Be confident as you create your initial drafts.
This week I have worked with two students whose first-draft screenplays are far longer than the accepted norm of about 120 pages.
While “writing long” is acceptable for a book, a screenplay is expected to arrive in the 120-page format. For a writer who lacks confidence in his or her creation process, and is writing far longer than the 120 pages or far shorter, this expectation can trip them up in their efforts to complete a screenplay. But let me tell you, I have worked with writers whose first drafts were 60 pages; they worked under an additive process, meaning they kept adding scenes to flesh out the well-structured skeleton they created using my writing system. The two writers I am currently working with have what I call a “generative” process—that is, they write a lot and then pare it down. This is acceptable. In fact, both the additive and generative processes are valid creation styles and each can result in a fine piece of work.
Our individual creation styles are not the problem. We start having trouble when we judge ourselves for the way we work. Further, each project has its own needs and the same author whose first draft of one script is 180-plus pages may later write another screenplay that is a lean 100 pages on the first go-round.
To avoid suffering, don’t question how you create; instead, focus on what you are writing. Any good story can be expanded or compressed, but a poor one cannot be improved by making it shorter or longer.
Here’s the important thing: Write from beginning to end and the classic words “FADE OUT” before you worry whether the script is the right length.
My writing system suggests that a certain universal story shape has to be met. Once this requirement is fulfilled, then you can work on refining your script. Here’s an analogy: If you were building a boat, the most basic measure of success is whether it can float. After the boat has been created, you can add sails or a motor, but without that basic, sound structure, nothing else can be improved.
In my own work, I now have the structure for my new novel. The manuscript is more than 500 pages, but I needed a big ball of “dough” to create the loaf of bread that will become the finished work. The structure emerged after I reread every page of my manuscript; by doing so, I saw the “story” buried in the draft. Now I am pruning the unnecessary words, and I am writing and inserting new material that furthers the story.
I have moments when I am appalled at how longwinded and self-indulgent my writing can be, but I no longer rebuke myself for these sins. Instead, I imagine I have a big, juicy piece of dough that I am going to make cookies from, and I edit as if I were using a cookie cutter to shape the dough into pieces that fit together and will become a yummy cake.
So to avoid suffering (and honestly, isn’t writing hard enough?) worry about the story you are trying to tell, not about its length when it’s a first draft.
Remember that all good writing is the result of rewriting, and the sooner you get it written, the sooner you can get it right and out into the marketplace.