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Script Angel: How To Get From Story Idea To Polished Screenplay

Hayley McKenzie is a Script Editor and founder of Script Angel, helping screenwriters elevate their craft and advance their screenwriting career. Follow her on Twitter @scriptangel1.

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So you’ve got an idea for a story. You’re pretty sure it’s not been done before and it excites you. The good news is, if you’ve got a killer concept then you’re half-way there. The bad news is that getting from that to the polished spec isn’t going to be easy. Finding a process that works for you is crucial if you’re to make the most productive use of your time.

lots of notes

Is there a ‘best way’ to do it? I’ve worked with many hundreds of writers; from the newbie writing their first spec to the seasoned pros that have been successfully doing this for thirty years, and honestly, no one works in quite the same way. The most frequent question seems to be, when do I start writing the script? I think the answer is, when you feel you have to.

Many new writers (and a few pros) jump into the script as soon as they have the germ of an idea, writing their way into the story. It’s through writing the script that they begin to discover the world, themes, plot, story and characters. This can give you lots of creative freedom to explore your story world and write whatever feels like it should come next. It’s a very instinctive way of working, but it can also be incredibly time consuming. The chances are that little of this first draft will survive, and writing 90 pages of script over and over again in order to ‘find’ your story takes an awful lot longer than thinking about it, planning it and then going to script.

At the other end of the spectrum, many writers don’t go to script until every detail has been meticulously thought out. They spend time thinking about what they want to say with the script, how the plot and characters might work together to explore that theme. Then, as the story begins to take shape they begin plotting, creating a detailed beat sheet which sets out how the story will play out as a series of sequences. From the beat sheet they create a scene by scene – if they’re not already working in the scriptwriting software (Final Draft, Movie Magic, etc.) this is the point they’ll jump in. The script at this stage is a list of scene headers with prose describing the point of the scene and any snippets of dialogue that might already have jumped into their head. With every scene planned, they finally fill in the blanks, writing each scene according to the plan. This might seem overly structured and lacking creativity, but you can have a lot of fun writing scenes and dialogue when you know exactly what the point of the scene is and how it fits into the bigger picture.

Alternatively, you can dive into the script mid-way through this crafting process. Some writers collect lots of notes about the story, the world, the characters, maybe moments that they’ve already envisioned. Then they jump right in with some idea of how the story will unfold but without every story beat planned. This can work well as a compromise, giving you a sketched map but with plenty of room for discovery along the way.

At whichever point in the process you choose to go to script, the process is still similar; moving from that collection of thoughts, ideas, characters, events and moments, and crafting those into a very lean script in which every scene, every line is refined to deliver exactly what you intend. Some rewrite as they go while others find this hampers their creativity and kills any momentum. If you’re worried that rewriting as you go will get you stuck, try just jotting down the note rather than getting into the detailed work of making the change.

For many writers another important part of the process is learning to silence their inner critic. There will come a time to use those critical faculties but while you’re creating, isn’t it. Banish self-doubt, stop beating yourself up and be comforted by the knowledge that no one else needs to see this. Of course, once you’ve finished it then critiquing it, getting feedback from others, implementing notes, rewriting, rethinking, are all part of the development process. But just for now, set all doubts aside, feel safe and write what you feel you need to write.

If all this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. None of this will happen overnight, and if you’re also working a regular 9-5 then it is many months of hard work. Keeping momentum going on something that takes so long is hard, which is why setting yourself deadlines is so important. Aspiring novelists are often reminded that if they write just one page a day, by the end of the year they’ll have written a 365 page novel! It’s a great motivation to realize that you can do a little every day and end up with a substantial piece of work. Writing a screenplay is no different. Try setting yourself a deadline for completing the first draft, then set intermediate deadlines for completing a beat sheet, or writing a set number of scenes a week.

Now that you’ve finished your first pass at the script, it’s time to put it away. It’s rarely a good idea to re-read it immediately as you’re just too close to the work. Try not to think about it. Maybe start thinking about the other projects which you might have bubbling away. When you’ve had a break from the script you slaved over, which might be a day or several weeks, it’s time to face it. Lots of writers dread their first fresh read of the finished piece. This is when the inner critic will be at their harshest but that’s OK, because this is the time you need those critical eyes. Make your own notes on what works and what doesn’t, then work your way through the rewrite. This might be as small as honing each scene to make it stronger, or it might need a complete rethink on the story structure or even whose story this really is.

Once you have got your script as good as you can, it’s time to get some outside help. Feedback from someone else is hugely important. Family and friends might be a great place to start, but only if they are skilled at critiquing screenplays. Try writer friends, writers groups and well-respected script consultants. You’re looking for someone whose opinion you value who will be honest with you about the weaknesses in the script and, crucially, suggest ways in which you can express with more clarity, originality and impact the story you want to tell.

If you’ve crafted what you believe is a powerful, original screenplay then whatever happens to your script out in the big wide world you can be hugely proud of what you have achieved. Now it’s time to move on to the next one, and this one is going to be even better!

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