BUILDING A SCRIPT WITH A TEAM OF WRITERS WORKING IN SPRINTS
In The Shining, in a moment of pure dread, Jack Torrance’s wife discovers that Jack hasn’t been writing a great novel at all, but has instead been typing the single line “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over again, page after page, for days on end.
Jack had accepted the caretakers job at the Overlook Hotel for the solitude he thought he needed in order to write, and the result wasn’t pretty.
The majority of screenplays are written by an individual writer, and we believe that’s right. Great screenplays are singular, passionate blueprints for movies, and there needs to be a singular, passionate person to deliver a cohesive whole.
But that’s not to say, at all, that we believe a screenwriter should work alone within their own Overlook Hotel. The Shining wasn’t written that way. It was a novel by Stephen King (with feedback from trusted beta readers) , turned into a treatment by Stanley Kubrick (which you can read here), turned into a screenplay by Stanley Kubrick with Diane Johnson (which was refined on set so continuously that Jack Nicholson gave up reading it and only read the pages he was given each day), turned into a movie directed by Stanley Kubrick (with not inconsiderable help and input from 145 cast and crew members).
As with great movies, adding input from a team of diverse minds significantly helps an individual screenwriter test, iterate and improve their work, before and right through production.
At New Forest Film Co, we’ve developed a process to help screenwriters work with a team of contributing writers, a process which we call sprint writing.
Writing with a team in sprints
A writing sprint is a time-limited session within which several writers get together and generate ideas to improve a story.
The session is led and facilitated by the lead writer who works with 2 to 6 other writers in a room.
Sessions might last 1 or 2 days at a time, taking place intermittently along the lead writer’s journey towards a final draft and through production, perhaps every two weeks or so.
Before each sprint session, the lead writer provides stimulus to the team in the form of a concept, outline, treatment or draft, depending on their stage of progression, plus a detailed statement of their singular, passionate vision for the movie (created with the director, if they are on board).
At the beginning of the session, the lead writer reiterates their vision, and sets out the things the team will work on, splitting writing tasks into smaller, time-boxed sessions.
The lead writer may want ideas to build or improve the beginning, middle or end of the story, characterisation and backstory for protagonists or antagonists, solutions for plot holes, input from experts or those of different cultural backgrounds. Essentially, any of the creative tasks a screenwriter needs normally to undertake.
We’ll explain some of the terms used below in the next section, but to give you an idea, here’s an example of the schedule for a day long writing sprint focusing on two team writing tasks:
09:45-10:00: Arrive / Coffee
10:00-10:15: ON VISION, MEANING AND ENDING TYPES (Write notes)
10:15-10:30: Consider Ending types (WAT = WORKING ALONE TOGETHER)
10:30-10:45: Crazy 8s (WAT)
10:45-11:30: Write up: Ending Ideas (WAT)
11:45-12:00: Silent vote on Ending Ideas (WAT)
12:00-12:45: Strengths & Weaknesses of each Ending Ideas (WOT)
12:45-13:00: Second silent vote (WAT)
13:00-13:15: Businessman Antagonist, Kurtz (Heart Of Darkness) & Facelessness
13:15-13:30: On Antagonist Motivations & METHODOLOGIES (WAT)
13:30-13:45: Crazy 8s (WAT)
13:45-15:30: Write up: Antagonist Motivation & METHODOLOGY Ideas (WAT)
15:45-16:00: Silent vote on Antagonist Ideas (WAT)
16:00-16:45: Strengths & Weaknesses of each Antagonist Idea (WAT)
16:45-17:00: Second silent vote (WAT)
The key outcome from a writing sprint is the creation of a diverse set of story options in the form of new ideas, alternative solutions and opinions which the lead writer can later use to improve the script.
It’s a writers’ room, then? Well, yes, but a writers’ room focused on the creation of fast, focused, diverse writing input to challenge, inspire and help solve problems for the lead writer in order to make the script better.
Writing sprint methods
We use and continue to experiment with a great many ways of sprint writing. We’ve adapted team innovation processes and Agile processes for writing, testing and learning what works best.
Here’s a few of the sprint writing tools and processes we love best:
We call our team writing sessions “sprints” in great part because we want to generate many ideas quickly. Using a Time Timer (as seen above) is a brilliant (and for us, indispensable) way of time-boxing tasks and keeping everyone going.
They’re a staple of Agile processes. We bring lots to our sessions and write on them with whiteboard pens, not sharpies (since we don’t want to accidentally ruin any whiteboards we might also be using). Top tip: peel off post-its sideways, not upwards, since that way they stick to the walls better.
WORKING ALONE TOGETHER
The sprint writing team is in the same room, working together, but we want to give writers time to think and work independently of one another to avoid groupthink and generate diverse cohesive ideas. We like to run a substantial number of writing tasks this way before coming together to consider each other’s ideas.
All writers receive a piece of paper folded in half three times, creating, once folded back out, eight areas in which they will write 8 script ideas in 8 minutes. With a team of 6 writers, Crazy 8s generates 48 ideas in no time, something that no singular writer could likely achieve on their own.
Quite commonly after Crazy 8s, we ask sprint writers to create a cohesive idea or script problem solution in readable type-written form (writers need to bring laptops or tablets to sessions). Depending on the tasks, writers might be given 1 or 2 hours to complete a write up which is then emailed to the facilitator with standard formatting. All write ups are then anonymised, emailed to all writers, and also printed out in order to be blue-tacked to the walls so then the team can read the ideas generated.
We always want to keep sprint writing sessions moving, and so want to limit too much circular impassioned debate or long-winded justification. One way we do that is to provide the team with a number of small round stickers which they can use, after reading the write ups of others, to physically stick on the printed out write ups of other writers to indicate, without debate, which elements of write ups they think are the best matching the lead writer’s vision.
STRENGTHS & WEAKNESSES
This process starts silently, but is then designed to spark debate. Each write up is assessed by all writers for its strengths and weaknesses in terms of the lead writer’s vision. Considering each write up in turn, writers might have 10 minutes to write up its strengths and weaknesses on to post-it notes. At the end of the 10 minutes, each writer gets up in turn and places their post-its in a grid on the wall or whiteboard explaining explaining succinctly what they think works and doesn’t work about the write up according to the lead writer’s vision.
GENERATING IDEAS WITH STIMULUS
Sometimes we want to generate a very large number of ideas in a short period of time, but whilst we want diverse ideas, we want those ideas to be focused on the writing task at hand. One way of helping writers to keep on track is to provide relevant stimulus. The way we do this is to print out categories of images and ideas that are strongly related to the film we’re working on. Depending on the stage of progression, it could be as wide as genre options, plot types or much more specific stimulus such as descriptions of areas of scripts that are not working, or characterisation options. Here’s an example of a set of stimuli. The printed stimuli are then blue-tacked all around the room. Then, working alone or sometimes in pairs, writers take two random stimuli from the wall and must generate ideas based on the stimuli in front of them on to post-it notes. If they run out of ideas, in the time allotted, they swap the stimuli for two more and keep generating. The team’s ideas are then gathered and grouped on the wall for discussion.
When great ideas emerge, it may be useful to work on them there and then, and session time should be left for the possibility. The lead writer is the decider in the room. Regardless of how silent voting may have gone, or how passionate an individual or the team might be about a certain idea or direction, it’s up to the lead writer to guide the team towards those ideas they would like to focus upon or stretch (although they must always consider the team’s considered input). Once identified for further exploration, any of the other processes above can be used to stretch or expand on ideas.
All work and no play absolutely does make Jack a dull boy.
Whilst sprint writing is time-limited, it is not at all fun-limited. Sessions are designed to be fast and playful and to encourage the generation of outrageous, original, tangential ideas. For the lead writer it should feel like they’re being wired up to a glorious intravenous drip of new ideas and solutions to problems they may have been worried about or unable to solve themselves.
At the end of the writing sprint, the lead writer should feel armed with a whole host of food with which to feed their imagination, and a set of write ups assessed by diverse minds which they can use as references as they write. Of course, they are still the final decider on everything, and their response to the material generated may not be literal at all, instead synthesising what was generated in new ways or sparking brand new ideas, but they also know that if they do become stuck, like Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel, typing the same thing again and again, there’s always the next writer sprint to help them.
Working alone is OK. Working alone together is better.