In college I had several foreign exchange friends from Japan, and I once asked them their favorite joke. Despite insisting it did not translate, I was treated to one of my favorite jokes ever.
Q: How do you put an elephant in a trunk?
A: Well, first you have to cut it up.
All translation and darkness implications aside, this joke does cut to the heart of one of the issues of starting a new screenplay/ novel: It’s daunting as hell due to being so huge.
Q: So what do you do?
A: You cut it up into smaller, more digestible pieces.
Be very careful when googling "elephant chainsaw." You may not like the images that pop up.
The first stage of making the writing elephant more manageable for me is Structure as I divide the story into sections. Then I divide those sections into smaller ones by getting to work on the Treatment, which transforms into a bible, as well as really get my characters nailed down with some Myers Briggs. But once my characters and story are all sussed, I don’t launch into the rough draft, instead opting for something I call the BEAT TREATMENT.
I named this draft the Beat Treatment in honor of Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, and while I’m sure other screenwriters employ this strategy (I heard on a podcast once that Rian Johnson wrote Brick out in prose format first), I’ve not personally met any.
What the Beat Treatment entails is blocking out each scene/ chapter beat by beat WITHOUT dialogue. What we’re focused on here are just plot points and the ACTIONS the characters take along their journey. If there’s a specific line of dialogue the scene requires, I include it, but otherwise it’s reduced to a synopsis of the topic.
As you can see from the above sample example, it condenses what was a 12 page chapter into about 800 words (not all shown), which I continued for all 35 chapters for a grand total of 41,000 words (or approximately 151 pages in a novel!).
And yes, such redundancy in effort may seem equally daunting, especially after the effort already spent on the Treatment/ Bible, but I maintain it really streamlines the writing process. For one, it ensures I find any plot holes long before I paint myself into a corner in my rough draft. When, in say chapter 24, I discover I need to seed the idea of Marta being able to pick locks, I can easily go back to my beats on chapter 3 and add it in; no muss no fuss.
Because it’s always easier to adjust at the conceptual stage than it is in the actual building. Just ask any architect.
I also found I discover themes and idea midway through the Beat Treatment that were not in my initial bible/ plot, and can flesh them out before returning to the Beat Treatment to seed them in earlier.
This system was developed for screenplays, and was great in that I realized that each page in the Beat Treatment equaled about four in screenplay form. This proved incredibly useful in figuring out if the script was going to come in too short or long, and I could look at sections, say the All is Lost phase and realize I only had two pages of material there when I needed four, which would allow me to plump it up significantly.
What’s more, producers LOVE the Beat Treatment because they can peruse a significantly shorter document and add their notes long before the actual writing phase. This saved us both loads of time, and though it doesn’t really pertain to novels, I thought I’d include this info just in case and author has a particularly close relationship with his/ her editor.
The final benefit I discovered about the Beat Treatment was more of an unexpected side effect: I did not fear bad writing. Bad writing is something I’m sure all authors fear in that we know our work is qualitatively substandard. This makes us suffer from “paralysis of analysis” as we parse each and every sentence to make it better rather than actually writing the next sentence, and is terribly counterproductive.
But by intentionally writing in incomplete sentences that were not much more than notes, I escape this trap and quickly get out all my ideas, scene by scene and chapter by chapter. Then, when the Beat Treatment is all shored up, I open it on one of my monitors to begin my actual rough draft on the other, at which point it’s almost like transcription since I already know the story so well.
Rough draft on the left for book two, Beat Treatment on the right.