Behind the Scenes: SENT
2017 was the year I finished my first feature screenplay.
I've lived with this story for four years now and it's been fascinating to watch it grow alongside my changing faith. This is the script that taught me that screenwriting is a devotional practice.
SENT is about what happens when your childlike faith grows up. The terrifying part of a maturing faith is that it can feel like you're losing it altogether. It took me several years to stop feeling shame for what felt like "lost time" when I started questioning my faith after college. Then I realized I can never go back to the simplicity of my early faith.
Like faith, my script takes place on a one-way journey. We can't go back. But we can move forward. If we embrace our full history with God, we can press onward to rediscover our first love.
Beyond the spiritual lessons, SENT taught me a tremendous amount about screenwriting. I documented my process and inspirations all along the way as I figured out what worked with my writing style. So without further ado, here are my behind-the-scenes notes for #SENTscript!
Behind the Scenes: SENT
Hi. I’m in the process of writing my first feature screenplay. I have a day job and self-doubt and a million distractions holding me back, but I can’t seem to get this story out of my head. So in honor of Austin Kleon’s #ShowYourWork philosophy, I’m inviting you for a ride-along. Buckle up!
– Adrian Patenaude
Logline: A missionary grapples with doubt midway through his one-way journey to an unreached alien planet.
A former missionary kid at a private Christian university in Texas wonders how the religious community would react if intelligent life was discovered. Does the Great Commission apply beyond our planet? Would missions efforts to an alien species be dismissed and criticized like early missionaries to Asia were? She begins exploring the scenario, writing a treatment for a short story in her creative writing class.
I graduated in 2014, earning a degree in advertising and public relations — just in time to realize that film is my true passion. I spent the summer feeling lost, bitter and scared. Between applying for jobs and being ugly to my family, I did a lot of writing and research for my short story. I set a goal to complete it before the end of the summer. Unsurprisingly, I missed my deadline.
I moved to Austin in the fall, finally gainfully (gratefully) employed. I returned to my story off and on, trying a number of different approaches:
- Writing in third person
- Writing in first person
- Writing it as a series of log entries
- Writing it as a short film script
Nothing felt right, though, so eventually I stopped trying.
When Interstellar came out, it felt like the movie I had been waiting for my whole life. I remember being reduced to tears by the teaser trailer before the film was even released. Something about the idea of leaving Earth made my heart ache. A mixture of the pain of leaving loved ones and the holy fear of unknown wonders beyond our galaxy…
However, as much as I loved Interstellar, I admit I felt like it already captured the emotions I was trying so hard to convey with my short story. So rather than being inspired, I let it become another reason to set the project aside.
“When I ask God for a plan, he usually sends a friend.”
One night I was hanging out with Ashley Stevens, a new friend and fellow writer, when I worked up the courage to tell her about my short story.
“That sounds more like a feature film to me,” she said.
Suddenly I wondered why I hadn’t realized it until now.
I tend to be precious with my ideas, rarely sharing them until they’re fairly well-developed. But with Ashley, who gave such insightful and creative feedback, I felt comfortable processing out loud. The more open I was with my story, the more holes we were able to fill. I thought talking about my story would make me lose faith in it, but the opposite was true. We were puzzling it out together. And it was fun!
I learned how invigorating it is when another person can catch your vision. Stories are meant to have an audience, so sharing it with someone can make the process that much more rewarding.
INSPIRATION: 'PALE BLUE DOT' BY CARL SAGAN
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam...
Now that my short story was going to be a feature-length film, it needed to change dramatically to fit the structure. I had room to spread out, which was a bit intimidating, but I quickly realized the depth of my evolving themes gave me plenty of material to work with. With a new direction in place, I decided to flesh out the details by creating a world-building document.
The document included:
- Major themes I wanted to address
- Current spiritual climate
- Attitudes towards space exploration
I also profiled my key characters:
- Background stories
- Core values and motivations
- Relationship dynamics
- I even got nerdy and assigned them Myers-Briggs types
November 5, 2017
Lord, the reason I started writing this story was out of a desire to puzzle out these matters of faith. Genuine curiosity soon followed by dark doubts, then eclipsed by a gut feeling that you are still with me at every moment. The idea that our perspectives can change so much and yet you never change. You are not afraid that I’ll unravel everything with my questions.
Inspiration: Liturgists Podcast
Michael Gungor: "What did it feel like for you to stop believing in God?"
Michael McHargue: "It felt like my dad died and I couldn't tell a soul.”
It seems pretty obvious that reading scripts is key to learning how to write them. But it's easy to forget that a screenplay is an entirely different animal than a finished film. Here are a few scripts I’m working through as I write my own.
SOLARIS by Steven Soderbergh
The tone of this film is quiet, psychological, hallucinatory and mysterious — making it essential reading for my project as I try to capture those emotions on the page.
TAKE SHELTER by Jeff Nichols
My favorite director has a talent for writing characters who say everything without saying anything, a skill I need to develop for a story that could easily become too “talky.”
THE BOOK OF ELI by Gary Whitta
Not only does this movie share some thematic elements, the way it slowly reveals underlying information will be helpful for me to study as I figure out how to structure my story.
Inspiration: Jomny Sun
“i just want to go home” said the astronaut.
“so come home” said ground control.
‘‘ｓｏ. ｃｏｍｅ. ｈｏｍｅ’’ said the voice from the stars.
Books on Storytelling
I read several books on screenwriting during college but there are two that have been most useful to me in understanding its structure and flow.
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Snyder’s classic explains the “story beats” every movie goes through. Although a bit formulaic, it does a great job of breaking down basic storytelling structure. I still return to his beat sheet when I need some clues for what I might be missing when my story isn’t working like it should.
The Beat Sheet (full descriptions here):
- Opening image
- Theme stated
- Break into act two
- B story
- The promise of the premise
- Bad guys close in
- All is lost
- Dark night of the soul
- Break into act three
- Final image
Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald
After reading Save the Cat, I highly recommend picking up Invisible Ink. While the former is a fantastic primer, it is formulaic to a fault. For awhile, I was stuck on following the structure too closely. Brian McDonald’s book helped breathe new life into a medium that’s organic by nature.
Invisible Ink describes the structure of a screenplay as the hidden armature of a sculpture. The armature is the underlying theme that works invisibly to drive every aspect of the story. It’s the true soul of the script, rather than the details of the plot.
November 14, 2016
If I nail the theme of this script, I’ll be forgiven for any tired sci-fi tropes.
“Stories are the wildest things of all. Stories chase and bite and hunt… When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?”
Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls
FADE IN // OUT
One lesson I adopted from Save the Cat is the importance of the first and final images of your film. They should mirror one another and tie into the theme of the movie, serving as symbolism-packed reflections of the story.
My story begins at the moment of baptism, water reflections playing across the face of a young boy full of faith.
The film ends as the spaceship arrives at the alien planet, strange shadows playing across the face of a young man full of doubt.
November 13, 2016
I want to return to certainty but I know I can’t. I’m on a ship heading somewhere, leaving everything I know behind for the uncertainties and dangers of space. Asking, "Is God as big as he says he is?”
Feeling homeless and lost. “I liked the idea of being an explorer. But now I’m just a refugee.”
But if God is real, he can reach me even in the dark chaos of my mind. And maybe the darkness is nothing more than the unfamiliar. I'm hoping I’ll find him on the far side of the stars.
I was a billion little pieces
‘til you pulled me into focus.
Astronomy in reverse,
It was me who was discovered.
My new goal for July is to write 30 more pages on my script. Probably not gonna happen, but it’s time to get my butt back in gear. 2017 is halfway over.
This cork board has been hanging in my bedroom for a few months now. I made it through Act I of my script and then got really, really stuck. Partly due to fatigue but mostly because I realized I didn’t know what came next in the story.
I’ve always had a clear picture of the opening of the movie (the protagonist’s call to action) and I know where I want it to end up (the final crisis and finale). But the whole middle part — a pretty significant chunk of the movie — needs a lot of work.
July 2, 2017
I haven’t worked on my script much the past couple months and I’ve been too scared to dive back in, but today I snuck up on inspiration sideways by sketching out the story for an old children’s book idea I’ve had for a few years. It worked. Turns out I just needed to remind myself why I love writing again.
Just like any writing project, it helps to write an outline so you can stay focused and organized. It’ll keep you from getting stuck like I did.
My brother passed on this practical rule of thumb for outlining a script:
30 scenes x 3 pages each = 90 page script
You can sketch out your scenes in a notebook or on your computer, but a common practice is to write each scene on an index card like on my cork board. After writing 30 scenes, you can sort them into three different piles:
Act I: The beginning — set up, introduction, call to action
Act III: The end — final crisis, low point, finale
Act II: Everything else
Now organize, delete, reorganize, refine, repeat, until you have a solid plot. Can’t tell you how many iterations I’ve gone through and I’m sure I’m far from over. Guess I should stop talking about it and go work on my own script.
August 3, 2017
I started taking the bus to work so I’m arriving at the office early to write again!
As I was outlining today, I realized my female supporting character was acting more like a prop for my male main character. Ahh! As a female writer, I should know better!
It’s such an easy trap to fall into with any supporting character, regardless of gender. We forget to give them lives of their own.
So today I spent some time figuring out her character arc. What is she feeling? What’s her struggle? Now her actions can create some healthy conflict with the main character and advance the story in surprising ways.
Want to know the real secret to finishing a screenplay?
Are you ready for this?
It’s a game-changer.
Ok, here it is:
1. Go to bed on time.
2. Get up early to write.
Seriously. This has been the most powerful practice for me in this process. A one-hour writing burst before work every day is the only reason I’m moving the needle on this project.
It reduces pressure because if I’m having a bad writing day, there’s always tomorrow. And one hour is so brief I can hardly complain about the pain of writing. Either way, it keeps the story at the top of my mind so I can be working out details in the background all day long.
I don’t know what works for your schedule but it’s worth a shot. Nothing has worked better for me than this small, practical lifestyle adjustment.
Writing Tip: Give your characters jobs.
I heard this bit of advice from my favorite director, Jeff Nichols, who talked about how frequently this simple step is forgotten.
It’s a crucial way to keep your story grounded – even in space! Or, as a friend of mine pointed out, especially in space. She reminded me I can’t exactly fill a spaceship with characters who don’t have one or more practical roles on this dangerous mission.
So last week I spent a good chunk of time developing my crew members and assigning them defined roles. Unsurprisingly, it’s helped me come up with new ideas for how the story progresses!
October 6, 2017
No writing this morning :( I woke up early but just didn’t get anything done :(
As I write a story I’m intentionally populating with diverse characters, I’ve been grappling a lot with the importance of authorship and the role of allies. How do I respectfully write characters of cultures or races different than my own? How much am I really able to do as an ally?
I don’t have an answer yet but I explore some of those questions in an article I recently wrote:
November 13, 2017
This weekend I typed FADE OUT on my first feature screenplay.
I want to add so many disclaimers: that it’s only a rough draft, that I still have so much work to do on it, that it came out 9 pages shorter than my baseline goal, that a lot of scenes still feel cheesy and forced and inaccurate — but imma shut up now and stop discrediting my accomplishment and let myself have this victory.
Because I did the dang thing.
It is finished.
One last pass to fix continuity errors and it’s finally ready to send off to my readers.
I printed a copy off at work at one friend’s request and wow.
I can hold it in my hands.
My proudest accomplishment of 2017.
As my readers compile their feedback, I’m taking a looong break from thinking about my script before it’s time to start editing.
In the meantime, I made the "mistake" of picking up a copy of Good Morning, Midnight. It’s brilliant to the point of making me insecure about my script.
It’s in the same vein of meditative sci-fi, and even plays with similar situations and themes — but it’s executed masterfully, unlike my amateur rough draft. Good Morning, Midnight is what my screenplay wants to be when it grows up. I gotta up my game.
But hey. I have my lump of clay on the table. And no matter how SENT turns out, I feel like I’ve crossed an important threshold.