It’s done! I wrote a full first draft of my first feature-length screenplay in preparation for the ScreenCraft April summit in Chicago. It feels amazing to have done this. Now it goes away for a few weeks before editing begins.
Here are some thing I learned about screenwriting during this process:
1.) The months of research, reading, storyboarding, visualization, and treatment writing were incredibly helpful. More so than any other kind of writing, the planning and organization of a screenplay is critical. It makes the actual writing easier, clearer, cleaner, and faster.
2.) I wrote the first draft of my screenplay in two days, and not because the story poured out of me. It absolutely didn’t! It was the months of pre-work, that was actual work, that made all the difference.
3.) Dialogue is the main vehicle in live-action screenwriting. The look and feel of the live-action film is the director’s domain. The story and dialogue, not the visual rendering, is the domain of the writer, and the screenplay respects and reflects that.
4.) I watched Aaron Sorkin’s excellent Masterclass on screenwriting. He said that most of screenwriting is not writing at all, and that jumping in to writing too soon can complicate a screenplay in problematic ways. I had to fight the urge to jump into writing. I had to force myself to do all the upfront work before I put down a single word. I’m grateful for his advice, and though it was difficult to follow it was absolutely worth it. You can free write for a novel, short story, or journalism piece. Screenplays need a plan.
Have you written a screenplay? What did you learn in that writing process?
As I’m working on my screenplay, I’m listening to the language of The West Wing and the Hamilton soundtrack. The rhythm and beat of the words, and the power of that language, are inspiring. Not a single word or line is wasted. They all matter. It’s writing we should all aspire to as writers and seek out as audience members.
What do you watch and listen to when you want to be inspired to write dialogue?
One of the most informative actions I’ve taken as a beginning screenwriter is to watch movies with their screenplays in my lap. I read a scene, watch that scene, and read it again to see how it translates from the page to the screen. Here’s what I’ve learned in this process:
If you’re writing a screenplay, reading screenplays and then watching their corresponding movies is the single greatest tool you can utilize. Are you writing a screenplay? Which screenplays do you recommend reading and watching?
I’m a voracious outliner. Not everything always goes according to my outlined writing plan, but an outline gives me a place to start. It also gives me a way to chart my progress.
The tools I use for outlining are free and a combo of analog and digital:
1.) Handwritten index cards (or sheets of paper roughly the size of index cards). I like to pin them up on a wall and move them around as needed.
2.) Trello.com boards – this is a free online tool with a mobile app and website that updates across these channels in real-time. Think of it as an online list maker / bulletin board.
3.) Pinterest boards to store inspiring images.
4.) Unsplash.com is a site with free, high-resolution photos that you can store in collections. Like Pinterest, it’s also a great place to find and refer to inspiring images.
Are you an outliner? What are your favorite tools for it?
Small stories told incredibly well can be every bit as powerful as the sweeping, complicated tales of history. To be honest, I’m naturally drawn to the latter but telling those epic tales as a writer is not a place to begin. It’s a goal.
This spring, I’m attending my first screenwriting pitch event. I had a long conversation with my writing mentor and dear friend, John Bucher. I was considering writing an against-all-odds story rooted in the untold story of New York City’s most notorious and unlikely gangster.
Because it’s a period piece, I was worried that this would cause producers to count me out before I even finished my log line. In this kind of pitch situation, I’ve got to stack the odds in my favor in every way—a great story, strong writing, short shooting period, and a small budget without any complicated production or editing tactics needed. Period films by their nature are expensive and expansive because you have to recreate that world that the characters inhabit. Is a bold period piece for this pitch competition really the risk to take? Though I love the story, I doubted whether this was the time and place to take that shot. To check this hunch, I turned to John.
John said something to me that was an absolute lightbulb moment that I’ll be retelling for years to come: producers often look for a way to say no. Your job as a writer is to make that “no” very difficult for them to deliver. As The Godfather has taught me well, “Make them an offer they can’t refuse.” A killer small story that fits squarely into a genre that sells shows that as a writer you know the market. You understand it in your bones, and that shows that not only can you write but you also know how to make something. And that last bit, the ability to make something beyond words on a page is the secret sauce. If a film can be made on a sliver of a budget, that lets a producer take a risk on a new voice. If it costs them next to nothing to make, it gives them the chance to take a chance. And as a new voice, I’m a chance that I want them to take.
So, it’s back to the drawing board for me on this project but you know what? I feel great about it. I feel lighter. I feel like I’m starting with a blank page that can be anything my imagination can conjure. I don’t know what my genre or subject will be, but I do know the story will be small, relatable, set in the present day, and center around a strong female lead who’s underestimated. She’ll likely be in New York because it’s the city where I live, and the one that I know and love. And the rest? It’s all TBD. Stay tuned…