Tips for Completing a Screenplay

Tips for Completing a Screenplay

(This article can likely relate to other long and/or time consuming bodies of work, such as novels. Feel free to apply the ideas in this to your own writing, even if it isn’t a screenplay.)

Often times, people will watch a movie and think to themselves that they could easily write a better script. Then, whether the script and story are better or not becomes irrelevant because they soon learn how hard it is to just finish the darn thing. Most people that I have known that thought they wanted to get into writing screenplays because of the aforementioned reason have given up. Only the most dedicated of screenwriters – those that truly have a passion for writing screenplays – have completed at least one screenplay.

Once you fully understand how to structure and format a screenplay, all of this will be second nature to you. When you first start out though, it seems so easy. Suddenly, before you know it, the process feels nearly impossible; it’s like you’ve hit an impassible barrier. It probably feels similar to the “wall,” that runners feel, except you feel it at the starting line! Relax though, it will feel better if you just go into it with some understanding of how to put the story together.

1. Know your story (and know you can always change it).

Remember, you aren’t chiseling this into stone, you are likely typing on a computer. You can easily change things. Don’t be afraid that what you type has to stay in the story – it will more than likely be completely different by the time you are done. The key is to develop a skeleton using any method that works and use that as a guideline.

As for how to get the backbone of your story down, lots of story structure books out there that explain the “beats” to a screenplay so you can start carving out the skeleton of your script. A personal recommendation for young writers is Save the Cat! by the late Blake Snyder because he explains it in a very modern and realistic way. On the other hand, Screenplay by Syd Field may seem outdated, but it holds up as a timeless classic. Any of these books, no matter which one you choose, are just different approaches to the same thing. Find one that fits your style, and stick with it until you don’t need it anymore.

2. Map out your plot.

Once you got the basic story down, you need to start figuring out the details of each “beat” or “plot point.” The actual carving of the skeleton may seem difficult, but with the right process, you will find it to be a fun journey of exploration into your story and characters. Most books will recommend index cards. A lot of professional writers still use index cards. Typically, each card will have a plot point on it. This is a great idea because it allows you to re-order them if necessary and you can easily visualize how this will change your story.

Personally, I usually keep everything in Word docs, but I essentially have all of that same information that I would have in the index cards (which I do use on occasion as well). I just prefer seeing it on my computer screen so I can quickly multi-task with my screenwriting software.

The one thing to avoid is to just start writing, without structure, without knowing where your story will go – essentially just winging it because you either figure you have it all in your head or it will merely write itself. This is a monumentally bad idea that will probably end up in you getting stuck, followed by frustration and ending with giving up. Always have a methodology to your structuring. It may take a few different attempts to find what works for you; but, if all else fails, try the index cards. They are tried and true.

3. Finish that treatment!

It’s very tempting at this point to start working on the script. But, it’s highly recommended you work out a draft of the treatment, first. Use the plotted out structure of the story that you have finished by now, and start putting together a cohesive, well written story (treatment) that anyone can read.

The treatment, at this point, should be as detailed as it needs to be. Typically it could be anywhere from three to ten pages, but honestly, it’s as detailed as you want it to be. Just don’t go too light on the details because that will hurt you.

The treatment will help you stay on track with the writing of the screenplay if you feel like you are getting stuck, are going off on a tangent, or spending too much time on an unnecessary scene or sub-plot. Simply refer back to your treatment to see where you should be at any particular point in your story.

Again though, remember: you are free to change details as needed. If you find that as you write it that your character should be riding a bicycle instead of driving a car, change it. After all, it is your story!

As you get better, you may be able to either bypass the treatment until you are done, or start off with the treatment before anything else. Having it completed before working on the actual script is just my personal recommendation to help keep you on track.

4. Write through writer’s block.

Work on other scenes, just write down your ideas, even if comes out bland. The point is to keep writing on it, no matter what. If all else fails, work on another piece of writing temporarily. The idea is to keep the creative juices flowing. If you want some ideas on how to keep writing, check out my other article on novice writing: Tips for a Beginning Writer .

Sometimes you may find that a particular scene just isn’t working. This is when you make that executive decision to re-write it completely, change it, omit it, or do whatever you need to do to keep that story flowing. Don’t be afraid to change things to better your story, especially if it’s starting to become uninteresting or difficult to write. On the flipside, if you feel like the scene will still tie in, but you just can’t seem to focus on it now, or are unsure of what the characters should do or say, just write down the gist of the scene and make a note to come back to it later.

If you stop writing on your screenplay for an extended amount of time, you may lose interest in it, and ultimately give up. Don’t let yourself give up! Finishing it is what matters, even if it comes out mediocre. The only way to get better is to KEEP DOING IT!

5. So, now you're done... or are you?

Finally, once you’re done with the first draft, give it to family and friends that can be brutally honest and critical. Take about a 3 week break from it, re-read it yourself and make your own notes for revision, and then, at this point, receive your feedback from your friends and family. Then make even more notes and start the revision process. You will want to do this at least two more times, but don’t freak out if some drafts never feel done and you end up re-working them ten times.

Good luck on your script-writing journey! Never give up!

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