Alright…I’m going to sound very green here.
So, I recently finished writing my first feature length film script, Trees of Peace. Woohooo for me!! I was a writer of prose first, but my crazy, obsessive love for movies was bound to lead to a crossover at some point.
My first attempt at screenwriting was a short film called 1426 Chelsea Street a couple years ago. It did decently well for being a first screenplay and my first time ever producing or directing. (I pretty much did everything but hair, makeup, and craft service.) My goal was to screen it at some festivals and see all my blood, sweat, and tears on the big screen–and it made it! It screened at five festivals throughout 2012, including LA Shorts Fest.
However, I did the whole deal without ever reading a book, or so much as a blog post, about screenwriting. I took my knowledge of prose composition, plus what I’d seen on the screen. And I made it work. I may have gotten lucky that it was a decent script.
To go for a feature, especially with a story that rests at the absolute core of my heart and soul–a story of women, survival, and strength–I knew I needed to prepare myself for the insane task ahead.
I couldn’t just wing it this time. Not to say that short films aren’t as substantive as features, because shorts can deliver a powerful punch. But I knew that features (should) have many more layers and intricacies happening. Not only the development of characters and their respective arcs, but subplots and three acts and…well, that was about all I really, truthfully knew.
And just that was enough to overwhelm me.
Using “Story” to Guide Me Through
Boy, was I in to learn SO MUCH more. I ordered “Story” by Robert McKee off Amazon about this time last year. The first phase of writing Trees of Peace was to learn how to write it. I had this incredible vision for an amazing, heartrending journey and I wanted to do it justice. I wanted the story to have every chance of being great.
I spent months just reading, highlighting, taking notes, and re-reading “Story.” It turns out that even subplots have multiple acts…aaaaand there can be as many as three or four subplots in one story. And there are image systems and negation values and, of course, there’s an inciting incident, which should take place within the first 20 minutes of the telling to set the whole adventure in motion.
There are planned setups with pre-plotted payoffs, a turning point in each and every scene, and, oh, this only scratches the surface.
“Story” was a vital tool I continuously returned to throughout my first outline, treatment, rough draft, second draft, third draft, and so forth. And I’m sure I will continue to refer to it again and again.
Though it’s a lot of work to write a feature length script, learning how to do it properly opened up my eyes to the ENDLESS possibilities out there to play with. My “controlling idea” is a lump of clay that I never even imagined could end up in the shape it ends up in. As you invent, the rules of storytelling also enlighten you and challenge you to try opening doors you wouldn’t otherwise open. Having “rules” to storytelling sounds restrictive–even counter intuitive; but, in my opinion, it actually expands the horizon.
Suffice it to say, I look back and realize how much better 1426 Chelsea Street could have been. I look forward and can’t wait to start on my next project.
How Did You Write Your First Feature Length Script (Or Novel or Otherwise)?
Did you abide by a certain process when you were a newbie? Or did you wing it off of pure obsession and instinct? I’ve heard crazy stories of successful writers who’ve simply gone for it with no formal education, those who took to books or life and educated themselves, and those who pursued a graduate degree.
What route do you think is best, or works best for you? Do you have any favorite books on screenwriting?