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Meet the Reader: How to Write a Screenplay in Nine (Not So) Easy Steps

Ray Morton breaks down how to write a screenplay into easy to manage steps, explaining what is necessary to succeed in structuring your story.

Ray Morton breaks down how to write a screenplay into easy to manage steps, explaining what is necessary to succeed in structuring your story.

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One of my consulting clients – a very nice fellow who is just getting started on his very first script – asked me to outline the process of writing a screenplay for him. I was originally just going to jot down a few brief notes, but as I got into it, I found myself developing a much more extensive document, which I’ve decided to share with you – as a summation for experienced writers and as a road map for beginners. So here they are – the process of writing a screenplay, broken down into nine basic steps.

1. Assemble Your Tools

The first step in writing anything is to gather your implements. Most screenwriters today work on a computer (with some using special screenwriting software -- e.g. Final Draft – while others just use a regular word processing program), although some still prefer to write by hand and a few continue to use a typewriter.

2. Outline

The outline is the written skeleton of your story – the document in which you lay out your plot. Many screenwriters create very detailed, formal outlines, complete with numbered and lettered headings and subheadings. Others simply make a list of the basic story points (a.k.a. “beats”) called a “step sheet” or a “beat sheet.” Some jot down each beat on an individual index card and then shuffle the cards around until they come up with a satisfactory shape for their tale.

3. Treatment

A treatment is a screen story written in prose form, with little or no dialogue. A treatment is more developed than an outline and gives you the room to flesh out the narrative and characters in greater detail, as well as use the prose to set a specific tone for the piece. Some treatments are just a few pages long; others are almost as long as a finished screenplay. James Cameron writes what he calls a “scriptment” – a long treatment that contains patches of dialogue, although not as much as in his final scripts. Inspired by the Great Terminator King of Pandora, an increasing number of writers are opting to do this as well.

4. Rough Draft

The Rough Draft is the first full iteration of your story in screenplay form. No matter how finely honed your outline and treatment are, the rough draft is always a messy document—the narrative and storytelling are always a bit awkward; numerous key components are always underdeveloped, illogical, or unclear; and there are always too many ideas, too many characters, and too much plot (for this reason, the Rough Draft is often referred to as the Kitchen Sink Draft, the Words on Paper Draft, the Vomit Draft, or, most charmingly, the Shit Against the Wall Draft). That’s okay—the purpose of writing the Rough Draft is not to produce a finished piece of work; it is simply to get your ideas down on paper—to generate the raw material from which the final script will be created.

5. First Rewrite

“Writing is rewriting,” the saying goes and it’s true—rewriting is where the real work of screenwriting – of all writing, really – is done. It’s how you transform the raw material of the Rough Draft into a viable screenplay -- the process by which the story and theme are focused; rudimentary characters and dialogue are transformed into flesh and blood people and speech; and any extraneous elements are pared away. Some writers do a single extensive revision to their initial draft; others take many, many passes at it. Once you have produced a solid “first” draft of your screenplay, it’s time to get some feedback on your work.

6. Feedback

Obtaining feedback is a key part of the writing process. Your screenplay’s primary task is to communicate your creative concepts and ideas to others—first to potential buyers and backers; then to the creative team tasked with bringing the piece to the screen; and finally to an audience—so it is vital to assess how good a job the script is doing of getting your points across.

  • The most direct way to get feedback is to give your script to a few fellow writers or others whose taste and judgment you respect and whom you can trust to give you an honest opinion (giving it to multiple readers is crucial, because one person’s opinion is just that, but if several people have the same reaction to the same points, then you have a much better idea of where you stand). Once your readers have completed their task, ask them questions: What parts of the script did they like? What parts did they have problems with? Why didn’t those parts work for them? Was any anything in the piece confusing or unclear? Did they care about the characters? Was there any element they wanted more of? Less of? Was the ending satisfying? When analyzing the responses, look for points of consensus —if most of your readers agree that a specific part of the script works well, then you’re probably in good shape. If most have a problem with a specific part, then you’ve probably got more work to do.
  • Another way to determine how well your screenplay is working is to hold a reading. Gather an enthusiastic group of participants around a table, assign each a part – including someone to read the stage directions (you yourself should not do this – the only thing you should do during the reading is watch and listen) -- and then have them read the script aloud with as much energy as they can muster while you sit back and take it all in (and, if possible, record the reading so you can reference it later on). Having your script brought to life in such a vibrant and three-dimensional way will help you accurately assess if the story is flowing properly; if the characters and relationships are real and believable; and if the dialogue sounds natural or stilted. You will also get some surprises – bits you thought would work great will fall flat, while items you didn’t give second thought to will go over like gangbusters; certain characters will unexpectedly pop, while your intended breakout character may fizzle; there will be unexpected chemistry between certain characters and none at all between others.
  • Expert feedback can also be obtained by submitting your script to a professional script consultant—an experienced screenwriter, development executive, or teacher that will assess your work and provide you with comprehensive notes for revising it. Or you can use a script evaluation service—a company that employs professional film industry readers and development people to analyze your work from both a creative and commercial perspective. (If you are considering using a consultant or an evaluation service, check their credentials to make sure that the analysts do have professional industry experience. Most consultants and evaluation services are legitimate, but there are some fly-by-night folks out there and it’s always better to be safe than sorry.)

Whatever avenue you choose, the most important thing to do when you receive feedback is to listen to it, especially if it is negative. While it is certainly difficult to hear that something you’ve worked so hard on is not 100% perfect, it’s imperative that you not become defensive or resistant, because such attitudes will get in the way of the ultimate goal—to produce the best script possible.

7. Second Rewrite

Use the feedback that you’ve received as a guide to help you revise your material—to enhance what works and to fix any problems. As you rewrite, be ruthless—don’t just tweak the script here and there, but be brave enough to tear it apart: revising where necessary, rethinking where necessary, and cutting where necessary, even if it means eliminating bits that you really love (in such instances, it’s best to remember the old writing adage: “In order to succeed, you must first kill all your darlings”).

8. Do It Again

Repeat Steps 5 and 6 as many times as necessary until the script is as good as it can be. Don’t be in a hurry to get it done – getting a script to the marketplace six months early will do you no good if it doesn’t work.

9. Presentation Draft

Once you have completed the creative work on your screenplay, you must then prepare a version to send out into the world. Begin by proofreading the piece carefully—double and triple checking the spelling, grammar, and formatting—from page one to page last. It is important to do this so that the script looks professional and so that there’s nothing in the piece to distract readers (and potential buyers) or prevent them from focusing on the content. If you’re not confident of your skills in this area, consider using a professional proofreader because, as the saying goes, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Many screenwriters follow these nine steps exactly; others combine them (outlining the plot as they craft the treatment; refining the rough draft as they write it; etc.) and some skip a few altogether (e.g. a lot of scribes don’t bother with outlines or treatments at all, but instead just dive right into writing the screenplay and figure things out as they go). There’s no right way to go about it—the way that works best for you is the right way.

Copyright © 2013 by Ray Morton.
All Rights Reserved
No portion of this article may be copied or reprinted without the written permission of the author

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