That’s right—I’ve done it.
After scientifically analyzing every possible screenwriting method, pouring over every script that’s ever been written, and developing a mental encyclopedia of every opinion ever written on movie-writing, I’ve boiled it all down and have finally come up with the ONE PERFECT method for writing a script that can be used by every writer in every circumstance. It’s the Rosetta Stone of writing processes, and after much thought and deliberation, I have settled upon the perfect name for this perfect approach:
THE SCRIPT-TASTIC METHOD
I’m bluffing. Turns out, there is no perfect approach to screenwriting. Every writer is different, and every writer will need to hammer out the kinks in his or her own approach to writing.
Over the past ten years I HAVE developed a writing process that works well for me, however. I think it's a pretty good one, and maybe--just maybe--you'll find it helpuful, too.
Here's what I do:
1) I start by BRAINSTORMING to come up with the right idea. Read my post Choose... But Choose Wisely to see my recommendations on this process, but the bottom line is this: Never go for the very first idea that springs into your head. Take the time to run through several ideas, and to weigh the pros and cons of each before settling upon the BEST concept for your next script.
2) Once I’ve settled on a concept I like, I try to capture the idea in a coherent LOGLINE. Much can be said about crafting loglines, and this is a topic that I plan to write more about in the future. In a nutshell, a LOGLINE is a 1-3 sentence statement that captures the entire plot of your movie, and suggests the content of all three acts. For instance:
When a young boys discovers an extra-terrestrial who has been left behind on earth, he helps the alien return home, and along the way discovers the true meaning of love and friendship.
After her son goes missing, a working-class mom becomes an object of controversy when the Los Angeles police reunite her with a boy that is not her child. Against all odds, the go-it-alone mom fights a corrupt system, and ultimately discovers the horrible truth behind her son’s disappearance.
If you’ve never written a logline before, try writing a couple for movies that you’re already familiar with. Reducing a two-hour plot into a two-sentence synopsis can be tough business, but it will force you to isolate only those elements that are the MOST IMPORTANT to telling a given film’s story. When you’re ready, try to capture your OWN concept in this format. Shaping a logline for your original movie idea will require you to decide what your film is REALLY ABOUT, and will serve to double-check that your concept is screenplay-ready.
3) Once I have a logline, I write an OUTLINE for my new screenplay, paying special emphasis to ACT ONE, the ACT BREAKS and HOW THE MOVIE ENDS. My outlines tend to be 3-5 pages long, and focus on the 1-3 most important characters, and the specific PLOT POINTS that will shape their journey.
4) My next step might surprise you. Many writers will take their step-3 outlines, and turn them into a beat sheet. But not me. Instead, I like to go ahead and WRITE ACT ONE.
Act One of any script should be 25-30 pages long, and will introduce a screenplay’s main characters while also setting the story of the script moving forward. I like to use the act-one writing process to discover my hero’s voice and to follow my instincts in introducing story twists and setup scenes. In the process of finishing my first draft, I’ll probably rewrite act one several times, but I like to finish a strong draft of act one up front, then use this draft as a guide to steer me on my NEXT STEP:
5) The beat sheet. With my act-one firmly in hand, I now sit down and prepare a full 70-90 point BEAT SHEET for my script (see post: The Beat Sheet). Some writers skip this step, and move directly into writing their scripts. I still find writing a beat sheet to be helpful—it gives me the opportunity to rearrange scenes and work through problems at a stage when it’s not costing me any serious time or effort to do so. When I’m especially excited about a new project, pausing for an extra few days to develop a full-length beat sheet can feel like a tedious process—but especially for newer writers, I think it’s a step that is well worth the extra time spent up-front.
6) Next step—I write the first draft of my script. It is absolutely IMPERATIVE for writers to keep in mind that your first draft is just that—a first pass at something that you will come back to and improve upon later on. Don’t get caught upin the minutiae, or waste time hammering out every little detail and nuance. Focus on completion. Once your first draft is done, you will have plenty of time for STEP 7:
7) Rewrite your script. See the post Why Your First Draft Should Suck to see my views on the rewrite process, but suffice it to say, the REWRITE is where the magic really happens. Once your first draft is done, it is far easier to rearrange scenes, cut out parts that don’t work, or to fill in better, more clever fixes for story problems. Don’t think of the rewrite process as a chore, or as a simple polish—this is where the real writing happens, and where the professionals separate-out from the amateurs. Put the elbow grease in on your rewrite, and the next time you type THE END you might really mean it…
So—whattaya think? Totally script-tastic? Or just another nutty approach to screenwriting?
The bottom line is that these are the steps that work for ME. Try them out, but keep in mind that your process may be different. Be open to what works, and discard what doesn’t. Eventually, you’ll have a stream-lined process that works for you, and you’re very own approach to getting those ideas out of your head, and onto the page...