Going from an outline to a script is an arduous process. It involves taking story beats out of the general (“An awesome scene goes here!”) and into the specific (“What the hell does 'awesome' mean here?!”)
It also means dragging characters who were merely archetypes in the outline out of the ether and down to earth. Each one has to speak with a distinctive, specific voice. Each one has to act with emotional logic. Each one has to feel alive and true.
The best films hum with a kind of precious narrative life. A solid script is a first exhalation of that breath.
Scripting’s a bit like constructing a golem. You understand the form of what you're after, but getting the construction right is a delicate and mysterious process. Patch it together wrong, best case scenario nobody can stand to look at it without getting sick, worst cast scenario it comes to life, tries to rip you apart and you end up haunted by it till the end of your days.
Many times in developing a script, a screenwriter is performing this delicate act of alchemy alone. For The Spine of Night, Morgan and I worked together.
Some writing teams will sit in the same room and throttle a story together till it's beautifully dead and done.
For us, the process involved smacking drafts of the script back and forth till it was thoroughly beaten and bloodied and no longer able to get up and try to escape.
Yes, writing is, in my view, a violent process.
All total, the script underwent four full drafts. That's a very small number as far as screenwriting goes. We owe a lot of that to the strength of the underlying structure of the thing. More on that some other time.
The draft progression went roughly like this:
Draft One: A skeleton, roughy lashed together.
Dialogue raw. Action raw. Everything raw. Mega-structure is working, but sequence by sequence structure isn't quite there. Characters are sketches, mostly only functional. The world's missing flavor.
The bones are there, there's some muscle there but we're missing much sinew.
Draft two: Bulking it up with flesh and organs.
New connective scenes are added, these involves both character moments and plot clarifications. The world is given room to breath. We start to see into the shadows of this place as well as into the everyday of it.
Characters are talking to each other more. Action is bolstered and explored. The skeleton suddenly has a lot of meat on its bones and the organs are all feeling connected.
BUT some parts are feeling just wrong. Everything has gotten a little bloated. There are errors in the way segments are panning out. Some action beats are unclear. Some characters' backstories are ungainly, there dialogue overgrown. The innards and organs are unnecessarily tangled
Draft three: Blades are sharpened and taken to the body of the thing.
Narrative tumors are removed before they can grow; non-essential organs are removed and tossed to the cold ground to be swept away or kept for later reconsideration. A harsh eye is taken to most everything going into this cadaver.
Then it’s sewn back up with only the best parts still inside.
At this point, it is very much what we are going to try to shoot. Everything is in the right place. Veins are pumping with blood. It might even be able to walk.
Everyone stands back to admire it. There’s a moment where it feels like this might be the draft.
But a few days later, questions begin to gnaw at the edges of everyone’s mind. Are we sure? What if it's not quite there yet?
...Could it be better?
Draft four: Skin and details.
We do a read-through of the script. Small things stand out that could be better. Opportunities for improvement are noted and discussed at some length.
This is draft looks hard at every line of dialogue, at every setup and payoff. It's the skin around the thing. The pretty package.
This is the draft that we walk with into pre-production. Everything in this draft is something that ends up being shot. The golem lives. It doesn't kill anyone. And most people can stand to look hard at it without feeling nauseous.
But the process wasn’t yet done. Oh no. Because with screenplays and golems, alike, there is always time and room for tinkering.
Next time! The pains & pleasure of the script polish.