This is part 2 of a document that lays out my process for writing a feature screenplay. Last time, I covered loglines, ideal files, beat sheets, and note cards. And now…
After I’ve boarded the script, I then write a treatment. I open up a Final Draft document and start writing each of the cards in prose form. No dialogue, just description and action. I label the three act points and the mid-point so that people can see where they are in the movie as they read. This document is usually around 10 or 12 pages. Again, someone should be able to read this document and really see the movie. If they have questions or things don’t make sense, I want them to have questions here, with a ten-page document, instead of with a script that’s 110 pages. It’s much easier to fix a structural issue at this stage.
So many scripts I read have problems that should’ve been addressed at the treatment stage and here they are, deeply imbedded in a full draft. Sucks to have to take things apart at this late stage, but of course, it happens all time. And don’t get me started on how many scripts have issues that could’ve been fixed at the logline stage.
If I’m feeling extra awesome, I sometimes go to a “scriptment” stage. This is the treatment with some dialogue added in. This document is around 20 pages. I don’t do this very often, but I did it with an action comedy I wrote a few years ago. That script had a director and producers involved so it really helped to have a more detailed document in between the treatment and the first draft. This also helps when tone is an issue. That script was an action-comedy appropriate for kids but not a family movie. Tricky stuff and it helped to be able to include some mini-scenes to show how the action and humor would interplay. The script turned out great but unfortunately still hasn’t sold.
I start the first draft in a new file. I’ll put the board near me so I can refer to it as I work. If I have a scriptment, I’ll cut and paste some of the dialogue and bits and move it over. I write the first draft in order, beginning to end. I try not to go back and read the earlier work and if I do, I REALLY try not to rewrite anything until I’ve finished the first draft. Pretty much every writer I’ve ever known has problems with this but I find that the real heavy lifting of rewriting is hard to do unless you’re working from a complete document.
Even though it takes me about four weeks to write a first draft, you’ll notice that this part of my process doesn’t take very long to discuss. That’s because the prewriting (everything before the first draft) and the rewriting (everything after it) is where most of the real work happens. The prewriting enables me to get a workable first draft without getting too lost, but then the real meal of screenwriting begins…
I usually take some time off after finishing a first draft, at least a weekend. Then I’ll print out a copy, get a blue Papermate pen, put on some music, shut the office door, and do a “paper edit”. This means I read the draft front to back, marking it with a pen as I go. I’ll cross out stuff I want to cut. If I want to move something, I’ll circle it and use an arrow to show where it’s going. I’ll write notes on the side. A lot of time, a through-line gets lost so I’ll make notes to remind myself to add them in. I also have some random code words I use, such as “SH” which means I have a paragraph that can be shortened by a line if I put my mind to it. I use this a lot because my first drafts tend to run long and I’m always looking for ways to save space.
Once I’m done with the paper edit, I’ll save the first draft as a new document and get in and start doing the rewrite. In recent years, this has become my favorite part of writing. Not sure why. Usually when I finish a first draft, I have a lot of stuff that sorta works and it’s only when I read it and do my paper edit do I actually “see” the whole movie. A lot of times, I don’t really understand the theme of my movie until this moment. Then, when I’m rewriting, I’m shaping and honing this messy first draft into something that’s starting to look like a real movie.
After this, I do another paper edit. It’s a much shorter one. This polish only takes a few days. Then my first draft is “done”. This is the draft I show my manager and writers group for feedback. Then I put all the feedback into a document, print it out, and mark the stuff I’m going to do and cross out the stuff that’s not working for me. Then I’ll do another paper edit and cross reference that with the feedback document to make sure I’ve included everything. Then I do the rewrite. This is considered my second draft.
I usually do two drafts that I show to my manager and friends for feedback so that the third draft should be a simple polish and once that’s done, I consider the draft ready to go. This is the one I give to my agents and manager to “send out to the town”.
And that’s how I write a feature screenplay. Sometimes.
NEXT TIME: Changing the order and improvising!