Welcome to Week 2 of the 13 Week “Write a F#&%ING Screenplay” challenge. Here’s a link to Week 1. If you’re coming into this late, you might be able to catch up. But once we get past this week, I recommend you follow the proper time frame. Give each assignment 7 days. We’re already going fast as it is, so I don’t want you going any faster.
Last week was all about the character bios and the outline. This week, you’re going to be drawing on both, but mainly your outline. Your outline is going to work as a series of checkpoints. You now always have a checkpoint 15 pages away or less.
That’s how I want you to start seeing your script. Not as a giant void of empty space, but a series of manageable sequences, each no more than 15 pages. Each scene averages 2 to 2 and a half pages. So every 15 pages, you’ll be writing 5-8 scenes.
Okay, now let’s get to the nitty gritty. You will be writing THREE PAGES A DAY MINIMUM. It is CRITICAL that you write at least these three pages a day. And that shouldn’t be difficult. You have an outline so a lot of the guess-work of “Where do I go next?” is taken care of. And writing three pages of double-spaced non-paragraph-intense script takes most people between 30 minutes and an hour.
If writing that many pages is hard for you, it usually means you’re being too hard on your writing. One of the most common mistakes new screenwriters make is they become obsessed with the actual written word and want to make every sentence something their English professor would be proud of.
You don’t need to worry about that. Your scene will be rewritten so many times, it won’t resemble what it was when you first wrote it. Therefore, all those extra hours you put into making your sentences perfect will have been a waste. Since nobody saw them anyway.
Perfecting your presentation is something you only want to worry about when you’re putting the finishing touches on a script you’re sending out. That stuff means nothing when you’re the only one reading it. Just write clearly and have fun doing it. The first draft should be the draft that’s the most exciting to write. Because it’s the draft where you’ll discover the most about your story. Don’t stifle that because you can’t decide if you should use a comma or a semicolon.
Three pages a day at 7 days a week means that next week, you will have finished 21 pages, which is kind of a weird place to stop since it’s right between the inciting incident and the end of the first act. But whatever. We’ll work with what we’ve got.
Our main concern is your inciting incident, and since every story is different, I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all solution for this. A script someone just sent me had the inciting incident on the very first page. And they did the same thing with my favorite script, Source Code. Our hero wakes up in the middle of his problem – he’s on a train that has a bomb about to blow and he must figure out who the bomber is.
There are also movies that need to establish multiple characters, like The Force Awakens, so it’s harder for that movie to set up its main character (Rey) and hit her inciting incident right at page 15. I’m guessing the inciting incident there is when Finn shows up at her doorstep with the bad guys in pursuit, and that happens on page 30. Others may say that Rey’s inciting incident is when BB-8 shows up on page 15, though I don’t think that’s a big enough problem to be considered an inciting incident.
The point is, the definitions for these screenwriting terms are fluid and dependent on the unique circumstances of your story. So don’t get too caught up in them if they’re confusing. Just make sure that you have those checkpoints marked. And between now and next week, the only checkpoint we’re worried about is between page 12-15. Something needs to happen there to kickstart your movie or we’ll get bored.
So what do you do in the meantime? Well, the first 15 pages are about setup. You’re setting up your characters. In the old screenwriting books, they’d say we want to meet our hero in their everyday lives. If we don’t see who they are to begin with, we won’t appreciate who they have to become when the shit hits the fan. So again, you saw this with Rey in The Force Awakens. We see her everyday life of scrapping and trying to survive.
If you’re like me, you like movies that start in motion. And in those cases, we won’t always be able to see who your character is in their everyday life. They may not even be in their environment when we meet them. Jason Bourne doesn’t start off in a cozy house in the suburbs making breakfast for his kids. He wakes up in unfamiliar territory.
Regardless of where we meet your character, you have to tell us as much as possible about them in a very short amount of time. If they’re in their environment, that’s easy. By seeing their everyday lives, we’ll get a sense of who they are and what their weaknesses are. If you start them in an unfamiliar environment, go back to that character bio I asked you to write, figure out what their flaw is, and write a scene that exposes that flaw, if not in their introductory scene, then soonafter. So in Trainwreck, we immediately establish that Amy Schumer is…. you guessed it, a trainwreck.
And again, don’t get too caught up in your beats. Every screenplay is like a snowflake. It’s different. It has its own quirks and needs. Okay, maybe that’s not like a snowflake at all but you get what I’m saying. Sometimes you want to start your script with a flashy teaser that has nothing to do with your hero. If that feels right for your script, DO IT! Don’t resist creativity because you’re trying to meet technical checkpoints. Those are there as a guide. And since this is the first draft, it’s okay to color outside the lines a bit.
After you write your inciting incident scene (the scene where a big problem alters your main character’s life forever and forces them to make a choice whether they’re going to fight that battle or throw in the towel), we have 6-7 pages left until next week’s assignment.
The Hero’s Journey, which is a template a lot of professional screenwriters use, identifies this section as “The Refusal of the Call.” Preferably, the problem that your hero is faced with is a big scary one. If it isn’t, you probably don’t have a movie. Because it’s big and scary, your main character will resist it. And that’s what this section of scenes is for. The hero wants to go hide, get away from this, not deal with it. But in the end, of course, they have to. Because otherwise we wouldn’t have a story to tell.
Each genre tends to have its own blueprint for this section, and there’s no way I can cover them all here. But think of this section as a push-pull situation. Write scenes that pull him, “You need to do this,” a mentor might say. Then scenes that push. Another character says, “You need to stay here and help with the farm.” It doesn’t have to be dialogue-based. These can be action scenes – in a sci-fi film, someone’s base can get attacked. Point is, this is a turbulent time where your hero’s every fiber is being tested.
Eventually, something will happen to push your character towards his adventure, sometimes by choice, sometimes by force. In The Hunger Games, Katniss chooses to swap herself for her sister. In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise never chooses anything. They MAKE HIM go. So just know that you have options and there’s no such thing as ONE WAY to do it.
Finally, writing is a fluid thing. Your best stuff comes when you’re inspired, and you can’t always predict when that’s going to happen. So don’t limit yourself to 3 pages if you’re on a roll. If you write 10 straight pages, GREAT! If you pull a Max Landis and write all 21 in a single day, GREAT!
But if you get to 21 before next Thursday, you don’t get to chill. You have to work on your script for at least 3 pages or 2 hours every day. Part of what I’m trying to instill in you here is discipline. The more writing becomes a daily thing, the more you’ll keep up with it. If you write 20 pages one day and take the next 5 off, it’s harder to come back.
So if you get to 21, go back and start rewriting your earlier scenes. Specifically, ask if your choice of scene is original. Have you seen that scene before in other movies? If the answer is yes, try to come up with a new angle into the scene – a more original choice.
I’ll give you an example. In yesterday’s script, two assistants trying to make their bosses fall in love trap them in an elevator together, hoping they’ll connect. The writer added a THIRD PERSON, a UPS delivery guy, in the elevator as well, who flipped out once the elevator stopped. It added another layer to the scene to make it feel more original. That’s what I want you to do if you have time to rewrite scenes.
If you have gobs of time or your parents are supporting your career, use the rest of your free time to KEEP FILLING IN YOUR OUTLINE. The more scenes you can figure out, the easier future writing sessions are going to be. And you know now that 15 pages is roughly 5-8 scenes. So you know how many scenes you need to fit in between each checkpoint.
Okay, that’s it for this week. Time to get some writing done. 21 pages, people. Good luck!!!