When Christopher McQuarrie wrote The Usual Suspects, he said that he came up with the film’s ending first, followed by the poster, then the title. The actual story came last. Which makes sense, if you think about it.
I’m always interested in the order in which components of a film or television show are conceived, because I’m still trying to crack the process myself. For the past couple of years, I had an idea for a script that I thought was a killer. I just knew it was going to be the hot Hollywood property that kickstarted my career. Coincidentally, the title was the first part that came to me. Followed by the ending. That was all I had, but it was strong enough that I just knew the rest would come easily enough.
Then it didn’t.
I wrote a few drafts of the script, and it just wasn’t working. The title was fantastic (I can’t share it, as I still have a Quixotic belief that I’ll figure this script out someday), but nothing else was. In the meantime, script ideas that I was much less confident in ended up turning out much better.
I began to see a pattern. I could tell if my scripts were winners or losers based on how much thought I put into the story’s setting. It wasn’t the outlines or the plot beats or flashy dialogue that mattered, it was the actual world in which the characters lived. I could have a badly-outlined script with no discernible plot (and trust me, that happens often). But if I set it in an interesting place and paid attention to detail, it would get better after five drafts. However, if I simply wrote a great story and ignored the setting, I’d never get anywhere.
That was the Achilles Heel of my perfect script. I had a bunch of random characters having discussions in restaurants, leading up to a twist that I still say is awesome. But there was minimal thought put into where these restaurants are, why the characters crossed paths, and how their world differs from reality. I was only writing the information that I deemed necessary for the ending I wanted. What I should have been doing is building a sandbox that would afford me the freedom to make bolder choices.
The more you know the world your characters inhabit, the more possibilities will reveal themselves to you. If you know who else lives in their city, even if they don’t appear in the movie, you keep your mind open to plot ideas you may have missed. And knowing more than the audience is the easiest way to add nuance and texture to your writing.
So my latest goal is to only write scripts where I have a clear idea of the world before I start. It’s more than just geography. I have to ask questions like “is magic real?” and “are these characters living on the same historical timeline as me?” Anything else can be fixed, but setting these rules for myself in advance allows me to be much more creative than I’d ever be otherwise.