Are Your Scripts Written in Clay or Written in Marble?

By Art Holcomb • February 13, 2021

How Art Holcomb's process can make your writing more efficient.

'I do think the challenge, in a way for me, is to write a narrative film and when you finish watching it you feel like it’s a collage. You tell the narrative, you tell the story, but you feel like you’ve created this tapestry. But it also has a shape, a story. ' - Shane Black

Writers have had many names for the approach they use for writing.  “Pantser” or Plotter.  Gardener or Architect. Dreamer or Schemer.

As Shane Black alluded to, we are all artists. Each of us have developed a Process – our own way of writing, worked out over years of practice, and often uniquely suited to our temperament. Mysterious at times, elusive at others, process is the way that we enter our own personal talent and express ourselves to the world. And as a screenwriter and writing instructor, I am almost more interested in process as I am in structure.

After years of reading student scripts as well as those of produced films, I’ve found that, basically, all writing processes break into two different approaches: working in marble or working in clay.

Working in Clay

These are the writers who start with the concept and an outline and build the script strata by strata, constructing it from the foundation up. These are the plotters and architects, whose second and third drafts are always longer than their first. Theirs is a process of refinement, of layering – making smaller and more precise tweaks until they are happy.

Working in Marble

These are the writers with minimal to no outlines and who create expensive first drafts, often times running as much as twice as large as the finished product. They put everything into the first efforts and then slowly chip away piece by piece until they discover the story inside. Creation is done in the screenwriting software itself and each draft then is successively smaller. Their process is one of archeology as much as it is of discovery.

Of course, each process has its advantages and disadvantages.

For example, those working in clay often do not spend enough time on their first draft, and therefore fail to explore all the possibilities that the idea contains. This can lead to tunnel vision and weak concepts, and can produces less than the best creative efforts possible. How many times have we seen writers spend their valuable time on scripts with such weak concepts that they have virtually no chance of finding a buyer?

Those working in marble can often get lost in the first draft, expanding and enhancing to the point that they cannot tell when the first draft is actually done. I have seen this process lead a writer to take years to complete a script that could be easily completed in just months.

Process, like any other aspect of screenwriting, must be something that changes as the writer changes.  Just because something is comfortable and feels right doesn’t mean that it produces the best work possible.

The real truth lies in what professional working writers have known for a long time: that aspects of each approach has a role in getting the most out of a writer’s talents. There is a time for marble and for clay.In my practice, we strive to hone our technique down to just two drafts and a polish to maximize our efforts and create a portfolio of scripts that lead to a sale.

In our model:

The first draft is all about permission.  Whether in pre-writing or first long draft, Permission is about exploring every possibility that the concept has to offer.  Some things cannot be planned out – you often discover the best scenes, concepts, twist when you’re in flow of pure creation.  Permission is about the freedom to take the story wherever it leads you, milking the concept for all its worth and gathering all the elements together that make a great story. Through this approach, the writer has identified the potential problems and challenges within the concept. The appropriate genre, main characters and central conflicts have been exposed and the hero’s emotional journey and moral imperatives are known.

The second draft, then, is all about precision.  Once all the elements are out of the writer’s head and on the page, they are available for development, manipulations, enhancement and refinement.  Here the Clay approach is best as you take what you’ve discovered and make it the best story you can.

So. .  . is your process getting the results you want?

If you tend to work in clay, you might try:

Giving yourself more time to noodle with your concept before you begin.  I like to give myself a month or more to just turn the concept over in my mind, making notes and preparing for the scripting process.

Learning how to prefect your premise.

Working your index cards, outline or free writing – whatever form gets the ideas out best of you.

Expanding your understanding of your characters; more than plot, the development of characters will always lead you to more relatable and powerful storytelling.

If you work in marble:

Set a time and/or size limit on your first draft. Always be looking for that moment of completeness and wholeness of the story. Ask yourself: Do I have enough to start building?

Trust yourself.  Expansive first drafts can mean that the writer hasn’t found the story yet or suffer from a lack of belief in one’s own skills. Don’t second guess.

Be clear about the rules of structure – it is the key for knowing what to cut and when.

The key here is clear: do not limit yourself to one approach over the other.  You need both avenues of creativity to write the best script that inside you.

Regardless of which approach you use, you must find the process that’s right for you.  This might not be the one that feels most natural to you.  Play with the way you write.  Break out of your comfort zone and give each approach a chance.

The more exploring you do before you type FADE IN, the better prepared you are for the process of scripting.

Art Holcomb