Writing Lessons

What do you do when you’re tasked with creating a politics-themed short film, in 48 hours — oh and because of COVID restrictions, there can only be one actor on set?

Write about debating office supplies, of course!

This was the scene, last month, when I participated in another 48-hour film project competition. Once again, I joined as head writer for my team, challenged with writing the script in one evening.

And I will say — this was some of the fastest writing I’ve done!

It’s always daunting going into this competition. What if I can think of any good ideas? What if I run into major writer’s block? What if my dialogue all sounds cliche and derivative? In other words, the imposter syndrome is in full force.

But without fail, the ideas come. The words flow. And the dialogue brings a smile to my face. 

After writing for three of these competitions, there are definitely some tricks that make the writing process easier. And these can apply to any writing project — or in some cases, any non-writing project.

Prepare what you can ahead of time

In case you’ve missed my past blogs about the competition, the 48-hour film project charges teams with creating a 4-7 minute film in … you guessed it — 48 hours. The night that the competition kicks off, each team randomly receives two film genres, and their final submission must be one of those two genres. There is also a required character, prop and line of dialogue that has to be included in the film.

While teams don’t receive their requirements until the competition commences, there’s a lot of pre-planning that can happen. From a writing standpoint, you can understand the limitations and resources.

For our team, we knew that given the restrictions around COVID, we would only be able to film at the director’s home and would only have one actor to work with in person. However, we did have access to other actors who could do voiceover, so early on, we thought a story with a person and an inanimate object might work well.

And while we wouldn’t receive our genres until the first night of the competition, we did know all the possible genres we could receive. So I was able to do some early thinking on possible concepts for each genre.

Split up the project into stages

Friday night of the competition we received our genres — Politics and Mystery.

With only one evening, the instinct can be to start writing as soon as possible. But I knew from past competitions, that breaking the process down into stages would ultimately make the entire process run a lot more smoothly.

Here was the flow of our process:

  • Brainstorm ideas for each genre
  • Review all ideas and choose the winner
  • Sketch out the basic story line
  • Identify traits of each character
  • Split up the story among each writer for individual drafts
  • Combine dialogue
  • Edit
  • Edit again
  • Edit some more
  • And did I mention edit?

It seems like a lot of steps. But by breaking down the project into smaller stages, we were able to focus on each task and prevented ourselves from getting too overwhelmed.

Know when to work as a group vs. individually

For this year’s competition, I worked with two other writers. And while there’s benefit to having more points of view and ideas, if you tried to make every single decision by committee, nothing would get done.

So, we started out by separating and doing an individual brainstorm of story ideas for each genre. I know that may seem a little counterintuitive — shouldn’t the brainstorm phase be where people work as a team? Well, by starting with an individual brainstorm, we were able to generate 3 times the amount of ideas in the same span of time. Plus, with a group brainstorm, sometimes less experienced or less confident people may hold back their ideas.

From there, we toggled between individual work and group work. 

We came together as a team to review ideas, choose our winning story idea and do an initial discussion about the basic story and characters. 

Office supplies having a debate about which one was the BEST office supply.

Then we separated to do an individual brainstorm on character traits.

Ballpoint pens are the standard and traditional. Staplers are about unity and bringing things together.

From there, we regrouped to finalize the characters and stories and split up the story into acts. With individual writing assignments, we then broke to draft our respective sections. After that, we came together again to combine our scripts.

By switching between working together and working separately, not only were we able to take advantage of which phase benefitted from group vs. individual work, we were also able to avoid (or at least delay) mental fatigue.

And in addition to gauging when to work as a team and when to write individually, as head writer, I had to know when to ultimately take the reins and complete the project on my own. Once we combined our scripts, it made sense for one person to edit, refine and get it over the finish line to make sure the final product had a consistent voice.

Nothing is precious

I had a co-worker give this advice to me once: “Nothing is precious.”

What she meant was that sometimes we need to give up on or majorly change an idea or piece of work, if it doesn’t end up working for the project.

And this happened multiple times during this writing project. Great lines of dialogue we had to cut out due to time. Funny characters we gave the axe to because they didn’t fit within the story.

By keeping an eye on the ultimate goal — in our case, an engaging story that fit within 4-7 minutes — we knew when something had to be cut.

In the end, we came up with a funny, yet poignant script, that we were all quite happy with…

… and so were the judges — we won Best Writing! And Best Film! And a slew of other awards!

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Charles Parker
2 years ago

Hey, Laura. Great post. I played Ballpoint Pen in the movie. I’ve never had confidence in writing because I get so sidetracked with minutia. I will start on a topic and transition to something that struck me as particularly interesting within the topic (especially one with a very broad scope). How strange that you wrote that the end result was “funny, yet poignant” because those were my exact thoughts. What you guys created was fantastic and I was ecstatic to be involved.