If you’re not careful, one of the easiest things you can do when writing a screenplay is to get lost along the way.
Staring at a blank page is as intimidating as staring at a blank map as you sketch out the plans for your family vacation. When writing, like the vacation scenario, you may have an idea of where you want to go and how you want to get there, but until you actually hit the road and start driving, you’re not exactly sure where you’ll end up.
It’s this trial and error process that makes finalizing a first draft of a screenplay so difficult.
It would be wonderful for a screenwriter to be able to go to a local techno-savvy writing establishment and purchase a GPS-like device that would guide you through the writing process, warning you of trouble spots, inefficient tangents and plot holes.
There are even some tools out there that can help you formulate your story, prepare your map, so to speak, but the actual drive is all your own.
You can take some steps, however, that will help you stay on the intended path and lead you to a finished screenplay.
First – know how the story ends.
Some people shy away from that, thinking instead that they would discover the ending along the way. That may be true in writing novels where the author is required to fill hundreds of pages with tightly compact verbiage. The screenplay, on the other hand, is formatted for one purpose, to know how many minutes the script translates onscreen. Compared to a novel, the standard scrip format is mostly white emptiness with a smattering of dialogue, direction and description.
So, there is no time to waste. Every page should be leading you to the end of your story. This isn’t like hiking through the woods and hoping to stumble across some hidden waterfall. The screenwriting journey is a direct route between your idea and the climax of that idea. No meandering. No wandering.
The truth is that the story will take on a life of its own as your write it anyway. There will be unexpected detours and side roads, but they’re all heading in the same direction, toward the climax of your story. You can’t afford to spend 10 pages with your character finding that hidden waterfall and not have it directly tied to what the story is about. If the character isn’t allergic to water, in deep need of a bath or looking for a treasure behind the waterfall, then skip it. Nothing can be wasted in a screenplay.
Second – keep writing.
Your first draft will stink. Know that going in. And it’s supposed to. The old axiom “writing is re-writing” is 100% accurate. Be one with that thought before you begin.
Understanding that, feel free to write 15 pages of crappy plot and dialogue at a time. It doesn’t matter. Really. The purpose of getting the first draft completed is to get that idea regurgitated out of your mind and onto paper in a way that you and others can comprehend it, discuss it and fix it.
It’s the difference between having an idea and a finished screenplay.
There are times when I’m writing where I can’t quite figure out the next word… I know what I want to say, but not exactly how I want to say it. Instead of getting stuck, I’ll write the sentence with parentheses around the word I know is not right. For example, I may want to say…
“She walked into her bedroom and smelled a perfume she knew not to be her’s. Her eyes welled with tears as her long-held suspicions were suddenly realized.”
However, lets say, for the life of me I can’t think of the word “suspicions.” So, on the first draft, I’ll write the sentence like this…
“Her eyes welled with tears as her long-held (concerns/worries) were suddenly realized.”
Knowing I’m going to re-write allows me to trudge forward and not waste 10 minutes trying to figure out the word that means something like “concerns/worries.” Which leads us to the next point…
Third – be disciplined.
Always keep moving forward.
I’ve known writers who will go back and re-write the first 10 pages over and over again and never get past page 11. You’ll have plenty of time to re-write pages 1-10. Re-write it later. Keep writing, every day, and keep moving forward. Sure you can go back and tweak things here and there if something you just came up with needs to be layered in earlier in the story, but don’t polish any pages until they’re all written first.
Fourth – be patient.
When you first finish your script, put it away for a while. Trust me on this. Because, here’s the deal… when you’re writing your first draft and you get some creative wind at your back, the words will simply flow. The ideas will be so crystal clear in your head and you’ll believe you’ve written the greatest story ever told.
Here’s the problem. Rarely (and by rarely I mean never) will a writer ever completely convey those thoughts in their head onto paper in the first draft. They’ll THINK they did, but they’re wrong. Here’s how you test it… when you finish your masterpiece, put it in a drawer and don’t look at it for 3-6 months. Go write something else, go fishing, go look for that hidden waterfall. But don’t touch the script.
When you pull out that gem of a first-draft screenplay and pry open those precious pages, you’ll quickly realize that some of the logic doesn’t make sense, or the scene doesn’t work as you intended, or the dialogue is laughable or the descriptions sound suddenly like a romantic birthday card.
Lastly – be ruthless.
When you finally get into the re-writing phrase, remember this very important point… something either works or it doesn’t. Period. And if it doesn’t work, cut it. Always.
That means that, yes, you’ll have to cut the funniest dialogue you’ve ever written about farm animals because it no longer works in this police procedural about a missing nun. Or the character you identify with the most simply doesn’t fit in the world you’ve created for the other characters. Or the sub-plot about that cat that cleans itself too much is no longer necessary for the movement of the plot.
These cuts won’t often be easy decisions, but they are necessary ones.
If you really loved that scene about farm animals, then save it in a folder and use it in another screenplay. But don’t keep anything in your script that
A) doesn’t move the plot forward
B) doesn’t work.
When you’re done with your re-write, repeat steps four and five until you and various objective third parties agree that you have written something special. Until then, keep going.
Simply put, writers write. They love it, even when its hard. If they’re lucky, when they’re done, they’ll have something that will change lives and touch souls.
And that makes the entire process worth it.