Every screenwriter dreams of their big break. Picture that moment when a big shot movie studio executive reads your screenplay, their eyes light up, and they start throwing money at you. But how do you go from handing out lattes to shaking hands with Steven Spielberg?
In the first part of this blog series, we lay out the important pieces of preparation required before actually diving in to write your script. We will also lay things out in a way that will help you market the script later on. Every screenwriter is different, so don’t feel like you have to do things exactly this way, but it’s important to at least know how things are typically done so you understand why you are choosing to deviate from the norm.
First and foremost, there’s one big thing to consider…
Writing a film takes a lot of time! When a screenwriter is hired to write a feature script, they are generally given three stages to complete it:
1) 10-12 weeks for the “first” draft. Obviously this is not the true first draft but the first draft sent to executives and producers.
2) 5-6 weeks for revisions and the second round of notes from “above the line” (creatives like showrunners and producers)
3) Finally, 3 weeks to finalize the script and “lock” the story.
Now obviously, if you are writing for passion, you don’t necessarily have to write on this schedule, but if you want to write professionally, it’s a good idea to hold yourself accountable to this sort of schedule to get yourself used to it.
“I could be just a writer very easily. I am not a writer. I am a screenwriter, which is half a filmmaker…. But it is not and art form because screenplays are not works of art. They are invitations to others to collaborate on a work of art.”
– Paul Schrader –
Your logline is a one to two sentence description of the overall idea of your movie. This is the classic “Elevator Pitch” (Now do you get our genius banner image?) This is a very important element of writing your screenplay because the logline will help your screenplay cut through the clutter on a script reader’s desk with an eye-catching sentence.
A logline is also a great place to start writing your story, as it can guide you and keep you focused on the big picture. Although the final logline may change, using it as a stepping stone is a very good way to start your script off on the right foot.
If you don’t have an engaging logline, it will be nigh impossible to get your screenplay read and even considered by any agency – Unless maybe you have some good connections.
You want to keep your logline enticing, but not confusing. Much like a good book title, the logline should also make the reader ask good questions about the screenplay, like, “But what happens after the President is kidnapped?” or “How does the country respond after the alien attack?” rather than, “Wait, what does that mean?” or, “Okay, please explain this.”
“The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.” –The Godfather
“A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.” –The Matrix
Now that you have your logline, you’re ready to start the outline, which is where you will flush out the mechanics of your script. One great way to do that is to create a synopsis, which will also help you sell your script later on down the line.
A synopsis lays out the important elements of your screenplay. Often, the synopsis follows the logline and is the point where you, the screenwriter, have the chance to really sell your idea. Synopses can start with your logline to hook the reader, but it should include the characters, their actions and reactions, and major incidents in the order they occur in the story.
Similar to the logline, brevity is your friend. Remember that you are jockeying with potentially hundreds of other scripts being read, so time is precious. Your synopsis should be long enough to lay out the major points of your screenplay, but short enough to be read in five minutes or less. Think 2-3 pages. You want it to be short enough to be read easily but not so short that your story suffers.
Sometimes lines of dialogue can get the tone of your piece across more efficiently than descriptions, so if you have an “I am your father!” or “You can’t handle the truth!” moment, don’t be afraid to put them in your synopsis.
Make sure to include the subtext and MDQ (Major Dramatic Question) of your film in the synopsis. Remember, the reader is deciding whether or not to buy your film, not watching it. So don’t keep them guessing about your intentions and make sure not to skip over anything important!
Taken from The Godfather (1972) synopsis on IMDB
“In late summer 1945, guests are gathered for the wedding reception of Don Vito Corleone’s daughter Connie and Carlo Rizzi. Vito, the head of the Corleone Mafia family, is known to friends and associates as “Godfather.” He and Tom Hagen, the Corleone family lawyer, are hearing requests for favors because, according to Italian tradition, “no Sicilian can refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding day.” One of the men who asks the Don for a favor is Amerigo Bonasera, a successful mortician and acquaintance of the Don, whose daughter was brutally beaten by two young men because she refused their advances; the men received minimal punishment….”
Once you have these “big picture” outlines in place, it’s time to get out there and start writing!
“Being a good screenwriter is 3% talent, 97% not being distracted by the internet.”
– Unknown –
Celtx: A classic screenwriting software and web-app for screenwriters. Helping you format, plan, storyboard, and develop stories for film, TV, comics, vide games, etc all from the Basic free package to the Full Production package at $20!
Final Draft: The premiere screenwriting software used by writers worldwide. Pricier than Celtx at $250 for professionals and $130 for students, it is definitely an investment but if you can swing the dough it is well worth it. Intuitive and full of features Final Draft has over a decade of experience giving writers of all calibers what they need.
Draft-Zero: This monthly podcast follows two emerging screenwriters as they learn and interview other writers they know and admire.
Screenwriters Lecture Series: Though the last episode was in 2015, this BAFTA and BFI curated series continues to be wealth of knowledge from some of the greatest and most prolific writers of our time.
Scriptnotes: This podcast created by screenwriter John August has over 340 episodes since its inception in 2011. It is hailed by many writers as a must listen and for $2 a month you get access to the whole catalog or the last 20 episodes for free.
“One of the most comprehensive and insightful how-to’s out there. Save the Cat! is a must-read for both the novice and the professional screenwriter.” – Todd Black, Producer
“The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a work of comparative mythology by American mythologist Joseph Campbell. In this book, Campbell discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies.”
Stay tuned for Pt 2 where we jump into developing your ideas, formatting, and writing!