MEET THE READER: Processing the Screenwriting Process

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A while back I consulted for an eager new writer who sent me the first draft of his first screenplay and said he was eager to get my input so that he could make his script the best it could be. Happy to oblige, I read his work, which was really quite decent — the premise was good and there were some appealing characters and interesting scenes. But, as is usual for any first draft, there were also a lot of problems. So when I wrote up my assessment, I listed all of these problems and offered some potential fixes. The writer was thrilled with the critique and the notes and couldn’t thank me enough for my help.

screenwriting processMy client went off to rewrite and several months later sent me his revised screenplay. When I read it over, I saw that he had resolved most of the issues I highlighted in my coverage. However, this new draft had its own share of problems — some left over from the previous draft (that the author had either failed to address or had not addressed successfully) and some entirely new. So I wrote up a second assessment, pointing out the new problems and offering some new solutions. This second report was not as well received as the first one. In fact, the writer was actually quite upset.

“I did everything you told me to do,” he complained. “So how can the script still have problems?”

He pretty much accused me of stringing him along — of inventing new problems in order to force him to do another rewrite to send back to me for another (paid) assessment. At this point, I realized that this client was one of those folks who do not understand that screenwriting is a process.

A lot of writers, especially new ones, look at screenwriting as a one time act of creation akin to drawing a picture or sculpting a sand castle – you get an idea, you write it down, you make a few changes here and there to smooth over any rough edges, and then it’s done.

But screenwriting’s not like that. Instead, it is a progression in which any given draft is not a finished thing in itself but rather is a springboard to the next revision and the next one and the next one after that. There is an end point, of course. But it takes many passes to reach it.

There’s a good reason for this — screenwriters have to accomplish a lot when creating their scripts. In no particular order, they have to:

  • Get all of their ideas for a particular project out of their heads and down on paper.
  • Develop and structure the narrative – set up an exciting premise and a sufficiently dramatic central conflict; create strong scenes, sequences, and set pieces; incorporate any necessary exposition; and deliver a satisfying climax and resolution; all within the context of a strong beginning, middle, and end.
  • Find and develop the story’s theme and focus all of the elements in the script around that theme.
  • Tell the story in cinematic fashion – through a combination of dramatic action, imagery, and dialogue (rather than simply through dialogue alone).
  • Develop the characters – make sure that each invented person properly plays his or her role in the story and comes across as a believable human being. Writers also have to make sure their protagonist have strong transformative arcs, and that all of their characters’ motivations are sufficient, logical, and clear.
  • Craft strong dialogue, making sure that all necessary narrative points are made in ways that sound like believable speech and that incorporate some properly modulated wit, poetry, and humor.
  • Balance out all of the elements in the piece to make sure that no one ingredient overpowers any of the others.
  • Polish the whole thing until it shines brightly and hums along like a finely-tuned engine.

While it’s certainly possible that someone could accomplish all of these tasks in just one or two passes, it’s highly unlikely. It’s more realistic to assume that it will take a series of drafts to get the job done, with the writer going over and over and over the material until every aspect of the piece is finally what it should and needs to be.

This process is complicated by the fact that screenplays are not static objects but are instead living organisms made up of the script’s myriad elements, all of which are intertwined with and interdependent on one another. From this perspective, a screenplay is like a Rubik’s cube – if you change one element (no matter how small the piece or minor the adjustment), it will alter every other aspect of the screenplay, often in ways that are quite unexpected. So if you solve a problem that exists in one draft, you may inadvertently generate a new problem in the next draft. For example, if you alter a character’s motivation to make a scene early in the script play, an action he takes later in the piece that was completely logical based on the old motivation may no longer make sense with the new one. Or in adding or eliminating a scene, you may find that the story becomes unbalanced – you may now have too much or too little comedy or action in your current draft when you had just the right amount in the previous iteration. Given all of this, a big part of the screenwriting process is to play creative whack-a-mole – to continually look for and solve all of the problems that pop up in each new draft of the script based on the changes you made to solve problems in the previous one.

Many writers, even experienced ones, are very intimidated by the prospect of having to do so much revising. There are several reasons for this:

  • They don’t know how. One of the problems I found in the script mentioned at the top of this article was that it told its story almost exclusively through dialogue — the script showed the characters talking about doing things rather than showing them actually doing things. Because this is not a very cinematic way to tell a story, one of my suggestions was that the author incorporate more dramatic action into the script — to show the characters doing the things that the first draft only had them talking about doing. When I read the revision, I saw that the story was still told primarily through dialogue. In discussing this with the writer, it became clear that he really didn’t understand the concept of dramatic action and so floundered when it came to implementing that particular suggestion. Many new writers do not yet have a firm grasp of the principles of dramatic and cinematic storytelling and so struggle when it comes to revising their work in accordance with these principles.
  • They’re reluctant to change elements that they like. A primary difference between a creatively successful writer and a creatively unsuccessful writer is that the successful writer is willing to be ruthless with his work — willing to cut or alter any element in the script (no matter how cherished) in order to improve the overall piece. If you are unable to do this — if you insist on retaining the offending element intact no matter how troublesome it is — then what you will end up with is a bunch of cool ideas in a screenplay that doesn’t work. Or, in other words, nothing at all.
  • They don’t think they will be able to do it. Most creative people, both experienced and inexperienced, fear that they will run out of ideas — that they are never going to be able to generate enough new material or clever solutions over the long haul required to fix their script. Whatever you do, don’t give in to this fear. I was lucky enough to do my earliest professional writing in the meat grinder that is series television, where rewriting is constant — ideas, bits, scenes, acts, and even entire scripts are constantly being tossed out and new material required constantly required to replace them. It can be a nerve wracking experience, but what it taught me was that if you have a clear idea of what you are trying to achieve and if you just keep at it, the ideas will always come.
  • They want to get it out: we write scripts because we want producers and studios to buy them and make them. When we have an idea we think would make a good movie, we are eager to get it to the marketplace as soon as possible so that we can get paid and so it will reach theaters as fast as possible. The extensive rewriting talked about in this column can delay this process — it can add months and even years to the process and we don’t want to wait that long. This impatience is certainly understandable, but it can be fatal, because if you send your script out before it is ready, the chances of it going nowhere are very great indeed.

For all these reasons, many writers try to avoid extensive overhauling by convincing themselves that all their script needs to be successful is a few tweaks over one or two drafts. This is a delusion and you will sabotage yourself and your work if you take refuge in it.

Instead of avoiding the process of screenwriting, embrace it. Your script and your career will be better for it, I assure you.

Check out my new books A Quick Guide to Screenwriting, A Quick Guide to Television Writing, and A Quick Guide to Film Directing. All three are handy primers to the art, craft, and business of creating for the big and small screens.

Copyright © 2014 by Ray Morton
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