The “Condemn Nation” screenplay spawned out of an idea.
Or rather an inability to express an idea. Condemn Nation was born in 2014. I wanted to express, to everyone else, how I felt about the national unrest. In my opinion, the incident that emanated, in Ferguson, Missouri, was important to everyone in the country. I had trouble expressing myself, because my opinion was not easily fitted into the national debate, or even explained tersely.
From the idea that I could not express, later emerged this original screenplay. You can download it and read it from the Amazon Studios project, by following this link: Condemn Nation – An original screenplay by Jesse Greathouse
I used the “Snowflake” technique, of writing, for this story.
When I began writing Condemn Nation, I had no idea what the story was going to be about. I had the premise of a thesis and that was about all. I developed a process ad-hoc, and later I learned that my process was actually a well known and documented process called the “Snowflake”. You can read more about “The Snowflake Technique” here.
I knew that Condemn Nation was going to be a thesis piece, on how I felt about Ferguson, so I started with a logline. My premise was “We’re a nation of people, with a compulsion to abuse one another. We don’t learn from the consequences, and therefore we continue the cycle of violence and abuse.” After stating my log-line, I was in somewhat of a quandary.
“My story is about a whole nation, huh? How am I going to write a screenplay about everyone in America?”
After some thought, I realized that my answer was that I must create a group of characters, which could represent America. And from there emerged the second step of the Snowflake method, writing the story in one paragraph. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the difficult part for me. The paragraph was almost-instantly plucked from my keyboard, as if it was writing itself.
“A black father gets redeemed. A white cop ______ _______. A black hate-group member finds love. A police chief beats an indictment. A white media mogul loses a libel lawsuit.”
I removed two words from the paragraph. I don’t want to spoil the story for those who want to read it.
Designing my characters.
My third task was to flesh out the characters and their individual story arcs. Bear in mind, I knew nothing of the Snowflake Technique at the time. Intuitively this just felt like the next step. I spent the next few days thinking and writing outlines for all of these characters. By the end, I knew who they were, down to very minute details. Even now, as we’re casting this movie, I’m making very informed casting decisions from the level of detail I wrote for these characters.
Once they had their individual story arcs complete, to make Condemn Nation interesting (and relevant), I plotted exactly how these characters’ paths would intersect in the story. From this emerged many, if not all, of the very interesting plot decisions in Condemn Nation.
Plotting the main story arc. (Naming the scenes)
At this point, my task was to decide the sequence of the scenes. I had already done most of that work in outlining each character’s main story arc, so the remaining work was only to sequence their story arcs together in an interesting and meaningful way . Because I had made such detailed write-ups, on these characters’ profiles, I was able to understand and imagine exactly what they would do in each given situation, and how they would interact with other characters in the screenplay. I also knew how their characters must progress and change during the film. I had identified all of their core-wounds, which informed their motivations. It also allowed me to imagine the interesting psychological conversions that would happen during Condemn Nation.
Identifying the beats.
Though I had roughly charted the scenes and the order of the scenes, in the story, there was something not yet addressed. This film had started out as a thesis of my feelings on the subject. If I were to be satisfied with the story, in this state, I would not have been faithful to the purpose of the story, and may have delivered an end result without any meaning or sub-text.
As the scenes were now the main bullet points of my story outline, I went through every scene and decided on the beats that I must hit, during the scenes, in order to progress the central thesis of the story. This was a very interesting experience because it made me realize that I needed to change or tweak some of the scenes, in order to stay true to the thesis of the story. Some surprisingly important work came, during this step, and there is no doubt that the story would have fallen flat, if I had not completed this crucial step.
Fleshing out each scene.
This was, by far, the easiest part of writing the screenplay. In fact, at this point, it felt like the scenes were writing themselves. I never had a hard block. I never had a structural dilemma. The most difficult thing here, was just making the characters talk and behave naturally. Even when I felt like I was in a creative slump, all I did was just force myself to write. I had such a firm grasp on who the characters were, and how they would behave, the characters were informing me on what they would do during the scenes. It’s a very liberating experience to write the scenes, at this stage, because you don’t have to be concerned with the bigger picture. You can write in the moment, and stay in the moment, and feel confident that the story already works.
The snowflake isn’t for every project or every person.
But I think it was immensely successful in this scenario. I won’t use it for everything I write, but I definitely will use it again when it seems like it will help. A lot of people don’t like writing this way, but I think it’s worth trying at least once. I think it’s especially useful when you have an extremely complicated story, or a character driven story.