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The Art Of Words: Prioritizing

Updated on July 9, 2014

FADE IN:

Writing in most any arena takes disicpline. It's a necessary component of the creative process. But discipline can also feel like an overwhelming creative hesitation, because an idea for a scene, story, or article can sometimes be so overpowering that it has to be written immediately or the spark may be lost (or so it seems). And I now admit, without reservation, that I have jumped the gun several times and written scenes and dialogue before I charted them out on index cards, or outlined them on paper. It happens. It's natural to be excited about a project, to be anxious to get the ball rolling. That spontaneity is a precious commodity for your writing, and will pay many creative benefits as your work progresses. But...it's also why what is written off the cuff quite often has to be extensively corrected or wholly replaced.

Before we begin writing a project, we should have an idea of how it will end. No matter the twists and turns, we need to know where we're going before we take the journey to get there. Screenplays, novels, magazine articles, etc., are perpetual works in progress until they are "finished". They require constant care and feeding until they are released into the world for judgement, and even then may require more attention. And, though it may seem contrary to my statement above, preparation is the best asset a writer has for turning whatever they're writing into a meaningful endeavor. Preparation's primary function is to help a writer control the chaos of invention; to gather the information in a coherent manner, avoid pitfalls and redundancies, and guide the work toward its final polish.

As our prime-generator is our creativity, preparation is a safe haven for our imagination to find its center. And the best weapon for preparation is prioritizing.

Which Thing Goes With The Other Thing?

Constructing a credible story takes patience, determination, logic, a firm understanding of story structure, and a solid premise. Without due preparation, writing mistakes, especially at a crucial juncture, can have a ripple effect throughout the material, causing heavy consternation and wild bouts of frustrated profanity. Lack of preperation or prioritizing is the leading cause of writers writing themselves into a "corner", having to re-write entire scenes, re-work paragraphs, re-imagine characters, or question why they're writing their project in the first place. Avoiding this very predicament is reason I like to use "bullet sheets".

A bullet sheet (aka beat sheet) is basically a bare-bones outline. The difference is that a bullet sheet doesn't go into as much detail as an outline; just quick "shots" of the story points. Its function is to prioritize what story "beats" need to be in place to pace out the story and build momentum, but not nessarily in the order it needs to happen. Here's a sample* bullet sheet:

BEST SCRIPT EVER - BULLET SHEET

ACT ONE:

1. INTRO - PROTAG, OR ANTAG, OR BOTH

2. INCITING INCIDENT

3. PROTAG/ANTAG COMPLICATION

4. MINOR ACT COMPLICATION

5. MAJOR PLOT POINT #1

ACT TWO:

1. ANTAG PURSUES GOAL

2. PROTAG DENIED GOAL

3. MINOR COMPLICATION

4. MAJOR PLOT POINT #2

5. PLOT REVERSAL

ACT THREE:

1. PROTAG-ANTAG GOALS COLLIDE

2. MINOR COMPLICATION

3. ACT 3 PLOT POINT

4. RESOLUTION

5. EPILOGUE

* I usually put in a minimum of 10 beats per act, but limited it to 5 for the sample.

Let's "beat" out a big movie, The Matrix. There are a number of ways the Wachowskis could have approached the first act, since no one had seen anything like it before (although many people consider the film Dark City to be kind of a "pre" Matrix). What makes The Matrix's first act work so well is that we don't know what the Matrix really is until the second act. The film asks the audience to accept the story's priorities, and take a leap of faith from the very beginning. We don't know much about Neo's real quest until the "world" of the Matrix has been firmly established. By that time, we are completely immersed, making the transition into the "real" world in the second act easier to comprehend.

Here's what The Matrix first act bullet sheet might look like:

MATRIX - BULLET SHEET

ACT ONE:

1. Establish Matrix "world"; surreal, impossibly frenetic. Trinity fights police; confronts "agents".

2. Trinity runs, agents in hot pursuit; Trinity barely "escapes" by using a phone booth hard line.

3. Estab. Agent Smith; cold, relentless, determined.

4. Estab. Neo; his "world" is mundane, isolated by technology.

5. Neo gets an "alert" on his computer; "follow the white rabbit".

6. Night Club: Neo meets Trinity; she'll introduce him to Morpheus.

7. Office: Neo is pursued by agents; Morpheus on cell phone, guides Neo thru the office, trying to protect him; Neo is captured.

8. Neo is interrogated by Smith. Neo is recalcitrant; "loses" the ability to speak (mouth melts); the agents implant the tracking device.

9. Neo is suddenly back in his apartment; was he dreaming the interrogation? His grip on reality slipping.

10. Neo gets in car with Trinity; tracking device is removed. It was real! He didn't dream the interrogation. Off to Morpheus.

11. Neo meets Morpheus; he explains why Neo is important, how the Matrix functions; gives Neo a choice: red pill, or blue pill?

12. Neo chooses the red pill. Off to find the "real" Neo.

While it certainly isn't as sexy a read as the script, the bullet sheet plants the ideas that will feed the form and function of the outline, and make the script easier to create. Also notice that "red pill" is bolded, indicating a major turning point in the story. I find bolding to be a helpful reminder when creating big plot points.

You Are The Master Of The Universe

Well, the one you are writing, anyway. I think a lot of writers forget that they are in total control of their characters' destinies; that the path to the final conflict is lead by the writer's own hand. But could a writer forget such a thing? Well -

Writers have a lot to worry about when we take on the duties of creating a story: Does the story make sense? Does it flow? Are the characters engaing? Will the audience care about the hero? Am I taking the right approach? Are the scenes in the right order? Does the ending justify an audience spending two hours of their time in the theater? Is the pace moving fast enough? Is my dialogue any good? Is the plot too convoluted? And on...and on. Sometimes it's hard to believe anything ever gets written at all.

Knowing that we are in control of the fates of all who live and breath in our pages is both liberating and intimidating. The responsibility for us to entertain starts on the first page, and grows exponentially as we draw closer to the final fade out. But believing in our words is what lights the fuse to our creative purpose. By prioritizing our components and steering the story out of the gate, we're asking our audience to trust us. Just relax, we'll take care of everything.

As demonstrated in the Matrix example, by using the dynamic, "hyper reality" opening, the Wachowskis told the audience right away "Don't worry, you're gonna like this ride", even if the audence didn't fully understand what was going on. By prioritizing the story elements from the very beginning, the Wachowskis rewarded the audience's patience with a fantastic journey that was entertaining to the very end. The Wachowskis understood what best served the story, best served the film, and best served the audience. Could the beats from the bullet sheet be re-ordered, placing the scenes in a different linear perspective? Sure. Would the film feel the same, and be as satisfying an experience for the audience? Who knows? But they obviously felt that the approach they took was the best representation of their story. Few would argue with that sentiment.

Ultimately, writers must have the confidence to know what they're putting on the page is the right choice. "Is this information I've put in place the best piece of the puzzle to show the audience/reader at this time? How can I make it better?" This is why I strongly believe a bullet sheet is an extremely useful tool for priroitizing story flow, and creating story symmetry. What is story "symmetry"? It's the balance of the overall elements of the story you are presenting. To me, the best stories/scripts/articles must have symmetry to connect to their audience, or you end up with long expositional speeches and ponderous character actions. We've all seen a film/TV show or read a book where we thought "That story would have been really good if they had just done this, or that". An audience always notices a lack of symmetry.

Think of your story as someone who works out at the gym. The purpose of the gym is to maintain your whole body. But there are plenty of people that only put the heavy work into specific areas; i.e. big arms or chest, but under-developed legs, etc. So be sure to make symmetry and balance top priorities, as you write.

Epilogue

The best thing about prioritizing is that it conforms to us. It's a tool at our beckon call, because we decide what matters in the lives of the characters on our pages. We can cut and paste someone's whole existence to our heart's content. We can change entire destinies by pressing backspace, or enter. But choosing what to change isn't always easy. When we work so hard on creating the big picture, the smaller misshapen pieces can go unnoticed. We sometimes get "tunnel vision" when we focus on elaborate set pieces, or specific story details and dialogue, leaving other equally important story components left unattended. But by prioritizing the essential elements of our writing, and maintaining balance and symmetry, the journey to the end of the story is a much smoother road to travel.

These are just my opinions. Do with them what you will.

I hope this post has been helpful. Best of luck.

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A Few Quotes:

The role of the writer is to say what others cannot - Anais Nin

Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia - E.L. Doctorow

I try to leave out the parts that people skip - Elmore Leonard

What is written without effort is usually read without pleasure - Samuel Johnson

I am often so clever I that I don't understand a single word I've said - Oscar Wilde

Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing about - Ben Franklin

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Recommended links:

Writer's Guild Of America - www.wga.org - register your script!

Screenplay.com - www.screenplay.com - Movie Magic Screenwriter 6

The Writer's Store - www.writersstore.com - writing software, books, seminars, etc.

WordPlayer - www.wordplayer.com - website of writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio

Zoetrope - www.zoetrope.com - Francis Ford Coppola's company website

Film Independent - www.filmindependent.org - for independent filmmakers/writers

JoBlo's Movie Scripts - http://www.joblo.com/moviescripts.php - film scripts

Simply Scripts - www.simplyscripts.com - library of produced and unproduced scripts

The Script Mentor - www.thescriptmentor.com - script mentoring and coverage

SpecScout - www.specscout.com - a spec script sales tracking service.

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