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Finding your Clay... A Writer's First Steps

An idea announces itself. Inspiration takes hold. Enthusiasm wells. You sit down to write your screenplay. Time passes. A blank page begins to stare down your determination. Oh no. Now what? What to do? How to even start?

My answer? Begin with some clay.

I often liken writing to sculpting. When writers are at this initial stage of ideation, I encourage them to build an impressive mound of what I call 'story clay.' 'Clay' for me is many things: a quote, an image, an article, a physical movement, a list of interesting facts about crows (like, did you know they have crow funerals?) and so on. There is no 'wrong' way to build up a project's clay. All we want is to consistently add to it, be it in a google document (my preference), a spiral notebook, or a voice memo. Using our tool of choice, the aim is collection and eventual curation. At some point, all this clay will be used to craft the main tool of the screenwriter, the outline. Until then, I encourage complete and utter indulgence in this stage. Here are three categorical ways to gather story clay.


Pinterest, Unsplash, select-Instagram-accounts (I'm thinking, DP's, photographers, graphic designers, a given topic's amateur enthusiasts), our current online culture has no shortage of visual fodder available. Create private Pinterest mood boards for projects. Follow experts in your lead's field of study on Twitter. Research and read articles, (conflicting) opinion pieces, and definitions. Sometimes the origins of a single word can spark an entire plotline.


Spotify, vinyl records, your own acoustic guitar, a soundtrack for the story helps to slip into the world-build on cue, as needed. Once, when illustrating a friend's memoir, I listened to Agnes Obel's 'September Song' on loop for hours at a time to keep myself in an effective state. A song's lyrics can capture a story's theme and might be worth typing out. Ted Talks, podcasts, real-world conversations (try not to be too creepy with this last one), we can think of ourselves as investigative reporters gathering evidence. Do our loved ones speak directly about how they feel, or is it couched in some trivial detail of their day? A heated argument about toothpaste is hardly ever about the toothpaste. How many times do we switch the tone of a conversation with our partners? We laugh, we argue, we laugh again. If we listen to the people in our lives, we get a treasure trove of ways humans attempt to understand and to be understood.


Step away from the blue light, get into some daylight, and move. Take a walk without the phone (especially those building in the fantasy genre or any speculative fiction realm) and get those hands dirty. For that chase scene, run a flight of stairs with a timer to see how it feels. When the time's up, you’re caught. Its description may come crashing in along with an idea for how to evade capture at the last second. Let that inner child get on their feet and play some productive make-believe. There are treasures to be found in playtime.

These are just a few of the endless ways to gather clay for outlines. What follows next is a dance between continued exploration and disciplined refinement. Gather clay, collect it from anywhere and everywhere, gather and trust the process, and at some point, the sculpture will begin to show itself. Then you can remove the superfluous.

Start with clay.

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