How I'm Writing My Next Screenplay (And You Can Too!)
At the beginning of 2013, I wrote about 6 things I’m doing to write my best screenplay ever this year (and you can too!). I thought it would get my usual small number of hits, disappear under the camera posts, and I’d move on to writing more posts about successful screenwriters and their words of wisdom. But I was wrong. While the post didn’t generate nearly as much traffic as our more popular camera posts, a lot of you read it and passed it around, making it one of my more popular posts, so thank you. Two months into the year, and based on the success of that post, I thought I would share with you my progress and delve into my own screenwriting process.
The Initial Idea
If you’re like me, you’re constantly evaluating stories you hear on the news or in magazines or simply random thoughts in your head to see if they would make a good movie. More often than not, I can discard a story idea because I’ve already seen that movie before and this idea/story doesn’t offer a fresh spin on it, or the idea doesn’t lend itself to a 90-minute to 2-hour storyline (i.e. a funny anecdote may be great to entertain your friends at a party for ten minutes, but nobody wants to sit through the hour-and-a-half version of that anecdote).
Every once in a while, the kernel of an idea will stick with me, but the story won’t have emerged. If the idea won’t let go, inevitably a combination of “what-if” scenarios will soon start dancing around that idea, looking for a good pairing (and mixing metaphors). More often than not, the scenarios in which I can relate to the story from personal experience tend to come together with the initial idea.
For the current screenplay I am writing, the initial idea was an actual event in my life — something a bit shocking, but merely an anecdote, not a story by itself (my apologies for being vague about the details — I’m not quite ready to unveil the story to the world). After several months of thinking about the incident and my reaction to it, I knew the incident itself wasn’t a story, but I realized that it could set up a story that would allow me to explore the growth of a protagonist facing a worst-case scenario over the course of a feature-length film. I also realized that I could explore the intersecting story lines of two of the supporting characters grappling with their own worst-case scenarios and contrast their story arcs with the protagonist in ways that I thought would make the overall storytelling richer.
While the actual writing of the screenplay from page one to page 100 may go at a steady clip for me, getting to page one takes a long time. To give you a sense of how long this particular story has taken me to craft up until this point, I thought it would be useful to lay out my timeline for you:
- Fall 2011: The real-life incident
- May 2012: My initial brainstorming session in Word
- June – early Sept. 2012: Revisited my initial brainstorming, adding new notes and ideas
- Mid-Sept. – early Oct. 2012: Outlined three main characters and their journeys
- Oct. 2012: Beat out the story on index cards
- Nov. 2012: Brainstormed the tone of the story, watching comparable films
- Dec. 2012: Brainstormed the relationship between the two main characters, referring to the index cards beats
- Dec. 2012: Updated story beats on index cards
- Mid-Dec. 2012 – Jan. 2013: Wrote long-form story treatment
- Jan. – Feb. 2013: Read comparable screenplays for tone
- Feb. – early Mar. 2013: Currently writing first draft of the screenplay in Final Draft (approx. 5 pages a day)
That’s where I am so far. Here’s what I plan to do after I finish the first draft of the screenplay in early March:
- Mid Mar. 2013: Step away from the screenplay draft for a week once it is complete
- Mid Mar. 2013: Print out and read screenplay with a critical eye, making notes for first rewrite
- Mid-late Mar. 2013: Rewrite
- Early Apr. 2013: Seek out feedback from trusted sources
- Mid Apr. 2013: Rewrite again based on feedback
Beyond being a story that won’t let me go until I finish writing the screenplay, I also wanted to write this story to have a screenplay similar in tone and style to my Nicholl semifinalist script that I am trying to put together as my first feature. Once that project comes together and someone asks me if I have something else in a similar vein, I want to be ready to show them the screenplay I am currently writing. I’ve certainly written other screenplays in a similar tone and style to my Nicholl semifinalist script, and while some of those scripts were well received, they have been around for a while and I needed a fresher story. Plus, as I continue to write, I think I continue to become a better writer.
So, that’s my current process. As you can see, writing a screenplay for me takes quite a while from the initial concept to completing the first draft. I don’t even open Final Draft until I’ve written the story many times in outlines, on note cards and in long-form treatment. Nevertheless, something new always pops up at each stage to surprise me, making the story better along the way.
What does your screenwriting process look like? Share with us in the Comments.