GTD & Screenwriting: Next Actions

Go pick up a copy of Getting Things Done. This isn’t a suggestion. It’s a requirement.

Your characters, especially your protagonist, should have something that they want. Unless you want to have a great degree of difficulty figuring out how to fill up screenplay pages, you should use that goal as a guide to figure out the active steps they take to attempt to achieve it.

This is where GTD comes in. To greatly oversimplify the system, you first determine a general picture of what a successful life looks like. You then determine what concrete things you would need to achieve to make this general idea your reality. These are your projects; your goals. With each project comes a series of smaller tasks you must accomplish in order to complete it. GTD helps to order these tasks so you can easily determine which one is the next action you should take.

Apply this process to your characters. GTD can become a character-based form of outlining, where you dig into their desires and look for potential scenes that best show their pursuit of these desires. Is there an action that they need to take that might be particularly difficult? Is there something essential to their being able to continue that they need to accomplish first?

A GTD outline for your character can also become a checklist to follow along with as you revise your script. As you read through, mark off the tasks that your character is accomplishing. See what’s been missed. See what else they might need to do.

Your character doesn’t necessarily need to have access to this list, but you should. In helping to determine potential actions and pitfalls for your characters, knowing the best path for them to take will help you create interesting detours. It will help you keep track of things your character may have forgotten about, things they don’t want to have to do (but must), or new problems that they need to tackle along the way.

And there’s nothing that says you can’t use the system for yourself while you’re at it.

Protagonists Should Make Mistakes

For our purposes, a mistake should be taken to mean any action or decision that leads to further negative consequences for the character. Even something that could be seen as an objectively good action (ex: A child feeds a hungry, stray dog) can have additional consequences (The dog follows the child home, and her/his parents do not want a dog in the house.)

Mistakes deepen our understanding of a character. An individual’s choices are informed by their backstory, their priorities, their temperament, and so on. What is important to your character? What blind spots does your character have? When faced with a difficult decision, what’s the mental flow chart they go through to make the call, and how does this differ from the “ideal” path to a solution? When they misstep, what does it show us about their inner workings?

Mistakes create room for further conflict. The only time that a character should be able to potentially come up with the perfect solution to their problems should be close to the end of a story. If they solve everything before then, there’s nowhere else for the story to go. An imperfect/mistaken solution creates the potential for additional conflict/problems/story.

None of this is to say that a writer should force a character to make mistakes. That way leads to the scenario where characters behave like idiots for the convenience of the writer and the plot.

“Write What You Know.”

This is a phrase that gets used frequently when working with beginning writers. It’s important to have your writing come from something that resonates strongly with you. If there isn’t something about what you’re writing that you care deeply about, it will be difficult to put in the time and effort to make it the best it can be.

This is also a phrase that gets misinterpreted by beginning writers. Writing what you know doesn’t mean that you should translate events you have experienced directly to the page and call it a day.

What you know, in this context, is much more vast than most people are willing to give themselves credit for.

You know what has happened to other people, both those you know in real life, and those you know anecdotally. You have emotional knowledge of the way situations have felt, and this can be extrapolated to fit other narratives. Most importantly, you have the ability to learn and expand your knowledge.

Maybe the phrase itself is insufficient to explain its aim. Here’s another attempt:

When writing, start with what you know.

Writer’s block is for people with only one project

A blockage feels like you’ve written yourself into a corner; like there is nowhere to go and all the momentum you were feeling earlier in the story is now crushing down on you oppressively.

It may sound like a zen koan, but sometimes the best way to work through your problems on a script is to stop working on it.

Have something on the back burner, or even a secondary project with its own deadlines. This way, when things get tough, you can take a mental break and go work on something else.

You’re not abandoning your first idea. In taking time away from it, you allow for some distance from the problems that seem insurmountable, and potentially getting inspiration from your other project.

And don’t think that this is an excuse for procrastination. Story problems are simply not something that can be overcome by brute force, but by continuing to exercise your creative muscles in another way, you will be better able to see a solution after you have distanced yourself from the problem.

Buy someone a drink

A few years ago, I attended a Q&A session featuring Paul Schraeder, and he offered a suggestion for a way to prepare yourself before diving into writing a script.

Pick a friend. Maybe two or three friends. Invite them out for a coffee, or to a bar. Somewhere you can talk without a lot of distraction. Let them know that if you can bend their ear for twenty or so minutes, the first round is on you.

Don’t pitch a thumbnail of the idea. Tell the story. Start from the beginning and work towards your end. Try not to paint in too broad of strokes. Get in to the nitty gritty of what you have. Again, tell the story.

Watch your listener. See where their attention shifts and at what points they ask questions. Do they need something clarified because they’re confused? Do they want to know more?

What you’re looking to see is if your story can keep the listener wondering what happens next. There’s a mildly sneaky test for this: Build to a cliffhanger, or some other dramatically tense point, then pause and excuse yourself to the restroom.

If they ask you what happens next when you return, you’re on the right track.