Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Tips For Tuesday - Making the Sausage
In this post I want to talk to you about the process of screenwriting. The sausage-making if you will.
I believe that most beginning screenwriters and perhaps even some experienced ones tend to look at writing a script as a singular thing. And when you look back after finishing it, that may seem to be the case. After all, you’ve written a "script" not "scripts". It’s not plural. There’s just one of them, right? However, when you set out to write, you would be far better served to think of screenwriting as something that happens in three distinct stages.
The first stage of the process is “preparing to write”. That’s that early part where you take your idea and begin to decide upon your characters and your important story beats and even some of your individual scenes. Some folks call this outlining. Fine. Whatever you call it, I believe it is absolutely essential to prepare extensively before writing your first draft. Unlike a novel, where the writer can literally begin with an idea and just start writing, a screenplay has to be planned. With my legal background, I liken it to a lawyer preparing for a big trial. No self-respecting lawyer goes to trial without preparing. Extensively.
By comparison, if you take the novelist’s approach, I can almost guarantee that you’ll hit an impenetrable wall somewhere around page forty. Your story will stop dead. Think of it like driving across the country. You don’t just get in the car and point it east or west and step on the gas. You pick a route, with stops along the way. You may alter the route or decide upon different stops, but at least you begin with a map and plan.
This isn’t a sales pitch, but if you have trouble with this stage of the writing process, I have a workbook that I developed over my eleven years of teaching screenwriting at Boston College that might help. It contains all the exercises you need to help take you from your idea to story to writing the first draft. You can find more about it on the sidebar to the right.
In my own writing process, this preparation stage can last anywhere from weeks to months. How do you know you’re ready to move on? Simply put, you have answered all the questions and can’t think of anything else to ponder. You’re raring to plunge ahead. You should have no fear of hitting a wall since your map is clearly laid out, although with plenty of room to make adjustments as you go.
The second stage then is writing the first draft of the screenplay. Here is where you take that map or outline and start writing your scenes. If you’ve done the first stage properly, you should be able to plow through it pretty fast. I’ve done so in as little as ten days. Two to three weeks is normal. Depending on your own personal schedule and responsibilities, it may take longer.
The third stage is what follows and, in my opinion, it’s the place where all the best writing happens. That is “the rewriting” process. Beginners are often so excited at finishing their first draft that they think they’re all done. In fact, they're far from it. The number one mistake new writers make is showing their script to a decision-maker before it is ready. And I can assure you that after the first draft, it isn’t ready. It isn’t even ready after two or three rewrites.
You should know that professional writers NEVER show their first draft to anyone – even their spouse. That first draft is just a starting point. It’s rough. Oh, it’s got all the characters and story beats, but it’s nowhere near as good as it will eventually be. Re-writing is hard work. But rest assured, it is the work that will make your script better.
In terms of overall time one should spend on each stage, I’d break it down like this:
(1) Prep: 25%
(2) Writing the first draft: 15%
(3) Re-writing: 60%
This may seem out-of-whack to you, but I can assure you that if you follow this method you will write a script that has the best chance to sell or get you noticed by the people who matter. If you stop after stage two, or scrimp on stage three, you’ll fail to get the most out of your idea. I guarantee it.
So how many re-writes should you do? How do you even start? We’ll talk about that in my next post.