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If You Want to Write A Screenplay, Don't Write a Screenplay
Just about every screenplay I've read has plenty to commend it, but many of them fall off a cliff at some point, plummet to the bottom of a lovely valley, and press on, dazed and unsure of themselves until they run out of paper. And it's all for lack of planning.
I think a screenplay is the last thing to write. And when I haven't yet written a feature-length screenplay, producers are delighted to hear from me!
I start with a Log Line. 35 words max, maybe less. Character, conflict, tone. Simple like a song lyric. Everybody loves Log Lines, especially movie producers. A few times a week I focus on Log Line thinking, write ten or fifteen, polish them, run them past friends, coworkers, other writers, ask them 'which is your favorite?' When I have a clear winner, I know what to work on next.
That's when I write a Story Plan based on the book Save the Cat. This book and its well-known fifteen beats are my first set of notes, the first session of creative backpressure against my Log Line. Typically, a Story Plan is 3-5 pages but can run as long as 20. Whatever the case, it's a brief, breezy read and a lot more fun than a completed screenplay.
Once I write a Story Plan I show that around, just as I did with my Log Lines. My readers are delighted to read something brief. Once done, they pour out things like 'reminds me of...' or 'what happens when....' or even 'will the next draft have...'
With enough feedback, I'll rewrite the Story Plan. I'll change characters, generate new plot points, shift the tone, alter the jeopardy. Then I pass around copies of the rewritten Story Plan. Same result – excited readers blast through the pages and blurt out passionate notes.
Then I move into the next mindset – writing the Scene List. Simple writing here – slug line, brief description of what happens in that scene. Write one, move on to the next. My task is to write out the entire story in 40-60 scenes. I need to cover everything I put into the Story Plan and in the same order. But I know I have to use a different thinking style for the Scene List.
The Scene List is more of an interpretation of the Story Plan. It's more focused on setting and plot as vehicles for presenting the concepts and relationships of the Story Plan.
This is where it gets very interesting.
While the Log Lines are typically popular with everyone and a Story Plan is a writer's domain, the producers I've worked with go bonkers for the Scene List.
The Scene List is where the producer sees the story in chunks. They look for practical solutions, one scene at a time. And they bring in the price-tagging subtext. They give me plenty of notes, most of which I haven't heard yet.
From what they tell me, I can rewrite the Scene List or go back to the Story Plan, maybe redo the Log Line. Whatever I do, it's a whole lot easier than rewriting a 110 page screenplay. And producers like it when they see their ideas brought into play. It shows you know how to use notes.
Once I'm finished with my preparation, to write the script is child's play.