No One Knows Anything!

“Follow the money.” – “All the President’s Men”

I remember going to see legendary screenwriter, William Goldman (Oscars for “All the President’s Men” & “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”), speak to a packed house in Hollywood several years ago. Goldman appeared to be very accessible and open to the crowd which peppered him with questions for about an hour. I can recall that he seemed relaxed in his chair, but very articulate and passionate in speaking about the craft of writing. And, the one thing that struck me during the event was his comment regarding the mastery of the craft of screenwriting. He said, “No one knows anything. I just do my best to get the toys over the hill like everyone else.” There’s no grand scheme or paradigm which he follows structurally.

Wow! I was speechless. Here was an award winning writer, more than well respected in the entertainment business who claimed that he didn’t know anything about what he was doing. He didn’t know how he creates a fully developed three-act story in screenplay format. Hmm… Well, if he doesn’t know then who does? Goldman even explained that he doesn’t really use much in the way of an outline, quite similar to Stephen King’s approach in writing novels.  Ironically, Goldman was the one who wrote the screenplay adaptation of King’s novel “Misery.” Anyway, I think Goldman was basically saying with his “toys” reference that, like magic, the story just spills from his imagination, unfurling onto the blank page. Goldman and King just write with an inherent confidence knowing that what they’re putting down on the page is what’s supposed to be written. Imagine that! What a liberating feeling!

Now this is not to say that Goldman doesn’t do his homework. In fact, he spent eight (8) years researching “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” before deciding that he didn’t want to write a cowboy novel. Instead he adapted his research to suit another format and delivered his first original screenplay that sold for $400,000.  He wrote his first novel, “Temple of Gold,” in less than three (3) weeks. Writing fast is something that he and Stephen King seem to have in common as well.

“What I’m trying to do is have twenty-five or thirty sequences—it could be one sentence or it could be ten pages—that hook onto the next so that at the end I have what I think is a story. And then I’ll write that. I tend to write quickly. I think one should,” Goldman said in “Creative Screenwriting,” Volume 8, #5 (September/October 2001).

I find this fascinating from a story telling standpoint. Not only does one of the greatest writers of our time not use a detailed outline, but he writes as fast as he can, not knowing the structure of the tale he’s interesting in telling. And, it seems to work very well for him…which is an understatement.

Not to compare myself to a legend, which would be pretentious, self-serving and absurd, but I don’t work without an outline. I need/prefer to work from a treatment or framework with detailed background information before I begin the writing process. For me, when I get to the actual writing I feel as if the heavy lifting has been done and the physical task is the easy part. Working this way I tend to write rather quickly. But that is only after the story, including much research has been done and the complete concept has crystalized in my head. At the very least I have a great blueprint to allow my imagination to drift through and interpret. That way I can play within the solid structural landscape that I’ve created to allow for artistic freedom.

I will say that my approach from project to project varies according to the scope and breadth of the subject matter. I wrote my stage play “The War Room” with very little outlining and research. The story just came to me in its entirety in my imagination over a period of time. Once I started writing I couldn’t stop. My fingers couldn’t move fast enough on the keyboard to get it out as quickly as my mind wanted. Of course there was an extensive development process with that play that involved staged readings, workshops, etc. before it was complete. But the essence was pretty much captured from pure imagination, or ‘dreams,’ if you will.

I find it fascinating that everyone has their own approach to writing a story. It’s interesting to speak with other writers and compare our processes. It sort of validates Goldman’s comment that no one knows anything. He’s probably right. I guess we’re all just trying to tell our stories in the best way that we can. There’s no rhyme or reason to our varied approaches. I think we just cling to that which works best for us.

I’d like to hear about your writing process. How do you write? Do you use an outline, treatment, etc.? How much research do you do before writing? Do you write fast or slow? What time of day do you write? Do you write at night or in the morning? Do you write with music or in silence? Do you speak the dialogue out loud when you write? Or do you hear it in your head? What led you to become a writer? What inspires you to write?

So, feel free to comment below. Write a comment as if you’re William Goldman; without an outline and quickly. Famous Goldman lines of dialogue from his scripts are welcome as well. I wish you the best of luck in getting your toys over the hill.

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