If you are a screenwriter or want to be there is likely an idea or two rumbling around in your head that you would like to write. In respect of the calendar flipping to 2013 and in celebration of our new lease on life after fooling those meddling Mayans, I offer you a plan. A plan to make 2013 the year you finish your original screenplay.
Modeled after my own writing habits, if I were starting a new script in January, this is what my 2013 plan would look like. Adjust as needed, but if you can dedicate yourself to a project, keep focus and stick to this schedule you will have a finished screenplay before 2014.
This is geared to those who have some working knowledge of screenwriting, the terms it uses and perhaps some experience with story concepts and common practices. But it also keeps the novice or new writer in mind. If you need some further learning, my past posts and multiple online resources abound with instruction, advice and products to aide in these myriad tasks. I want this to be more motivational and planning focused than granular instruction.
JANUARY – Defrosting Your Big Idea
Tap into your mind, your Evernote files and/or your old notebooks and find that one idea that won’t leave you alone. If you have several good ideas choose the best one. Keeping in mind your goals for the finished script.
A spec script aimed at a major studio production may look quite different from that slasher you and your buddies want to shoot in the abandoned warehouse down the street. (Remember, trespassing can be dangerous.) But get a GREAT idea ready.
Now take this idea to task. Find a computing device and start what I call a Brainstorming page. Give it a title. Even if you’re not completely sold on it, get some title up there reflecting your great idea.
Now write anything related to your story. It’s a good idea to forge a pretty solid log line at this point and commit it to paper. But I will also include loose outlining, scene summaries, character lists with names, bits of dialogue. Anything. Keep it loose; keep it flowing. Once you get into this you’ll become more excited about your story. This is a wonder-filled exercise that builds on idea after idea. Many writers don’t take the time to do this but I find it useful and fun. It is also a time-saver because I can usually weed out weaker ideas that don’t work or may need more time in the oven.
If this is your first script, now is also a good time to bone up on script formatting and maybe find some decent software to help with the task.
You are working the story. Moreso here than at any other point in the process.
FEBRUARY – Your Outline to Success
Once your Brainstorming sheet engorges to four or six pages of notes you’ll know it’s time to outline. I may lose many readers right here but I beg you press on. For some reason writers don’t like to outline. However necessary all the gurus say it may be we look at it as a mundane, left-brained task that we would leave to an assistant if we had one.
You need to change your attitude toward our toilsome friend the outline. I’ve learned to embrace it as a needed creative exercise. For me it becomes challenging and fun to work the story. And that’s what you are doing. You are working the story. Moreso here than at any other point in the process.
Here’s what I’ll do. First, a new computer file with title and log line atop the page. (Don’t ever want to forget the log line. Leave it where you can see it. ) Then refer to your notes in the Brainstorm sheet and begin outlining your story.
There are many methods of outlining. Again, I try to not get caught up in formatting here, just get the ideas out. You may be more comfortable using a stricter method. Index cards are one popular choice and there’s software out there to help with this too. An oft-overlooked method is the French Scene Outline, more commonly used in writing for the stage, but I’ve employed it for the screen on occasion.
I prefer a standard words-on-paper approach. I’ll start by writing a 1-4 sentence description of each scene (or plot point to be more precise). I also find it helpful to mark the act breaks with ACT ONE, ACT TWO, ACT THREE headers. This helps me see in a glance where I am bloated and where I am thin.
Experience has shown me I am most comfortable when my outline comes in at seven pages. And they tend to be very consistent: Two pages for Act One, Four pages for Act Two and One page for Act Three.
It’s a shame this isn’t a leap year, I’d really like to have that extra day to work on my outline. So if you need to, bleed the initial outlining process into March.
MARCH – The Outline Lives
By now you should have your seven or so pages of outline. But hold your F-A-D-E – I-N keystrokes. Because the writing-is-rewriting phase begins…now.
Make another (version two) outline file and work the story. And I mean work it, honey. This is the stage of the process where heroes become sympathetic, villains have their undoing and the best friend dies. Grab the reader here! You can (and surely will) fix and improve things later on in the process but the outline…ahh, the outline…is the best and most efficient place to build your story.
And have a great ending. Have a strong, settled ending. It’s where the whole story is going. It is your destination. A strong log line working with a strong ending are a powerful duo, indeed. Staying true to them will help make your outline bullet proof.
Get your outline up on its dramatic feet because spring draws near.
APRIL – A Story Blooms
Begin your story in your word processing program of choice. There are a growing number of free screenplay formatting tools out there alongside the Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter heavyweights.
I will write everything to this point and up until my declared First Draft in Microsoft Word. Although clumsy as a total software package, Word works for me in these earlier & mid stages. Here’s a tip: I’ve formatted the tabs in Word such that it over-lengthens my script to the tune of about 10%. So if I write 120 pages in Word, when I flow it into Final Draft it is only around 108. That’s good stuff.
Not everyone begins writing with Act One, some writing efforts may be best served by beginning at the end. Or the middle. I’ve done it all. It can all work but for the purposes of this instruction we’ll start at the beginning.
Here’s some general advice for your Act One. It should start off with a bang. Get your exposition out in a clever, revealing way. Don’t rely on on-the-nose dialogue. Be sure we know who the hero is by page five (okay, page ten if you’re writing an epic). Make your hero’s transition into Act Two clear and bold with an obvious goal.
Go, write. I’ll wait.
MAY – The Days are Getting Longer
Keep writing. It would be a good goal to have your Act One written by now. Leaving the hot summer months to write Act Two.
Who can your hero trust? Who is against her? Who looks like a friend but isn’t? Even if you’re an old hand there’s no shame in a refresher on characters. I like Vogler’s section on Archetypes.
Keep your outline close. Don’t be afraid to adjust it if you need to.
JUNE – Starting to Sweat
Still working with Act Two, if you’re like me here’s where frustration will often set in. Here’s where a once good, well-disposed idea unravels and become a heated volcanic explosion of contradiction, cliché and confusion. Or sometimes not. Sometimes I’ll coast right through Act Two. Don’t you love writing?
Stay with it. Go back to your outline. Remember your strong ending and stay focused.
If you find yourself against a wall give yourself a mental break. Put down the keyboard and watch a movie, play Angry Birds or tickle a child.
Problems I encounter in the latter half of Act Two are almost always a symptom of something neglected or missed in my log line, the ending or most likely the outline. While we cannot go back to February, we can go back to those files and try to shore up the buttresses of our story.
Even if you know it isn’t perfect, try to push on. As it has been said, “Don’t get it right. Get it written.” There will be opportunity for correction and enhancement.
Your tip for Act Two: When in doubt, raise the stakes.
Our hero must be changed.
JULY – Closer to Independence
Having survived the turmoil of Act Two, we turn to the requisite task of drafting our story resolution. Along with the rising temperature, comes the fever pitch of the climax within Act Three.
The climax is where our central story is resolved. Our characters will have come together in a final showdown. Generally, someone gets what they want, someone else does not. Our hero, having won or lost, will usually reenter the ordinary world a changed man. DING! That’s a biggie. Our hero must be changed. For extra points, others in the story will have changed also. You have set up the central characters so well and made them so interesting that each has a personal story that has resulted in a new outlook, however minor it may seem.
What of our antagonist? Often it is the villain’s refusal to change or adapt that has lead to his defeat.
I usually breeze through Act Three because I place so much emphasis on a solid ending in the very early stages of writing.
Act Three tip: If your story’s hero has not changed, you may not have a story.
AUGUST – Staying Hot
You may have typed FADE OUT but we’re only now at the hottest point. Rewrite, but do it in stages.
To this point, I often will have left out some minor character’s names or left a location unnamed. Now is the time to replace any XXXXXX placeholders with something meaningful. I may also have technical, historical or geographical data missing. In other words: research. Another term writers often fear. Although broader research necessary for the birth of the greater idea should have been completed much earlier on, now is the time to find out Hitler’s shoe size so your World War II British Intelligence agent disguised as a Nazi cobbler can be credible.
Also rewrite for story again. Fill any remaining holes from your outline. Cut anything not needed. Fix any and all typos. Troll the weeds with tweezers to find them and correct every single misspelling, misuse and punctuation error. Need help? Look here.
I like to print out my pages at this point and edit red pen to paper. There’s an advantage to seeing words on paper that helps me edit and it gives me a longer look at things than I would otherwise allow myself trying to correct on screen.
SEPTEMBER – The Labor Days
Read the thing. On paper without a pen. Adjust as needed.
That’s a simple instruction for edit, edit, edit. We tackled the smaller edits in August. Research, typos and placeholders all taken care of. Nothing left to distract us from our naked story.
Now dig in and do the hard work. Cut anything not needed again, but be more critical. Most scripts need to be under 120 (or 100!) pages, get yours there. Collapse scene description to a four line max. Do the same to dialogue. Cut a lot of it. It’s okay, really.
Is every character needed? Can multiple characters be combined into one? Does the timeline of your story make sense? Are the jokes funny? Is action written visually? These are some big things I would look to correct at this point.
After these corrections, this is what I would be comfortable showing to others. This is a FIRST DRAFT.
So give it to some trusted friends to read. (Trusted both for their literary & film acumen and for their honesty & integrity.) Biggest question to ask them: “Was anything confusing?” If two people didn’t get the joke or thought your maritime disaster flick took place in an 18th century schoolhouse, it’s best to take another look at those items.
But beware; seeking feedback can be dicey. Despite their trustworthiness and education many people are just, well, idiots. You’ll get something like this: “I didn’t like the woman, Katherine. I prefer the name be spelled with a ‘C’”. While this person might not be a board-certified idiot, the chances of them having any useful feedback for you are minimal.
The red pen has a long, unforgiving life.
OCTOBER – Falling in Place
Using feedback from the previous month, rewrite (yes, again) and make those improvements. You know you’ve gotten some useful comments when people are pointing out some things you suspected might be in imbalance or something you thought you could “get by” potential readers. They’re calling you on it and that is good. Correct that stuff.
- Also work again on brevity. Cut, cut, cut.
- Dialogue. Keep your dialogue trim and lively. Beware the on-the-nose dialogues; fix ‘em by using subtext. More often than not you should be writing how people actually speak; but without the boring stuff.
- Action & scene description. Be visual in your descriptions, but not verbose. Try to find a better way of writing any action sentence that contains the word “is”. Delete or reword most uses of an adverb.
- Break up larger descriptions and dialogue with more white space for an easier read.
Read again with a final look for typos (there will be some you missed) and other polishing. The red pen has a long, unforgiving life.
NOVEMBER – Giving Thanks
If you’ve followed the advice and instruction for the first ten months of the year, you should now have…wait for it…a FINAL DRAFT.
There’s a lot of holidays in November, give yourself some time off to appreciate your creation. And tell everyone that you wrote a screenplay; even better if it is your first screenplay. Congratulations! This is a big deal. Most writers never get this far.
Also use this time to register your screenplay. I use the Writers Guild of America-West. The U.S. Copyright Office is another alternative.
Once again, nicely done, friend.
DECEMBER – Shopping Days
In the spirit of the season, it’s time to go shopping! But you’re the one with something to sell. Go out and shop your script. Time to call in all the favors from your film-embedded friends in L.A. No film-embedded friends? Not in L.A.? Embrace the wonder of the Internet, I say! There are many, many services to help you market your script. Some free, mostly paid. Amazon Studios could be a good free way to get some reads and feedback, maybe even a sale. Check out my Writing Resources page for some more appetizers.
Get your log line and a strong query letter together.
Some novice writers are leery of using online services or word-of-mouth to market their screenplay. Hogwash. If you want to sell it, people need to know about it. You won’t make headway peeking around corners whispering your log line. Shout it from the rooftops!
Like Scrooge, you have survived the ghosts. Now go out into the world armed with your spanking new screenplay and shake hands, buy a prize turkey, visit someone uninvited (bring the turkey), treat people nicely and push your screenplay.
A WHOLE YEAR?
Not necessarily. Those with experience and some greater availability of peak productivity time can write a quality 110 pages much quicker. My first couple scripts took about 18 months, more recent efforts have been 6-9 months of work. Heck, there’s even a book to help you do it in 3 weeks! (worth a read, BTW)
Obviously, there are many factors involved here. Time availability, writing experience and necessary research leap to mind as major factors affecting your output.
Whatever your speed—write. An experienced writer friend of mine is fond of saying, “A writer writes.” Truth.
I hope this was helpful and inspirational to many of you. Especially if this is your first screenplay, it surely seems a daunting task. But you can do it. I’m rooting for you. You’ve got a fan here. So begin today.
Helpful Links & Products:
- Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need
- How to Write a Movie in 21 Days: The Inner Movie Method
- The Columbia Guide to Standard American English
- Movie Magic Screenwriter Version 6
- Celtx script writing software
- Screenwriting and Story Software