Posted by: steveonfilm | May 11, 2009

The Value of Experimentation

For the past several weeks I’ve been experimenting with a new method of writing. Something that works for me. I’ve settled on the term “free screenwriting” to describe it.

The gist of free screenwriting is writing in screenplay format to learn about the characters, test out scenes, develop conflict, and get a feel for the voice of a project.

In the past I’d been trying to do these same things outside of the act of screenwriting. I’d do free association writing. Character backstory writing. Concentrate on the lives of the characters. Plot out timelines. Study how current events would impact the characters. While this might work for some people, it just wasn’t working for me.

The problem with the more traditional methods for crafting a screenplay is it’s the exact opposite of the type of person I am. I’m spontaneous. Superfluous. I have a hard time sitting still. My life is one series of short, five minute bursts of activity. I need to be stimulated by ten things at once, or I can’t get anything done. I let things develop organically. So forcing myself into a practice that requires stringent, and rigid groundwork was leading to disaster. My productivity was next to null.

I found myself developing backstory for characters, and then retrofitting the conflict so it would fit their backstory. In an essence, I created a box for myself, and then was forcing myself to operate within this box. It hampered my creativity. It prevented experimentation. And it made my writing too predictable. And the bottom line was that I didn’t enjoy the work I needed to be doing.

While you can, technically speaking, sit down with no planning and write a complete screenplay, the odds of that screenplay being worth a damn is as close to zero as it gets. There needs to be some sense of direction and focus to your writing. In other words, you need to have some sort of infrastructure to operate within. The bigger question is how you put together that infrastructure.

For me, the old ways of doing it weren’t working. I tried. I tried and I was failing at it. I needed to figure out a new way of doing it. I had to figure out a way to hack my personality, trick it into not realizing it was actually doing the work I didn’t like doing. This is exactly what “free screenwriting” has offered me.

It’s allowed me to do the backstory. Do the character development. Design the conflict. Tweak ideas. But it’s been in a way that doesn’t make me feel like I’m limiting myself. Forcing myself to operate within a box. For me it was simple, just do all the writing in screenplay format. I open up Final Draft, put a note that says “—–TEST SCENE—–” and then write away.

It doesn’t feel like work because it doesn’t look like work. It looks like writing, screenwriting, and that’s because it is. Not only am I paving the ground work for my screenplay, I’m practicing the method of screenwriting.

But the best thing is the freedom to experiment. On more than one occasion I’ve written the same scene two or three times. Each with a different approach. Each with characters talking a bit different, acting a bit different. I’m feeling things out. Figuring out how to visually get across what is going on.

If I’d have put together a strict and stringent backstory and character description I’d have never done this. I’d try to write the scene around the characters, or the history, instead of writing the scene to accomplish what it needs narratively.

I’ve also felt free to let the story take on a darker tone. What was originally more of a light hearted caper flick has turned into somewhat of a revenge story. This wasn’t something that I intended to do, it just happened organically. The more I explored the characters, the darker I felt the main character getting. The harder the reality of what he was dealing with. And the way his life is crushed after a major turn of events. This was all stuff that just came from my fingers, nothing pre-planned. It was all the result of experimentation.

I’ll likely write another thirty pages or so before I actually sit down, plot out the formal beats of the screenplay, and put together a “words on paper draft.” For now, I’ve made some changes to the working title. Originally I wanted to have the lead be “in college” so to speak, hence the working title “Minor in Grand Theft.” But since then, and with the revenge motif, I’ve gone with the more fitting “Best Served Cold.”




  1. Sounds great…but beware. The characters should definitely take on lives of their own, and you should let them write themselves as they go, but don’t let them go too far down a path you can’t retrieve them from. We were always warned that if the characters took over, then the whole reason for us writing the script would be lost in the wash. Keep a clear eye on what you set out to do in the first place. The rest, is, well, writing. Sound slike you’re on a good path though, and I’m excited to see what you come up with. Glad to see you’re writing!

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