By Lee Hamilton
Writing a feature-length screenplay (or tv pilot) is definitely a fun idea, but when you finally get down to actually doing it, well, not only does getting to the bottom of page one suddenly seem a little intimidating, reaching the end 95-110-pages later can almost feel impossible!
Getting stuck is part and parcel of the game, as is changing things around, cutting out characters, and having another brilliant idea halfway through (we’ve all been there), and it isn’t difficult to find yourself going around in circles and getting nowhere in the process.
So, how can you make this seemingly monumental task more achievable?
Whether you’re about to start a new project or are struggling to complete your current one, here are 4 quick-fire tips to get you started.
- Outline. There are three types of writers. Those who outline, those who make it up as they go along, and those who do both. All are valid ways to write a screenplay, so it’s a case of finding which way works best for you. That said, having an outline (or blueprint) at the beginning of the process can save you a lot of time and it can help you iron out issues before you’ve spent all that time writing the script. Filling out a beat sheet, such as Blake Snyder’s, the Hero’s Journey, or a mash-up of the two is a great place to start when pinpointing all of the major story beats and turning points that will help you to construct a gripping story. Or at the very least, know the ending to your story and use that to work backward by figuring out what occurred to lead the protagonist there. Outlines can be as detailed or sparse as you want and remember, they’re not set in stone, so you can still change things if needed. But putting in the planning and preparation beforehand could save you a lot of time further down the road.
- Logline. Not everyone writes their logline before they write their screenplay, but this is another great way to help you keep the essence of your story in your mind while your write, plus it’s a great way to figure out your movie’s big selling point too. Constructing a logline first gives you a fast way to brainstorm who the best character is to focus on, to find a compelling goal to give them, to create big stakes that will grab the viewers, to discover the best flaws, weaknesses, and limitations that will hamper their success, and to develop the central antagonistic force on your story. A logline will also help you write the first act, as everything you’ve promised in your logline needs to be delivered as quickly as possible, meaning that your logline is basically the outline for your first 12-15-pages.
- The Sequence Approach. Whether you’ve created an outline or not, dividing your story up into 8 smaller sequences can really help you to focus on a small part of the story without being overwhelmed. Think of each sequence as 12-15-pages of the script, each with a central goal, action, and complication for your protagonist. It might be easier to take the subplots out of the equation, to begin with, and to focus only on the central plot thread, but as you flesh out each sequence, you can add in extra scenes at the end. Yes, each sequence is connected to the next, so there is a bigger picture to consider, but dividing your story into smaller chunks like this can be very helpful when it comes to adding in hooks to keep the audience continually engaged. Think of each sequence like a mini-movie, with a beginning, middle, and end that creates some sort of hook to keep the plot moving forward.
- Dedicated Writing Time. Understandably, most of us are grabbing writing time whenever the opportunity arises, but setting aside some dedicated writing time can really help you pull focus, get you into the right mindset, and allow you to set mini achievable goals too. Disconnect from the internet (no researching!), minimize interruptions, put on your writing hat (yes, that’s a thing!), and consider setting yourself a small goal for each session, whether that’s writing a scene, fleshing out a character’s backstory, rewriting dialogue, etc. The goals are just an extra incentive, but they’re not necessary. Other techniques involve setting the timer and writing non-stop for a specific time. That means no rewriting, no correcting spelling mistakes, and skipping on to something else if you get stuck. It’s purely to get the words down on the page. Finish the script first, then You’ll get a greater sense of making progress that way.
Breaking a large task into a series of smaller ones will either make the process much easier, or it’ll lead to a whole lot of procrastination, especially if you don’t remain focused, so if you’d rather just sit down and knock out as much writing as you can in one session, I’m not going to tell you otherwise.
Making the writing process more manageable can be done, but as with most creative outlets, it’s finding a method that suits you, not what other people tell you to do, so do some experimentation.
Most importantly, don’t beat yourself up. It’s supposed to be enjoyable, remember! Experimenting doesn’t mean wasting time. Be playful, get creative, learn new techniques, and have fun failing.
Lee Hamilton is a script reader, developer, and author. Lee was one of the original readers to join Shore Scripts and has since moved into education and development, penning numerous articles, workbooks, and writing courses.
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