I think of myself as a very non-linear, intuitive writer. I have discipline and focus when I need it, but I allow myself to be very messy and unfocused and all-over-the-place, and I find both ends of the spectrum very useful (as you’ll see from this response)! I find balance through exploring the two extremes, then using them in a conscious way. I can get very bored, so this vacillation serves me really well.
My process has many parts to it and there’s no simple answer, and I’ll say with as much authority as I can muster through text:
"BEWARE THE EASY, ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL ANSWER!"
There are many ways to come up with ideas, write outlines and birth screenplays. The biggest journey we all have is finding out what works for us, and the beauty of that is that it will be so radically different for everyone. But as for me? I believe in following my enthusiasm, my curiosity and my fear. Not necessarily in that order.
For stories, I begin by exploring arenas and worlds I am secretly or overtly enthusiastic about.
- What lights me up?
- What do I want to try, go,do, be, see?
- What are my closet fascinations?
- What are the things I TiVo or scan at the bookstore?
- Who and what am I drawn to?
If it’s a really personal or compulsive fascination that I wouldn’t necessarily discuss with just anyone, or a theme that is so intrinsic to my fantasy life or dream life that it’s almost invisible? Then I am really onto something. These are where my best ideas for arenas are born. This process of warming to an area can take me a while. My big ideas are gestating for a long time before I even get to story, character or outline. Sometimes I’ll get random scene ideas or visuals, and I just tuck them away. I know they’ll be useful eventually, or might lead me somewhere I’m supposed to go and were merely a conduit. The point is, this part can be meandering for me. When it starts really pulling my attention, or filling me with images and ideas I know it’s time for arena to meet story.
Once I have the arena, then it’s onto the story itself. If I’m unclear, I use a question method to spitball ideas, or will start randomly combining things that interest me without attachment to outcome. For Bring It On, that was simple: I was bananas for those crazy cheerleading competitions, and I loved hip hop and started asking ‘what if?’ Hip hop’s assimilation and appropriation into the culture had been so thorough, I thought, “How can I illustrate that in a fun way?” I started there and kept asking “what if” questions until I got a story that felt really fun, meaningful and juicy for me.
- What if the best squad in the country had been cheating?
- What if the squad they’d been stealing from was sick of it?
- What if the perp tried to make it right?
As I said earlier, I resist easy answers…so my remedy for that malaise is almost always questions. Questions are at the heart of my process, and I keep asking them until I have an idea I am happy with.
Once I have arena and story, I like to hit the brakes and move into character in a pretty in-depth way. That means more questions.
- Who is the character?
- What is their core fear?
- What do they need?
What do they believe they need or think their goal is, versus the real need and real goal necessary for meaningful transformation in their life?
The tension of that discrepancy helps me to build the narrative. But I’m of the “Character Is Plot” school, so this stuff is my fuel. Otherwise, the process is just too flat for me, and I get really bored. I want a thorough understanding of who he/she is emotionally, intellectually, physically and spiritually. I use those four markers to give my characters substance, and each marker is invaluable to me. If a character is an agnostic or an atheist, for example, that knowledge gives me a valuable place from which to understand how they operate in the world. If someone is a people-pleaser because they were neglected as a child, I can really play with what potential reactions for them will be given the confines of the idea (even if that is never announced anywhere in the script!). I revel in knowing what the inner push-pulls are before I dive into story, so the world around the character can toss him where he needs to go.
Once I have the character and the idea, I start working the story beats out from macro to micro.
ROUND ONE (aka Three Big Beats): Beginning, middle and end.
ROUND TWO (aka Nine Medium-Sized Beats): The beginning, middle and end of the (drumroll, please) beginning, middle and end!
ROUND THREE (aka Twenty-Seven Bitty Beats): The beginnings, middles and ends of each of the aforementioned beginnings, middles and ends.
I used to use eleven beats per act and thirty-three total for my outline, but I always ended up with scenes I didn’t need. I’ve grown to prefer a really tight first pass because it’s easier for me to see what’s missing when I’m not floating in excess. But sometimes I over-write, and whittle down, too. It really depends on my mood. If I can beef up twenty-seven scenes into three or four pages per scene, I’m looking at a nice, first rough draft.
First Drafts, or Vomit Drafts
After I have my outline, I like to just spew these out. I’m not a precious writer. I’m constitutionally incapable of slaving over my first pass. That’s second and third pass shtick for me unless I’m on a rewrite. My goal is simply to write without editing and write it as badly as possible. I want to write the shittiest piece of crap I can and claim that as my goal. Why? Because that goal shuts up the critic and let’s me work. If I set out to suck, the critic can’t bitch at me. We are in agreement!
In the end, the results are never as bad as I think they will be, and I have something to work with. And when things suck, this is quite useful: I have something concrete to push against for the next pass. Sucking is actually a critical part of my process, and I embrace it. There’s nothing like reading something that doesn’t work to get your wheels spinning about fixing it and making things better. I’m very permissive with the first pass: anything and everything goes…except not trying. Trying and failing is a big, big win for me. Not trying is not okay.
Second and Third Passes
After a second pass of refining and improving and really trying to tickle myself, it’s time to share a draft with a trusted reader. This can be someone I pay for notes, or a producer or friend in the business whose opinion is meaningful to me. I want notes I can use, so I choose my readers wisely. I do another pass of notes and tweak once or twice, and then I let it go. If it’s an assignment, it’s never fully done and it seems like there are always changes (even if the movie is shooting). I try to be flexible and not get too attached.
My rewrite mindset is different from my original writing mindset, mind you. I can detach more easily on rewrites, but I have cultivated some grace and flexibility when getting notes on my stuff. Nobody likes a defensive writer – particularly me – so I’ve made it my business to cultivate some resilience during the notes process. Being attached on some level means I don’t believe I can generate more, or that things can only happen one way; and neither of those things is true. There is always more. There are always options and other ways of seeing things. Hopefully this serves me – and the material! – well.
A Normal Day at Work
There is no such thing as a normal day at work! It’s always different. I wake up, get my coffee and walk my dog for a good half hour. The morning walk clears my head and helps me go over what needs to get done. Picking up dog crap and caring for something besides yourself keeps you humble.
If I’m on a rewrite, I set goals and rewards for myself to help motivate me. Writing can be lonely, and there aren’t always pats on the back, so it’s up to me to build those in. I take lots of breaks and make it a priority to be good to myself: snacks, lots of water, massages, movies, phone calls and walks. I need to meditate a few times a week or I get off-balance. Normal for me is mixing it up, I guess. I don’t ever want my abilities to be context contingent: I always want to know I have the power to create wherever, whenever and whatever the circumstances. My approach reinforces that. But if I had to write in an office, I could. I just wouldn’t choose it.
I don’t like to feel isolated, so I usually write in busy places with my laptop. I’ll work anywhere — hotel lobbies, coffee shops, bookstores — and I’ll put headphones on and just write amongst people. I love working to music; give me a great hip hop mix and I can write for hours. I love the freedom of this career, and I use that freedom as a part of my process. I thrive on it, but have the ability to reign it in and generate concrete, timely results if I need to. Somebody once said to me, “Hard work is for people without talent,” but I think you need both. You need talent, but you still have to know what lights you up and will get your butt in front of the computer whether there’s a paycheck involved or not. I do know the more I write, the easier it is to write. The less I write, the longer it can take to start the car. I mess up all the time, I fall into patterns and struggle to stay conscious, integrated and connected, but I’ve learned to relish the harder stuff for the clarity that follows.
I wish you all the best on your journey, and hope your process leads you straight into the heart of your greatest asset: you.
Here are some favorite resources that have helped inform my writing:
- The Forest For the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
- Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Klauser
- Wishcraft by Barbara Sher
- The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
- True Balance by Sonia Choquette
Jessica Bendinger wrote and co-produced BRING IT ON. Her other writing credits include "Sex and the City," THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE, and the upcoming FIRST DAUGHTER.