On some level, writing a script is just a collage of all the relevant life experience and movies that your original idea conjures up.
Yet designing a story from a basic idea into something with dramatic shape is the ultimate challenge. Here’s how I do it. Feel free to steal my techniques.
Capturing the Spark
Screenplay ideas can come from anywhere. I tend to read mostly nonfiction books, most often biographies. Stories of real people doing extraordinary things is a classic inspirational jumping-off point for movies. Or I may discover an idea from one sentence that hits me in a magazine article, or from an anecdote a friend shares, or an observation I make about a stranger, or some social dynamic that disturbs me, or from a memory in my own life. Sometimes an idea blends all these sources.
Ideas for films occur to me almost on a daily basis, so I always carry a pocketsize notebook to archive them. When those ideas hit, I don’t immediately evaluate them. I don’t determine if they’re strong or stupid (because, honestly, most are bad ideas). I just wait and see if the idea keeps haunting me, or other events in life keep reminding me of that same core idea. I trust that the passage of time is a good metric to help determine if the idea has any staying power and if the potential film might as well.
Fundamentally, I’m looking for something that also connects to me in a deeply personal way—an idea that taps into a primal fear or aspiration or wish that I have for myself or society-at-large. I trust that this synergy will lead to a developed story that is both specific and universal.
The idea for my new feature, My Friend Dahmer, was threefold. First, I remembered a rumor in high school about a classmate who, after school, would go out to a pond, hunt down snapping turtles and try to crack their shells with his baseball bat. I remember thinking, “That kid’s gonna become a serial killer.” Fortunately, according to Facebook, he is not. But that memory stuck with me and was the foundation for a fictional story that was a “portrait of a serial killer as a young boy.” I intended to develop that idea by researching the early lives of various serial killers to understand common themes and then create a fictional character. Meanwhile, my producing partner Jody Girgenti and I were looking at graphic novels, specifically naturalistic ones based in a real-world setting, knowing they could be great source material for a film. And then, fortunately, we were given an advance copy of the nonfiction, autobiographical graphic novel My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf, chronicling his friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer through middle school and high school. It’s an amazing, brutally honest book, and it provided the perfect source material, blending the film concept I had percolating and haunting details of a true story about one of the most infamous figures in American crime history.
Adapting the book had a whole range of challenges, but ultimately I was able to find a personal way to tell this story about a bunch of teenage band-nerds I never met in the mid-to-late ’70s. By remaining loyal to the deeply researched details in the graphic novel, I felt free to fill in the gaps and weave in my own memories and emotions from high school to give the characters more detail and depth. And this made the writing process loads of fun.
Ripping Off Other Movies
I also look for inspiration in other scripts and movies that I feel are relevant to whatever story I’m working on. Writing My Friend Dahmer, it was fun to revisit a slew of high school movies—both good and bad ones—to see how other moviemakers treated the same teenage milieu. Sometimes the bad movies are the most helpful, because it shows you what kind of techniques and tone to avoid. The well of great movies to revisit was deep: Dazed & Confused, River’s Edge, Donny Darko, The Last American Virgin, Breakfast Club, Welcome To The Dollhouse, among many others. For example, in Todd Solondz’s script for Welcome To The Dollhouse, I noticed how the main character Dawn Weiner was teased at school but then took those same abuses and used them on her cute younger sister Missy at home. I thought that was an interesting way to bridge the main character’s separate school and home life.
This inspired me to use a similar technique in My Friend Dahmer—I created a cause and effect in the opposite direction. I wanted to bridge Jeffrey Dahmer’s home life to influence his behavior in school. So I created a few early beats in Act I when Jeffrey’s dad offers up some unsolicited advice on to how to make new friends, and suggests Jeffrey join some new clubs to be more social. Then Dahmer, who is a very confused, awkward, 17-year-old boy, takes his dad’s advice and distorts it into some odd behavior at school—first throwing fake epileptic fits in the hallways, then placing himself in yearbook club photos—even though he’s not in those clubs. (All these events are based on facts from the book.) And by misapplying his dad’s advice, I found a way to ground Jeff’s odd behavior at school in a motivation that the audience could follow; and when Jeff attracts new friendships, we feel like he’s trying to please his father too.
I always approach screenwriting the same way. I first answer a few basic questions about the story to cement the idea. I make sure I know the genre, the short logline, the theme, and two other more significant qualities. I make sure I know what the major dramatic question is. It’s the question that all audience members consciously or unconsciously should be asking themselves throughout watching the finished film: Will the boy lose his virginity before he graduates high school? Will the mom find her missing child? Will the corrupt cop get away with this last crime before he retires?
I also make sure I know what Hitchcock referred to as “the bomb underneath the table,” i.e. what is ticking away underneath the surface that we’re afraid could ruin the main character’s goal. This gives the story, even a character-drama, some level of suspense. (Otherwise, what’s the point of telling the story? All screenplays, I believe, must feel like a unique, singular event in the main character’s life—or they’re not worth telling.)
Once I’ve figured out these basic elements, I always open up the same template that lays out all the basic beats for any screenplay—opening image, inciting incident, a refusal of the call to action, meeting a mentor, meeting allies and enemies, a midpoint, a dark night of the soul, among other story milestones in between and leading up to a final image.
I start to free-write the whole story within this framework. I then rewrite that outline several times, until I can distill the story down further and further, in the pursuit of finding more suspense and conflict that also feels true to the characters. And once I feel like I’ve exhausted this exercise, and become overeager to start writing, I open up Final Draft and start a first writer’s draft. That first draft is usually a vomit draft, but because of the outline, I generally know where the story is headed. And then I re-outline a bit, and rewrite the script, and repeat, and repeat. Each time, I try to simplify and take away words and exposition and look for areas to add humor and humanity. Writing dialogue is the easiest part of the adventure, so I don’t grant myself that opportunity until I feel like the structure and underlying conflicts are sound.
Testing Out Ideas
I always discuss and hash out the story with my producing partner and wife during the process. When I write, I get tunnel-focused on the story and little ideas that contribute to the larger story occur to me at any time—in the middle of the night, during dinner, or in the middle of another conversation—and again, I’ll jot down those ideas and see if they work in the script and/or discuss them with my creative partners to see if it’s a solid idea.
I also like sharing basic ideas for movies with random friends or strangers just to see what their personal taste and first impressions might be. The more you talk about a story, the better the story will get, because you have to make sure it’s interesting to other people. We’re not writing for ourselves; we’re writing scripts to entertain strangers.
I once had the honor of meeting the esteemed playwright Edward Albee, who told me a nugget of wisdom I hold dear. He told me, “If you have a play that has a character in it that you think is you, take that character out, and the script will immediately become more interesting.” This advice forces you as a writer not to use that character and his/her dialogue as an excuse to talk about yourself, or allow that character to be a passive observer. When the whole role of writing drama is to take audience members into the unknown world of another person’s struggles, the lazy thing is to write about yourself. At least hide it behind the mask of a more intriguing character. Make that person a poet, a bank robber, an astronaut, or even a future serial killer. MM
My Friend Dahmer opens in theaters November 3, 2017, courtesy of FilmRise. All images courtesy of FilmRise.