For all you newbie screenwriters out there, I just thought I’d share with y’all what works for me when drafting a screenplay. (Or at least what seems to.) I’m going to take you through the journey of the first screenplay I wrote, Trees of Peace, which started out as a failure and was recently named a top 25 semi-finalist in the Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition.
In the end, I must’ve done something right. (Fingers crossed I can do it again with my next script, currently in progress).
It’s all a testament to the fact that failure is not the end. But let’s start at the beginning…
How I Failed the First Time
So, they say your first draft is your “vomit draft”. I learned this could not be truer. Writing a feature just isn’t the same as writing a short. It takes a lot of heart, a long-game vision, and the willingness to have people tell you (as kindly as they can) that your script sucks.
My first draft was modeled after what Robert McKee teaches in his book Story. I read that book and soaked up as much as I could on the first time through. I highlighted and took notes on every page. Then, as I wrote the first draft of my script, I referred back to Story again and again as my bible.
I created an inciting incident and an event for every scene, followed the three act structure, and made sure to keep the positive/negative event balance in check. I created a full-on 30-page outline for this script, just to develop the main controlling idea and each character history, motivation, and arc. I spent months on it before even typing a single word of the screenplay.
However, the final outcome was a 78-page script of dramatic, strung-together scenes with no clear thread tying them together. I naively tried to get it straight into pre-production—and I’m embarrassed to say that I couldn’t pay someone to produce the project.
I had spent more time investing in the characters than I had developing the story itself—ironic considering the name of McKee’s book. But this was actually a good thing, because your characters drive the story. And the better you know them, the better your story will be.
How I Improved My Script in the Second Draft
I figured, I couldn’t fix my script if I didn’t know how. So I took a 3-month hiatus from writing to keep reading, learning, and watching. I studied movies, I read screenplays. I read other books. Syd Field’s Screenplay, and Aristotle’s Poetics. (Which every writer should read. This was the one book that teaches you something besides story development. It clearly breaks down the types of story and plot structure that evoke the most emotion from audiences).
Once I felt ready, I took what I had and restructured the entire script. I used the “index card” approach. Syd Field’s recommendation of 14 index cards for every 30 pages of script helped me immensely with the pacing of my story and scene placement.
I took the dramatic pearls I already had, tossed out the shitty scenes, replaced the shitty scenes with better ones that connected the story from opening to resolution; and strung it all back together again.
Now I had a 102-page script. In that process, I added 24 pages. And although this is the exact opposite of what writers normally do (normally they have to trim their work and cut scenes to tighten up their pages), what matters is that I was dedicated to rewriting.
However, my work was not done. The next batch of feedback was better. But the script still needed more.
How I Improved My Script in the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Draft
I took everyone’s feedback with a grain of salt, but I listened carefully. And if more than one person was saying the same thing, I really listened carefully.
I continued with these new iterations over the course of about four months, and finally showed the fifth draft to a new person for fresh feedback….my friend Karen. I was nervous knowing she had never read the script before. She didn’t know how long I’d been working on it, how much I’d poured into it, and how much I still believed in it.
I was afraid she’d say the same thing people were saying all along: It’s pretty good…but something’s missing.
I met with her for lunch and she said, “I want to help produce this.” She loved it and she believed in it.
How I Took the Script Even Further
The next step was a table read. This time I was really nervous. What if the first person to give me truly positive feedback was wrong? What if the story fell flat during the reading? I’d never heard the scenes out loud, performed by actors.
Karen and I booked a small theater and got a group of eight actors together, plus about six or seven audience members who’d never read the script before. The result was incredible. The characters came alive, the pacing was slow at points, but overall, it worked! At the end, I received a lot of praise (which was nice to hear) and a good amount of constructive feedback from both the actors and the spectators.
I got back to work, making the script better and tighter.
Even Awesome Validation is Not the End
After the table read, I submitted my script to the competition. And when I received the email that Trees of Peace was a top 25 script in one of the biggest industry screenwriting competitions, I almost fell out of my chair. I couldn’t believe it.
It was an amazing feeling. But you know what? The version of Trees of Peace that I submitted wasn’t the last iteration. I have another new version. And I continue to read it, tweak it, and prepare it for production.
The adage that “writing is re-writing” is what really sums it up. I would just add, “writing is educated and equipped rewriting.”
Summing it Up One More Time
If you’re having a tough time working on your first screenplay, or maybe not your first, I recommend the following:
- Outline the shit out of your characters. Make sure you know them like the back of your hand.
- Read books and educate yourself! Some invaluable reading from my list includes the ones I already mentioned: Story by Robert McKee, Screenplay by Syd Field, and Poetics by Aristotle
- Apply what you learned from the books and study actual movies! Read screenplays and watch films. TheScriptLab.com is an excellent source for free screenplay downloads, as well as screenwriting lessons.
- Get A LOT of feedback. Then fix your script. Then get A LOT of feedback again. Then fix your script. Then…
- When it’s getting close to its final stages, have a table read. This is sort of like a mirror. It really shows you what’s working and what’s not.
- Keep re-writing as your heart leads you, and as you continue to pursue steps 2, 3, and 4.