You Don't Climb a MountainComplications Ensue
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Saturday, October 04, 2014

A reader writes:

Q. I'm wondering how fast I should write screenplays if I want to be successful. I want to hit that sweet spot. I understand that pieces of string come in varying lengths. My first took me two months, my second took me two weeks, and my third has taken me two months already and I'm only on page 19. It's probably just a bad story idea and I should probably move on, but I know that in TV writing you are forced to do things you don't want to do. 
I've got several non-starters like this. If I were to force myself to finish any one of them, do you think the material would come out best if I went with a fast (2 week), medium (1.5 month), or slow (>3 month) speed for the first first draft? By "best" I of course mean most sellable. I understand that you offer no guarantees, etc. You have advised to plan for a better story in advance, but I do indeed feel pressured to tell a certain (original) story a certain way and would like to just plow through it, I'm just unsure of the speed guidelines.

Every writer is different. Robert Towne takes a year to write a script. I have no idea how he manages to spend a year on a single script. I'm assuming a lot of golf is involved. I usually write a feature first draft in about 24 days. I spend time conceptualizing and outlining, then I write the first draft pretty fast, and then rewriting takes however long it takes. Years, sometimes, with long gaps in between while producers look for money or I wait for perspective.

Both my wife and I find that having a completed script makes rewriting much easier and less stressful. She calls her first draft the "vomit" draft because she just wants to get it out of her system, and it doesn't look pretty.

Joss Whedon writes all the fun scenes first, then writes the scenes that connect them.

If you're on page 19 after two months, something is wrong with your outline. Go back to index cards, or better, go back to telling your story out loud.

The amount of time you spend on a first draft has nothing to do with how sellable the script is. The script is sellable if it has a great hook and good implementation. The hook is in the outline, and the implementation is in the first draft, and the second, and the third, and so on.

The key is that you don't climb a mountain. You take one step up. Then another step up.

You don't write a script. You write an outline. Then you write pages. By pages, I mean scenes. You only write one scene at a time. 

Look at the scene you're writing. Who wants what? Why does the other person not want to give it to him? What does the first person say or do to try to get it? What does the second person want? Why won't the first person give it to her? What does she say and do to try to get it?

If you can answer those questions, you ought to be able to write the scene. If you can't answer these questions, there's why you're hung up on page 19. 

Sometimes the reason you can't write the scene is that it's boring and doesn't need to be in the movie. Skip it and see if you miss it. Maybe you're telling it wrong. Maybe find another way to present the story elements in the scene. Try writing the scene as a silent movie. Try writing the scene as a phone conversation. Try writing the scene as a scene from a novel. Try having one character refuse to talk. Rewrite the scene as the couple arguing while they're at a cocktail party. Try having the scene happen offscreen and we only find out about it in a conversation with third parties. Try writing the scene with a different outcome than you expected and see if that feels more truthful. Rewrite the scene as all subtext, with everyone saying exactly what's on their minds. Now rewrite with no one saying any subtext at all -- they're refusing to talk about what they mean and want, and talking about anything but.

Get some actor friends to do an improv based on the scene. If you don't have actor friends, do it with your own friends. If you don't have friends, take each person's part and see what they say.

Why does that scene need to exist? How does it move the plot forward? How does it reveal character? A scene should ideally do both. If it's sagging, it's probably either not moving the plot forward, or you've written it so that the characters are saying and doing the things any normal people would say and do, rather than things only those characters could say or do.

I'm a big believer in finishing scripts even if they feel like they suck. Around page 40, they almost always do feel like they suck. But I would never write a script without writing a solid outline first. That's like getting in the car and driving without a destination. You think you're going to wind up some place you never expected, but you usually end up at the supermarket.

Good luck!



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