As Shakespeare said, “The play’s the thing,” so whether I’m working on my own writing or helping other writers with theirs, my goal is to make sure the structure of any story feels organic, inevitable, and invisible. I consider these to be the qualities that make something timeless and classic. Unfortunately, too many writers get to the end of their first draft and find that they have not been achieved.
So, what’s the best way to make sure your screenplay will feel organic, inevitable, and invisible before you start writing?
The answer is to follow a clear series of steps that I teach in my classes, where my students write a screenplay in 10 weeks or less. They also use two of my textbooks, How to Write a Screenplay in 10 Weeks and The 4 Magic Questions of Screenwriting, which you may find helpful here.
The steps are as follows:
1. Write down your idea as if it were a short story or treatment. Tell the story from beginning to end, no matter how you plan to ultimately present it to your audience. The creative mind enjoys order, and starting from the beginning instead of trying to organize it in a clever, nonlinear way will help get the groundwork done fast. (If you need guidance on how to write a treatment, there’s an article about it available on my Web site.)
2. The next step is to divide your story into sections that correspond to the traditional three-act structure as defined by Aristotle. Working in smaller sections like this will allow you to better organize and understand your story. The 4 Magic Questions of Screenwriting offers a foolproof method for sorting your story into three acts.
3. Now rewrite your treatment with this new plan in mind and test it out on three trusted friends. You can tell it to them out loud or have them read what you’ve written. Then, once you’ve received their feedback, consider only their critical comments. Everyone has their own idea of what’s good, but we all tend to agree on what’s not good. And keep in mind, while a single critical comment should always be considered, it should not be accepted blindly. If all three readers agree on a point, however, then trust that they are on to something and have given you a real gift.
4. Revise your treatment or short story incorporating your friends’ comments. Is it beginning to feel more organic? Inevitable? Invisible? If not, don’t fret. Put it aside for a brief while and change your mental channel from developing the plot to developing the characters.
5. Invest in a copy of How to Write a Screenplay in 10 Weeks and learn how to develop your characters using my quick 15-minute character-exercise series. Begin with yourself. By creating a fictional character based on yourself, it will be easy to create the characters in your screenplay and to know what they would do in any of the situations. Just compare what you yourself would do with what they would do, and the writing will go smoothly.
6. Explore the message of your story. For example, in the original Star Wars, the message is “Good triumphs over evil.” By reframing this message as a question—for instance, Can good triumph over evil?—and asking yourself how it applies to each of your characters, you will easily understand and be able to create the character “arcs” we are always being told we need.
7. Rewrite your treatment incorporating the newly developed characters.
8. Ask your trusted friends to read your treatment one last time, observing the same guidelines for responding to their criticism.
9. Now expand your treatment into a scene list. By using “The Mythic Journey Map” and the “3 Levels of Conflict” techniques taught in the book, you will soon have a strong outline.
10. Now you are ready to begin writing. Schedule your writing time, at least 45 minutes a day, five days a week. Plan on writing one scene a day. Since most scenes are roughly three to five pages, you can have a first draft in five to six weeks—if you stick to the schedule.
To recap, you can write a solid, successful screenplay in 10 weeks or less if you follow my method and keep to a strict writing schedule.
Here’s to your successful writing!