How to Write a Screenplay in 30 Easy Steps: The Archive

This is obviously a relic from the days when this was pretty much exclusively a screenwriting blog, but this method (which is no longer really my method) could apply to other types of writing as well. I love the comic I chopped up to use as illustrations for this. I totally forget what it was or where I found it...

How To Write A Screenplay in 30 Easy Steps, Part Five: The Second Draft

The Grand Finale…

24. Get Over the Disappointment

If you’ve got good friends, they’ll be honest and break your heart. They hate the characters you love. They don’t understand the ending. They just don’t get it. Your story seems pointless. This is okay. This is the proper response to a first draft. The problem is probably not in what your story is but in how you told it. Because you didn’t know how people would react until you wrote it. Now you know. So fix it.

25. Identify the New Holes

This is a repeat of step 14... Sort the notes you got into three types: plot holes, sympathy holes, and motivation holes. Yes, you thought you had identified these before, but you always miss a lot. One thing I like to do is call that friend who never wrote me back with any notes. I tell him that it’s okay, but I just need to know one thing: on what page did he stop reading the screenplay. This is the most valuable information of all. That page number is where you’ll find the biggest motivation hole.

26. Brainstorm New Solutions

Once again, makes a list of every problem and five possible solutions to each. Find a new solution that satisfies every problem without creating new ones.

27. Write the Second Draft

Take those scenes that aren’t working and cut them out entirely. Re-write those scenes from scratch. Force yourself to change as much as possible. Arbitrarily change the setting of the scene just to give yourself a new perspective. Keep it fresh. The second draft should be shorter, with a more linear plot, stronger motivation and a bigger emotional punch. This is the draft that should make you cry as you’re typing.

28. Another Visit from Mister Hawking

Have the computer read the script back to you again. By now, it’s starting to sound totally meaningless to your ear. This is inevitable. Power through it. Fix typos. Cut out fat. Pick better words. Perfect it.

29. Resist the Urge for More Outside Input

By now you should be out of friends anyway. Never ask the same person to read two subsequent drafts of the same script. Not enough of the script will have changed yet, and they’ll be pissed about whatever notes they gave you that you didn’t take. Besides, you’re totally blotto by this point. Additional notes will do you no good.

30. Send It Out

If you have reps, send it to them. If you don’t, send it to a contest. Get it read. Get it sold. Once it sells, you’ll get the real notes and you’ll have to tear it apart all over again, but always save a copy of that perfect second draft that was just the way you wanted it to be.


How To Write A Screenplay in 30 Easy Steps, Part Four: The Rough Draft

I confess all...

19. Cut and Paste Your Treatment Into Screenwriting Software

You must buy screenwriting software. You want to sell this for thousands of dollars, but you won’t spend $200 in order to do the job right? Forget it. You gotta buy it.

20. Write All the Slug Lines

I immediately break up the treatment text by inserting “slug lines” at the head of every scene. These are the lines that say INT. LISA MINELLI’S BASEMENT – DAY. For me, this gives the screenplay some shape right away and makes it much less intimidating. This also means that if I get stuck on any scene, I can jump to any other scene and start writing. But that’s dangerous, because when you…

21. ...Turn It Into a First Draft...

…you have to listen to the characters who won’t do what you want them to do. Then you have to re-brainstorm until the problem is solved. So whenever possible I try to write in order, and allow myself the freedom to re-write the story as I go, often making massive changes that totally depart from that oh-so-carefully-crafted final treatment. In order to keep the right voices in my head, I’ll often listen to one of those memoirs on audiobook whenever I take walking breaks to refresh myself. Whatever it takes to push through 110 pages of dialogue.

22. Polish While You Proofread

Once again, I turn on Final Draft’s trusty “Speech Control” and have the entire script read to me by Steven Hawking. (The program lets you assign “different” voices to the male, female, and child characters, but they all sound the same to me: like Steven Hawking. That’s fine, I find it cute.) I fix the thousands of typos, but more importantly, I get to hear what my dialogue sounds like out loud. Inevitably, it sounds overly verbose, formal and repetitive. I chop it way down as I proofread. But if I rewrite too much of a scene, I always make sure to listen to the scene again from the beginning in order to find the new typos I’ve created.

23. Yet More Outside Input from Trusted Friends

For the third and final time, go back to those beleaguered friends, (Or even better, find new friends who haven’t heard of it yet. Of course, this assumes that you have six good friends, which is doubtful) and ask them how they think it turned out. Wait and bite your nails some more…Tomorrow is the big finale!


How To Write A Screenplay in 30 Easy Steps, Part Three: Troubleshooting

Getting over the hump...

14. Decode the notes you’ve gotten

Don’t pay much attention to the fixes they suggested. Instead, figure out what underlying problem caused them to desire that change. You’ll want to identify three things: the plot holes (wherever the story doesn’t make sense), the motivation holes (wherever the characters act in unbelievable ways), and the sympathy holes (wherever the readers are getting fed up with or disinterested in your characters). Your friends usually won’t mention the sympathy holes, so you have to push them to identify places where they felt alienated from the hero.

15. Turn the Treatment Back into a Beatsheet

Select your text and click the “numbering” button in Microsoft Word to re-create your beatsheet so that you can start re-arranging, deleting and adding scenes in order to fill all three types of holes. Each problem may seem like it has an easy fix, but you’ll find that you can’t fill one hole without opening up another. For instance, if you add an arbitrary ticking clock, that may fill a motivation hole, but open up a plot hole. If you try to justify that ticking clock by giving your hero an additional neurosis, that might fill the plot hole but open up a new sympathy hole… It’s tricky.

16. Brainstorm Answers to the Problems

List all the problems. Brainstorm five possible solutions to each problem. Try to find a path that snakes through every possible solution and gets you all the way to the end without opening any more holes. This is really hard, but extremely rewarding when it all finally snaps into place.

17. Write the Final Treatment

Open up a new document and retype your story from scratch. Once again, these are about seven single-spaced pages long for me. As you do this, you should finally be able to…

18. Identify the Theme

Only at this point, once everything makes sense, is it safe to identify what the theme of your story is. This is important to know as you write. Go ahead and have someone state the theme on page three (Maybe as an unanswered question). Write the theme on a post-it and stick it to your computer. It will guide you through the next step…


How To Write A Screenplay in 30 Easy Steps, Part Two: The Homework

Where were we? Ah, yes...

8. The Research

For a period piece or bio-pic, this will take months. Otherwise it can be quicker, but unless the hero has a job and a world that you know intimately, you’ll need to read memoirs of people who have had that job or lived in that world, you’ll interview anyone you can get in the same room with who knows that world, read articles and books, watch documentaries… Even if you’re writing something light and silly about a world you know well, you should still watch movies that are similar to yours... Watch good movies to see how they captured the appeal of this kind of story, and watch bad movies to see how a movie like yours can go horribly wrong.

9. Fill Out Some Character Checklists

Fill this out. (I actually have a newer checklist that I now use and I’ll share it with you soon) Get to know each character backwards and forwards. While you’re doing that, you’ll simultaneously…

10. ...Expand the Beatsheet to 30 Beats

When I do these, they usually end up being about 7 pages single-spaced. List everything that happens. Not every little scene but all the major events-- every reversal. I start with a list of everything that could happen, then figure out a rough order for those things to happen that would be the most exciting. This is still an “and then, and then, and then” outline. I move things around a lot. It’s still messy. But when I get it far enough along, I…

11. Turn the Beatsheet into a Treatment

This is a prose version of the story written in paragraph form in present tense. Remember when you were a kid, and you would see a movie, then tell the kids on the bus the next day exactly what happened in it? That should be the tone. As you write this, you’ll rearrange events some more until the “and then, and then, and then…” flow of the beatsheet turns into “and so, and so, and so…” Each scene should cause or at least be answered by the next scene in a continuous dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, building and building until the climax. Everything should flow. The motivations should begin to make sense. It’s a real story now.

12. Proofread the Treatment

Most writers, despite all of our training, are terrible proofreaders of our own work. This is no accident. We became writers because we were good readers. We’re good readers because we read quickly. We read quickly because we scan the whole sentence and read every word by its shape. Typos are invisible to us. It’s even worse if we wrote those words ourselves, because we recognize the words immediately, so we never even look at the letters. It took me years to figure out the only way to proofread my own work: I have to have the computer read it to me out loud. If you’re using Final Draft, you can use the “Speech Control” tool, but any computer can be configured to read a document to you in this disability-friendly age. Use it! As you proofread your treatment in this way, it’ll get better in all sorts of ways.

13. Get More Outside Input from Trusted Friends

Go back to those three friends and have them read your treatment. Ask them first: “Is this any good?” Then, no matter what they say, ask them, “But how can it be better?” Make it clear that you want them to be as skeptical as possible. (Never send anybody a beatsheet, because they’re ugly to look at, and never send out anything that you haven’t proofread thoroughly, because readers find that very insulting, as well they should) Now, while you’re waiting on pins and needles, we’ll take a little break…


How To Write A Screenplay in 30 Easy Steps, Part One: Ideas

So I’m on vacation, but I’m so damn responsible that I left behind a new series that will unspool all week. Enjoy:

1. Brainstorm, Brainstorm, Brainstorm…

Brainstorm hundreds of ideas. Make lists of every embarrassing date you’ve ever been on that was unlike the bad dates we see in the movies, list every superpower you’ve never seen done before, list all of the professions that they’ve never shown us the asshole version of… (Bad Santa! Bad Teacher!), list every life or death profession that they’ve never made a movie about (offshore oil driller? International Criminal Court prosecutor?), list every larger-than-life personality you met at school or your first job that was unlike any character you’ve seen in fiction. Brainstorm for days.

2. Pick Three Ideas

Now start developing three of these ideas. (If you don’t pick three, you’ll try to cram all of your favorite concepts into one script. If you force yourself to write three stories at the same time, you will see that none of them can be all things to all people. You’ll realize that each story has its own needs, and its own audience. And you’ll stop yourself from trying to plug one type of love interest into every story. They can’t all be manic pixie dream girls!) The key here is to start with a character or a situation or a setting and transform it into a problem. A story is always and only about a problem!

3. Dream Up a Story for Each Idea

For each story, write a one-paragraph story with a beginning, middle and end. And some irony. All stories are driven by irony (an unlikely hero, or a tragic coincidence, or a humorous juxtaposition…). It’s never too soon to start finding that irony. As you write these paragraphs, you’ll have to…

4. Create a Cast of Characters for Each

Maybe you start by asking: Who would the antagonist be? Then ask: What hero would be the one person that could (ironically) challenge that antagonist? Maybe you start with the problem and then ask: Who would be the most ironic person to tackle that problem? Then find the rest of the characters by asking: Who would naturally help and who would hinder the hero in dealing with this problem? Describe each character with one line for now.

5. Expand Each Story into a One-Pager by Creating the Structure

For all three ideas, figure out the seven beats of the story. Once again, the seven beats underlying almost every story are these: 1—Hero knows what he/she wants but not what he/she needs, 2—Embarrassing incident that brings a dangerous opportunity, 3— Hero commits and makes progress by doing it the easy way, 4—The easy way leads to a big disaster and loss of safety, 5—The hero tries the hard way, dealing with real consequences, 6—The hero faces a spiritual crisis as a result of those consequences, and 7—The strengthened hero deals with the problem once and for all.

6. Get Some Outside Input

Find three friends who you trust. Maybe one of them will know something about the screenplay market right now, which is always a nice perspective to get. Don’t show them what you’ve written. Just pitch all three stories to them out loud. Ask them: Are any of these any good? If so, which one of these should I write right now? Take that input into account and…

7. ...Choose One of the Three and Commit to Writing it.

Okay, that was the fun part. Tomorrow the hard work begins!