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Confessions of a Screenwriter, Month Two: Scheduling and Research

August 19th, 2007 | 3 min read

By Keith E. Buhler

It had been about a month since Dizzy and I sat down and decided to write a screenplay. We had each done our own research and internal development and come up with a few ideas. We had written broad overviews in our heads and hashed them out with each other. But the time had come to get serious or go home.

We created a four-month schedule for ourselves. Brian Tracy observes that the human psyche simply requires deadlines. If the deadlines are not being given to you from the outside, by principals, university presidents, professors, parents, or pastors, then they must be given to you from the inside; that is, you must give them to yourself. Plato observed that the unlimited becomes meaningful upon the imposition of limit. Time (unlimited) becomes "Time in which a screenplay is written," (meaningful time) upon the imposition of the deadline, August 4th, 2007.

After a two-hour meeting assessing our other time-commitments and the relative importance of putting effort into this creative project, we decided that the next four months would be the ideal time in which to complete the work. We would meet at least once a week for at least an hour to discuss the next week's individual goals and last week's progress.

We would break the four months into six phases thusly: Month one consists of brainstorming plot line and characters, and researching background information we would need to be informed about the subjects of the story, and that might ignite new ideas in our minds for what direction to take the story. Month two would be "80/20" research and treatment. A treatment is essentially an outline of a film or a play, but it takes the more complete (and interesting) form of a Summary-of-the-Whole rather than a simple outline. A treatment can almost be read as a short story because it (ideally) contains all the essential elements of a good film in broad-strokes overview format. Month three would be two weeks of "50/50" research/treatment, almost two weeks of "80/20" research/treatment, and a week of 100% Treatment until its completion by July 4th. Month four would consist of 100% "scripting," which is the phase of actually putting words into Final Draft Pro so they look like a real live bonafide movie-show script.

With our schedule set firmly in our minds and calenders, we set about researching.

Researching is the slow, dull, and painful stage of this and many other such endeavors. That's not quite true. In screenwriting it can be very exciting and can create a spark of ideas that sets creative energy aflame in the mind. But it is also an investment. An investment into a greater knowledge base in areas one may not have ever looked into before. Dizzy and I put our eyeballs to the pages of strange forgotten books in the lowest, worst-lit sections of City Libraries, to the html of certain god-forsaken sections of the internet that no one has ever visited before and, I hope, no one ever visits again. We conversed late into the evening, under the ever-watchful ear of my recorder (in case we had any brilliant ideas that we later forgot) about names and people and life circumstances that we found compelling or interesting or otherwise worth telling a story about.

We found ourselves gainfully engaged in conversation with new people, or with old friends with whom we never had much so much in common. Dizzy met an old compadre at a wedding whose line of work directly harmonized with the main character of the script. We eagerly asked for an appointment and he generously spent two hours on the phone with us, explaining the ins and outs of his industry. I ran into an old acquaintence (also at a wedding) whose line of work (also) directly informed our story. Friends and strangers seemed to appear out of no-where to make helpful observations or provide relevant information.

Through the heat of much disagreement and mental battle, Dizzy and I melded the widening variety of concepts and potential elements into an increasingly clear narrative structure. But research and development amounts to nothing until the ink start hitting the paper. We crossed our first deadline, and had to begin the Treatment.