Be The Best Writer You Can

Through the Maze – How Do You Write Your First Script?

escher labyrinth - the screenwriting problem

After a week of weirdness the site should now be back up and running fine. (If anything looks unusual after today do let me know – battling these spammers has been a tricky procedure but I think we should be OK from now on.)

How Do You Write Your First Script?

As part of battling this DDOS/Hacking attack on the website I actually paid to sign up to an inner cabal of highly technical computer people.

Which was interesting.

The feeling of being overwhelmed by everything I needed to know about the innards of the internet was colossal until I found a resource that told me, in the broadest steps possible, the order of the main areas I should be visiting in order to safeguard my website.

Applying this to the world of writing gave me pause for thought. I know there’s a huge mass of (sometimes) conflicting screenwriting theory there, so I thought I’d do a similar list for those who might be just starting out.

It’s just a few, broad-brush steps you could take. It’s basically what I would do were I to start a new spec script today.

Use this list to navigate when you feel overwhelmed by all the ‘how to write’ material.

1. Work out what kind of story you want to tell.

Is it an action adventure? Domestic drama? Animated fantasy cartoon? Sword and sorcery? Police thriller? War movie? Sit com pilot?

Get this clear in your mind.

It’s probably easier if it’s a genre you like, and you know well, and you feel a kinship to, but there’s nothing wrong with exploring new things.

2. Get your main character (“protagonist”) sorted out.

This is your primary goal. You need to know who your story is going to be about. For your first script don’t get fancy with multiple protagonists and multiple stranded clever stories. Get the basics mastered first.

So Just pick ONE person. Get to know them in your mind. Work out how you would feel if they walked into the room.

Don’t worry about pages of backstory – especially when you are a child you know very little about your parents’ early lives, but you certainly know what it feels like when they walk into the room.

That’s the sort of knowledge you are working towards.

3. Get your antagonist sorted out.

This is the one character who will continually oppose your protagonist. The one person in the world who most wants to block the protagonist getting what they want – and who will go to considerable lengths to achieve this.

4. Work out what they are fighting about. And why.

The protagonist and the antagonist both need to want the same thing for quite a lot of the story – or at least they need want to stop the other getting that thing.

This is key – your story is going to be an account of the battle between these two. It can be a simple physical battle that takes part in the real world, like the battle between James Bond and Silva in “Skyfall”, or it can be a incredibly complicated battle that takes place inside the characters’ minds, such as the battle between between Joel Barish and Dr Mierswak in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” – but you REALLY need this battle if you are to have a story at all.

5. Work out a clear idea of what happens at the end.

Have a clear idea of a big scene at the end of the story where this battle between the protagonist and the antagonist is resolved once and for all.

Answer the question “Who wins? And how do we know they’ve won?”

6. Then start to think about act structure.

Start working out how you can apply act structure to that battle you have just invented above. What are the big moments that end acts one and two?

[“Act structure” is the scaffolding that supports your story.

If you don’t know what an inciting incident is, then you do still need to do some reading, and thinking. The same with Act Breaks.

Read a few books on the subject till you really “get” these basic concepts.

You can help yourself immensely by also doing some watching. You know that genre you picked in step 1? Take ten big, famous, popular movies or TV shows you like in this genre and watch them over a week or so.

(Doesn’t seem much like work, but it is, so don’t feel guilty.)

Think back over their stories, rewatch where necessary, take a stopwatch to them, and work out their act breaks, and so on.

Doing this and seeing the act structure applied in the real world is the sort of thing that really pushes along your understanding.

Act breaks and inciting incidents are fundamental concepts.

Some people don’t like the words, and if they’re already successful writers then that’s fair enough. But if you’re just starting out and you’re deliberately not using these basic ideas you ought to be able to explain why that is.

If at this point you’re thinking something like ‘yeah, everyone knows the Three Act Thing is tired, and using such a rigid structure can only stifle my creativity, which needs room to bloom…’ I suggest you think again.

And in particular have a serious think about sonnets.

A sonnet is a short poem with a rigid structure. It’s about as tight a creative constraint as you can get. No wriggle room at all. Yet 400 years ago Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. They’re all beautiful, all different, and they’re still being read today.

Formal constraints don’t need to hold you back if you know how to use them. There’s a strong argument that, by giving you a strong, guaranteed framework, in fact they set you free.]

7. Write yourself a road map of what you’re going to write.

You should end up with a list of the events in the story that will read in this kind of detail:

  • Recently engaged couple Brad and Janet’s car breaks down on a lonely road. They see a spooky looking house in the distance.
  • They arrive at the house – it’s even more spooky close to – a weird looking butler called RiffRaff lets them in.
  • RiffRaff introduces them to a whole load of strange looking house guests who have all assembled for a sinister party.
  • etc

8. Start writing.

When you can read this road map (or ‘beat sheet’) and remain excited by your story, then, finally, you can start write your script.

9. Write five pages a day, every day that you can.

Don’t look back and endlessly rewrite, your goal is to generate five new pages of material a day.

If it’s a movie script aim for 95-100 pages. At five pages a day that will take you about three weeks.

If it’s an hour of TV aim for 50-60 pages. Maybe two weeks.

A half hour of TV is 30-30 pages, so that’s just about one week.

10. Put the finished printed script away in a drawer for six weeks.

Don’t look at it. Not once.

While that is marinating in the drawer start thinking about your next script – you can even start working on it.

11. After six weeks take your finished script, read it through.

You will be surprised, and possibly alarmed, but what you read.

DON’T GET DEPRESSED!

Just rewrite the bad bits.

12. Repeat the marinate/rewrite process a few times -

until you find you are just tweaking lines of dialogue.

You’ll now have a script that feels pretty solid to you.

13. Send this script out for professional feeedback.

Pick someone who has got some genuine production experience in genuine movies or TV shows that have genuinely been made and broadcast.

Rule of thumb – if you can’t find that person on IMDB.com keep looking.

They won’t necessarily be cheap (though they might not be too expensive) but you need advice from people who have been through the production process, not people who have a theoretical ‘understanding’ of what makes a good script.

14. When they send your notes back DON’T GET DEPRESSED.

Just think about what they say.

A lot.

Rewrite accordingly.

You will now have a script that will feel pretty solid to other people.

15. Do steps 1-16 again and again.

Each script will get better than the last…

So that’s my route map. Hope it helps.

‘It’s Never To Late To Have a Crack At Hollywood’

Last-Days-on-Mars-Photo-Nick-Wall
You may remember a guest post on my blog from British writer Clive Dawson about how he got his movie off the ground?

Here’s a terrific followup piece that brings the story up to date:

Go Clive!

London Workshop Sat/Sun July 13-14

There are still a couple of seats available on this weekend workshop.

  • Two days of sinful indulgence in your own writing.
  • Phil Shelley and I telling you stuff about writing, the industry, and getting you to come up with commercial ideas for yourself.
  • Two star guests on Sunday (A top literary agent and a top script executive from a top movie company.)

What’s not to like?

More details at http://thetwophils.co.uk

Scripts Wanted

Just a reminder – there is a section on the Goldmine website dedicated to writing jobs.

It’s a temperamental thing, based on plugging together various internet feeds, and it doesn’t always work, but on a good day it’s full of writing related jobs.

I’m Not There

Finally, I watched I’m Not There Again at the weekend. This sequence will simply not leave my mind.

Hope you like it…


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