WRITING: How I Develop Projects

Every writer has a different process for falling in love with a new story, character, world. For some it’s instant, like lightning; from the moment a character appears, they loom large, taking up all available space until the writer relents and digs in. For others it takes a catalyst. I bet some can choose which to fall for and when; I envy them.

For me, it’s about visualisation and music connecting me to character.

My best shot at building that weird, un-nameable connection with a character is pretty simple, and very consistent: Listening to music while looking out the window of a moving vehicle. Sometimes I don’t need the window; it’s doable from the inside of the subway too, though not as vividly. I’ve asked myself why a thousand times; I’ve still got no clue. Part of me suspects it’s the mesh of the POV of the singer telling their story with experiencing the movement in my body, in some ineffable chemistry I can’t explain.

From the music, I start to see scenes in my head. Scenes of characters connecting, the emotions flickering between them. For example, the Life After Yesterday pilot I was developing recently: I had the basic concept, but I didn’t really know what I was doing with it until “Mine” by Beyoncé started playing in my ears during a bus ride. All of a sudden, I got my first flashes of the main character and the dynamic that would become the emotional core of the series: the protagonist and her husband. The playfulness, the nostalgia of them listening to the track together; as the show is set decades in the future, it became a track from the lead’s childhood, which helped ground her to me. It wasn’t that the lyrics applied to them specifically, not at all. Something in that track, in the emotion behind it, helped me unlock and visualise the characters and feel out the subtleties of their relationship.

Ever project, I keep track of songs that work as emotional touchpoints for different characters, scenes, sequences, relationships. When I started developing a third lead for my pilot Black Dog, it started with visualisation of a scene to Rihanna’s “Disturbia”, which helped me unlock the concept for the character; then the works of Daughter helped me imagine her emotional perspective and build it out to other characters. The entire premise for my ongoing feature The Disappointments came from listening to a preview of Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” on iTunes and catching glimpses of the key relationship in the film from it.

This isn’t just about the origins of an idea, but it’s ongoing development. For example, More, the feature I recently finished a draft of. It started out with a one-line description that sat on my phone for a year, until a song started forcing me to linger on it: Ed Sheeran’s “Lego House”, which got me hooked into the relationship between the leads. When I figured out the lead was a songwriter, crucial musical sequences were inspired by Eli Lieb’s cover of “Young and Beautiful” and Mumford & Sons’ “I Gave You All”. When hitting the phase of the script that required me to summon that potent, addictive emotion of love to get into the characters’ heads, pop hits like Philip Philips’ “Home” gave me what I needed to tap into their dynamic. And this is just a sample of how music allowed me to tap into feelings and scenes that, on my own, I struggled with. 

Sometimes the music acts as background for a hypothetical scene, as if a trailer is playing in my mind to the track (see my use of “Disturbia” above). Sometimes it captures an indescribable feeling like “Mine” did; sometimes it feels like the character is singing the track themselves to expunge their demons or to reveal their emotions to me, like “I Gave You All”. Sometimes it helps build a character; such as, when building a supporting character for The Disappointments, I tripped over “Far Too Young to Die”, and the character’s sneaky, manipulative arrogance surfaced from within it.

I’ve found that I tap into performances to find emotional perspectives, while highly-produced pop hits are often helpful in visualising scenes. For example, I’d have a hard time these days choreographing an imaginary action sequence or fight scene without Lady Gaga helping me out with a beat.

What this means is, when I’m developing a new idea (or seeking one), I’ll spend my morning bus trips into class exploring the iTunes lists for inspiration – which helps explain the density of Top 40 in the above tracks. I think oftentimes the seed of the idea is already in my mind (for example, I was ruminating on the marriage between my leads when “Mine” started playing), but it needs that audio/visual element to really start evolving into something beyond the theoretical.

The best part for me is, once the song unlocks that element, I can always access it – or rather, see it, feel it. I still listen to the track over and over to keep accessing it and visualising it while it’s fresh, but that just deepens what I’ve got. And once later songs have evolved it, I can sometimes go back to those earlier tracks and weave them into the more complicated version of things.

I don’t understand it, and I kind of don’t want to. That’s my process.

One response to “WRITING: How I Develop Projects

  1. Kara Lalalala February 21, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    Mmmhmmm this explains a lot. I’d like to hear your Wu-Tang or Black Sabbath characters sometime!

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