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How I'm Writing My Next Screenplay (And You Can Too!)

03.2.13 @ 11:47AM Tags : , , ,

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.

The Timeline

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

Then What?

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.


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Description image 19 COMMENTS

  • Always enjoy your articles

  • Jason Dunphy on 03.2.13 @ 12:27PM

    Good read. I don’t always comment but i do read your posts. That is a long process but I like the outlines for each main character. I do an exercise where I will write about the characters parents or maybe back to their grandparents and work my way down the line to the character. It gives you a ton of insight into their upbringing and why they may act the way they do.

    • Christopher Boone on 03.2.13 @ 2:04PM

      Hey Jason,

      That’s a great way to think about backstory – the family lineage.

      How much I go into my character’s backstories depends on what I’m writing. Every time seems a little different depending on how well I know the characters before I start writing the story. I’ve written short 2-3 page stories for characters that take place before the screenplay’s story, I’ve written journal entries from the character’s POV, I’ve simply outlined parts of their background. Sometimes, I’ve even decided to determine the five pivotal moments of a character’s life before the screenplay story happens and determine how each of those pivotal moments shaped the character’s path until now – and how those moments will inform the character’s decisions during the screenplay’s story. I try not to get too complicated, but backstory always helps me understand why a character does something in my screenplay.

      • Jason Dunphy on 03.3.13 @ 12:50PM

        Those are all great. I love doing other stories from the characters POV to get inside their head.

  • Peter Nylund on 03.2.13 @ 3:58PM

    Nice post.
    I am working on a web series script myself (drama) and have been very active in the writing part lately. In large, my process is similar in the way that I first outline the plot roughly. I do it in a text file with a text row instead of with index cards.
    To get the characters, I give them musical themes. Then I group a couple of songs in my iPhone for each character and a couple of situations I have and listen to them whenever I walk to work, sit on a bus or whatever. This way I live inside my story all the time and expand it, bit by bit.
    When I do the writing it goes really fast. One 25 minute episode is written in a couple of days max. I use Celtx and have it on practically all my devices and synch my stuff to the cloud so I can write whenever i get the urge.
    Whenever I have a first version with the whole story written, I print it and hand it out to my closest feedback coaches while I start writing on the next episode. This has proven to be really fast.

    • Christopher Boone on 03.2.13 @ 5:47PM

      Thanks for sharing, Peter. I really like the music assigned to characters to help you get into their worlds.

  • Thought i would be intresting to share my new discovery which helped me to write fast..
    I have written many screenplays. But the fastest I wrote was the one I am making now .the sole reason is that I kept aside final draft/word /android apps and wrote long hand with pen paper.and used index cards with the large push pin board. Intially I thought it would be a waste of time but to my surprise I completed 4 treatments and two drafts in two months.and also that I was rehersing with my actors and trying out various versions of scenes and trying to work out the structure for 2 month .during this period I wrote 7 treatments.
    And for rewriting I xeroxed .and made modifications by cutting and pasting with sissors ang gluestick. I know this will sound insane. But working in an organic way was much faster.
    There are many too many great writers who write long hand the fist that comes to mind is shakespeare.chaplin.woody allen.and all the great writers before the advent of final draft.

  • Hi I’m studino screenwriting, the journey, the characters ect. Could you pelase Give me some advices about writing a short movie? Thanks Samuele

    • Christopher Boone on 03.3.13 @ 3:41PM

      Keep it short :) Specifically, I’d say aim for 7-12 minutes if festivals are your target audience. Less than 7 minutes for web (probably between 3-5 minutes is optimal). You can use the one page per minute rule of thumb, but realize that dialogue shoots faster than action blocks. And make sure your story has a beginning, middle and end. Just because it’s short doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have a beginning, middle and end. I’ve seen plenty of short films that weren’t stories, they were concepts because they didn’t have a beginning, middle and end.

      Also, many successful shorts have a reveal at the end, something that shouldn’t be telegraphed from the beginning. It can be a twist, but at least a new insight into the story that just took place during the previous few minutes is usually very effective.

      Finally, you can do any genre as a short, but comedies tend to work well because you can set up and pay off jokes quickly. Dramas are hard to keep short. Short dramas tend to stretch to the 15-20 minute range because they usually require more time for set up. Oh, and just because it’s a short script doesn’t mean it’s easy to write.

      Those are my thoughts on writing a short film script. Good luck.

      • Thanks a lot.

      • I know you commented on wring a short script above, however, I would be interested in a post about the subject. I think people are less intimidated of writing a short script, well because it is shorter. But, as you commented above just because it is shorter does not mean it is easier to write. I think a post on writing a short movie would generate quite a bit of traffic because their is not nearly enough good information on the subject.

  • Great post and very inspiring!

    I’m finally making the leap that I’ve always wanted to since I was a kid into screenwriting but don’t know much about the planning process before. Do you have any tips on how lay out the “beats” on index cards? What types of questions would you be answering on each? Any insight on the planning/outline process would be extremely helpful!!

  • abhishek krishnakan on 03.4.13 @ 11:57AM

    Hi Luciano..Read save the cat for use of index card ..not a great screenwriting guide but the chapter on index cards and use of board is awesome . If you want to make a carrier in screenplay I would suggest you buy syd field all 4 books and robert macee story. First read syd field then macee.
    Macee is a bit on advance level.
    Other great screen writing books are.
    Thousands faces of hero
    Dramatica ….this is all together a new take . Not recomeended for beginners
    Read as many books on screenplay . Read as many screenplays as you can and then
    Write from your heart ..principles .rules .templates or what ever you choose to call them are to guide you not to rule you

  • David Morring on 03.7.13 @ 5:15PM

    I’ve started writing screenplays for short films and really appreciate seeing another writer’s approach to the process. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to learning more.

  • Pierre Samuel Rioux on 03.8.13 @ 4:06PM

    I do documentaries and i like to do some feature film now.
    Remember AMÉLIE a film Jean-Pierre Jeunet and later MICMAC
    or THE FIFTH ELEMENT by Luc Besson or the TAXI’S films from him also and Arthur and the Minimoy.
    and from Danny Boon WELCOME TO THE STICKS

    What have all those filmmaker in common ; Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Luc Besson,Danny Boon all ( French ) we could ad Tim Burton in UK it’s the way they build the film characters those are in a new kind of tendency. I normally do not like the work of Woody Allen but he made Midnight in Parish a unexpected story very well done a great scrip.

    So working with actor it’s not the same…so i find a group involving in Actor coaching once a mount in Montreal Quebec we work all day to improve your work. Last meting we have 3 filmmaker, one writer, 2 signer,one DOP. and all the majority theater comedian we are near 35 to 40 each mount. All the work it’s made to improve the comedian work or the signer by searching the storytelling.
    It’s a lot of director work.But what a filmmaker do there he learn and see how to deal with comedian same for a writer. The way it’s work you have 2 different price to assist First as a Participant and as no participant.After the first meeting with them i decided to try some of the thing i learn there and my son need to do a Job interview in a big corporation General Electric so me and my wife we coach him and made a fake interview and my son get the job… so the next mount i said to the teacher what i did and he was very proud i try this.

    No matter what we do it’s all the time storytelling. So Christopher you all ready have a writer name.

  • My approach is just write… a lot. I’ve written three, screenplays: two feature length and one short in about 2 months (and I think I’m halfway through a third feature) My process is: Think of a bad-ass concept, then think of a bad-ass ending… and get from the beginning to the end as fast as you can…putting everything your thinking and feeling into the script… and every plot hole you encounter becomes addressed with a new scene or character action… I recommend googling Quentin Tarantino’s 1994-95 interview with Charlie Rose… and what he says about the writing process. Not all of the writing will be stellar… but you will feel productive and each script gets better than the one before.

  • I’m with Jack, I will think about the story for a few days, or weeks. I will then sit down, and just start to type. I write as much as I can, and then go back elaborate, or expand. After my first draft i ask for a few friends comments, and so on.I have no structure to the way I work.