when I go for a long walk. Before the walk, I am always unconvinced that the walk will help, but I am always, ALWAYS wrong. The walk is a form of meditation and I inevitably unlock parts of the story or sort things out that are unexpected and amazing. Put on your playlist for maximum results. I promise you, the first time you go for a walk or run with your new story playlist on shuffle you’ll feel like you’re unlocking a whole universe of ideas.
- WRITE IT DOWN AGAIN! – All that stuff I dreamed up on my walk? I have to write the key stuff down again, otherwise I’m giving a big middle finger to the idea muse and I’ll forget all the great stuff that came to me. As I’m making these new notes it’s not uncommon for me to just keep rolling along and filling out other bits of the story that now make more sense.
- NOTE CARDS (BIG PICTURE) – I use an application called Scrivener to write my stories because it has a great corkboard/index card interface, but regular index cards are totally fine too. I start with EXTREMELY BROAD structural notes. Like, BEGINNING, MIDDLE and END (or acts 1, 2 and 3 if that makes more sense to you). How does it start? How does it end? And what happens (conceptually, not specifically) in the middle for us to get from point A to point B. Keep it simple.
- NOTE CARDS (ISSUE BEATS) – I have a really hard time thinking about stories in three acts so I break it down into more manageable chunks. Because I’ve trained myself in the last thirty years to think in comic book issue story beats I find it easiest to break the story up into single issues. Each issue is 20-30 pages and has a beginning, middle and end. It usually ends on some sort of cliffhanger and each issue asks and answers a specific question about the character or story. When this is all put together, no one will notice the ‘issue’ beats; it’ll all just flow, but it helps to structure things in this way so I’m not staring into the Second Act Abyss, paralyzed by uncertainty.
- BREAKDOWN – Once the issue beats are in place, I start a new document called the Breakdown, where I point-form the entire story into scenes based on my index cards. Each scene has a little marker beside it that tells me approximately how many pages I think it’ll be. At this point I’m getting a better sense of the characters, how they might interact, and even throwing in some sample dialogue from the scene (always fun!) For me, this is where the actual ‘writing’ tends to happen, where I can read through the whole thing and have it feel like a proper story. You could even let someone else read through your breakdown to get fresh eyes on it and find problem areas but I never do because I’m irrationally afraid that showing anyone else at this point would be a betrayal of the nascent idea and somehow deflate some of its energy. I said it was irrational.
- SCRIPT IT – Now, this is where things get REALLY formal for me. I could definitely start drawing the comic straight from the breakdown, and it might even be preferable since, at this point, the story structure is in place and things actually make sense and it could probably benefit from some spontaneity on the page. But if this is a story that’s being written for someone else to draw I want to be as specific as I can be and communicate everything I need to. So a full script is in order. That means taking the breakdown and actually writing out scene descriptions and final(sort of) dialogue. I’ve only ever gone through this stage a couple of times and it’s a lot of work but also great for polishing and revising and getting rid of stuff that might be redundant or just shitty.
- DESIGN IT – I desperately want to just start drawing the final pages at this stage, but first I have to go through the process of figuring out what the heck the characters actually look like, where they live, what those places look like, etc etc etc. I may THINK I already know what they look like because my head has been full of visions and scenes, but those visions are like dream images–vivid in the moment but hard to actually define or hold on to– so I’ve gotta’ actually sit down and do drawing after drawing until they feel like the people in my imagination.
- UH-OH!! – Something in the design process (a character’s eyes, their hat, the windmill in the town I drew) has informed some details of the story!! Now I have to edit it to make room for that new stuff (or throw out/combine some of the existing things). This sounds scary but it’s actually when things start to feel cohesive–like the characters are real people who live in a real place and are molded by their environment. In short, I feel like I KNOW them now, and once I know them it’s almost impossible to go wrong on the page because the way they behave will feel TRUE. And that’s ultimately what matters.
- DRAW IT ALL – This may not sound like part of the writing process but it is for me because a lot of new ideas emerge in the process of page composition, so it’s like doing another pass of the story. But now we’re into a new stage of creative process and that would require a whole new blog post. Or you can just watch me do it live on Twitch.
If you’ve got helpful steps to add to these, let me know!!
This is a pretty solid way to build a story. I usually start a journal of notes and ideas and the may start some character sketches. Once that foundation is laid I write one paragraph plots, and then begin storyboards or thumbnails.
I’ve gone through at least half a dozen iterations of the story I’m working on and I think I finally narrowed it down to something workable. The problem is that I have so many ideas and scenes I want to incorporate and it starts to feel bloated, so I keep cutting stuff away and trying to come at it from different POVs until it makes sense as a story bu still retains the kernel of the initial idea and tone. It’s hard!