Saturday, 10 March 2012

Developing a Script, Part 1: Outline - Idle Time

In which I look at the winter blues, burglaries and not having enough idle time in the script development process. 

This blog post was originally written as a reflection of the process of developing an outline for a script for the Planning and Making a Film module I undertook in the penultimate year of my BA (Hons). The module's practice was undertaken between October 2011 to June 2012 and it provided me with a hugely enriching experience. For a more detailed over of the module and the projects I undertook as a part of it, see Planning and Making a Film: The student filmmaking experience.


In addition to producing two short films, as part of the Planning and Making a Film module, we also have to submit a short film script. The scripts that meet the criteria, as set out in the assessment brief, are then made available to all the members of the module and from these, in our smaller production groups, we select one that we produce as our second short film.

In this post, and two more that will follow, I am going to explore the multiple development processes and script Ideas I went through that, eventually, lead to my final script Busybody. The script assignment counted for three separate deadlines and was split into three separate parts: an outline, a rough draft and a final submission draft; each of the posts will examine one of these parts and the work that went into each of them.

Gathering and Working Over

When first starting the module in September 2011, I had been very aware that eventually I would have to write and submit a script for a 5-8 minute film. Therefore, I’d kept my mind on the alert looking for ideas that might make for a good short film throughout the whole production process of Where will it all stop.

The Winter Blues was the first potential script Idea I explored and my starting point for this was a protagonist who suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a disorder that can bring about severe mental illness during the winter months, hence the title.

Some notes for The Winter Blues

My initial thinking was that the protagonist’s struggle with his illness could be the story of the script. The problem with that idea, though, is it was one that I had seen done so many times before. Therefore, I started to look for other ideas either to combine with this first idea or to give birth to a better idea. 

I began to think that perhaps another way to do it would be to have the protagonist struggling with the initial SAD problem and then around this introduce a bigger, external problem. Then I could have the protagonist’s struggle with the illness or the nature of the illness itself, at first come into conflict with the bigger external problem and then provide the resolution to that bigger, external problem. 

Finding something that could be that bigger problem was relatively easy as there had recently been a spate of burglaries in Oldfield Park, the area of Bath that I live in. Therefore, I began to think about combining the idea of a burglary with The Winter Blues idea and I came up with a couple of things: maybe the protagonist gets burgled and has to deal with It, or the protagonist witnesses a burglary, or is a part of a burglary, or inadvertently becomes a part of a burglary. However, while I was presented with many new paths to explore I was still having trouble moulding the ideas into a coherent linear whole.

Some more notes for The Winter Blues

I then tried adjusting the idea from burglary to a tension that existed between the student and non-student residents of Oldfield Park, which is something that does exist and gets no end of coverage in the local press! In this instance the protagonist who suffers from SAD could be a non-student resident and his condition spurs him on to fight back against the student residents. I also looked at the flip side of this where the protagonist was a student who suffered from SAD and because of this fought back against a band of residents. These band of residents were fanatics and had come together to perpetrate a number of robberies against the students and eventually murders. This idea did get a bit out of hand! 

However, I was still finding the ideas to be too abstract; nothing was convoluting together into something that would fulfil a coherent, linear structure ideal for a 5 – 8 minute film.  Therefore, I decided to start developing an alternative script idea from scratch. Although, this just ended up being another off-shoot of the ideas I had explored in The Winter Blues.

Float My Boat/It’s a Student Life was a script idea in which a group of students assemble a plan to steal money from their landlord. Once they break into his house they discover that he has a network of hidden cameras in all of his properties; with this knowledge of his hidden cameras the students decide to blackmail the landlord.

Some notes for Float My Boat

It became apparent, fairly quickly, that this idea was becoming far too big for a story that had to be told in a maximum of eight minutes, so I abandoned it!

Idle Time was an idea I came up with out of necessity. I needed to submit an outline for a script because it counted as one of my deadlines so I came up with a cop out idea. I had recently re-watched Groundhog Day, a film in which the protagonist relives the same day over and over again, and Ideal Time was just a variation of that idea. Luckily, as it was just an outline that was required, all I had to submit was a sheet identifying the characters, the scene structure and the beats: beats being changes of motivation that occurred in each of those scenes. 

Some notes for Idle Time

The outline that I wrote down was concerned with a work shy youth who discovers he has the ability to stop time. He is then able to use this power to steal money from banks and unsuspecting victims, who don’t fight back because everyone is frozen in time. After messing about in some very vague sketches of him abusing his power, the script eventually concludes with him unable to restart time. When he does manage to restart it the effort required kills him. 

As is apparent, Idle Time had a very basic premise that lacked any real substance for a full-fledged script and not for one second did I consider developing it further for my final script. It was copout idea that I was hugely ashamed of and which I made very clear on the outline sheet that I submitted! 

Developing Ideas

During a scriptwriting session Mike Johnston encouraged us to read: A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young, which is a book that demonstrates the process the human mind, goes through in its construction of an idea. The technique is broken down to its most fundamental components and because of this, as the author encourages, it is a technique that can be applied to any creative field, not just writing! The book breaks the technique down into five steps.

The five steps for producing Ideas

Certainly, looking at this structure, I can see why I was unable to create a successfully structured script idea. I had not given enough time for the ideas to be worked over by my subconscious; I only got as far as the first two steps! 

But this hadn’t been down to laziness, more so it had been down to the fact that I had been developing two other script ideas in addition to this one. As I already detailed I had been developing two scripts Xbox Junkie and The Gaming Complex for my housemate Michael Kelly, who is a Creative Media Practice student who had been in need of a script for his final year project. As getting these two scripts done before Christmas had been a priority for me the script I had been developing for Planning and Making a Film got put to end of the queue and, ultimately, didn’t get enough mental attention as it needed for the full Producing Ideas process. 

Not having a full-fledged script idea before Christmas wasn’t a complete disaster, though, as the rough draft and final script were not due until after Christmas. Therefore, I had the whole Christmas break to devote to acquiring new data and developing a new script Idea.

Want to read the very short outline I submitted?

Idle Time - a short film outline

In Part 2 I will look at the development process for the rough draft submission: Developing a Script, Part 2: Rough Draft

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