Monthly Archives: February 2014

Your screenplay deserves more time

Why does your screenplay need to go through a development process?

‘They’ say it all the time: “Writing is rewriting.” But what does that mean, exactly?

The first couple of feature scripts I wrote, I later abandoned with a feeling of defeat. The reason? I was impatient. I wanted my first draft (give or take a few tweaks here and there) to be the piece of work that I would send out to agents and producers. I had worked so hard on getting it there and so I figured: surely, it must be ready. But I’ll forgive myself for that naivety. I was still learning.

Forget the was. I am still learning. But during that ongoing process, what I have come to realise is this: If you want to get it right, give it time. If you have spent ages developing your characters, being attentive to the structure and to the story, you might breathe a sigh of relief when you finally finish the last scene of the screenplay. And that’s fine. Now is the time to give yourself a breather.

Take a week away from the script; let it settle. But keep in mind that your job as a screenwriter is only just beginning. Have a trusted reader look over your script. Ask them to be as critical/constructive as possible. Believe me, this is the stage at which constructive criticism will aid you most.

It is very unlikely that your first draft is going to be what your script deserves to become. I say ‘deserves’ because, if you have spent time planning and researching and plotting and writing, then you have made a commitment. Now is not the time to move on and hope you’ve done enough. Once that script is written, it’s time to pull it apart: go back, comb it through, make sure all the beats are in the right place. Does the script have the impact you know it can achieve? Can you make it better?

Rewriting can be the most difficult and frustrating part of the writing process. Especially if you’re overly keen to be sending your work on. But it is the most crucial part.

Many a time I have sent off a script when it was nowhere near ready. Later, I regretted it because I found out that the scripts had so much more to offer, and changed into something much more interesting than the piece of work I was too eager to send out. Like I said, I am still learning. But this particular lesson has been invaluable: Don’t rush. Be patient; give the script time to develop, change and become even stronger than you anticipated.

The script development process can bring things to the surface that may never have crossed your mind while planning and writing the first draft.  To give you a better idea of what I mean, how about a step-by-step example?

My latest feature script required a whole new planning process during the rewriting stage, which is still ongoing. So, here’s the step-by-step of my own screenplay development process:

  • Initial planning
Make notes...

Make notes…...LOTS of them!…LOTS of them!

  • Turning the plan into a treatment
  • Following the treatment as a guide to writing the script
  • Finishing the first draft
  • Making a few tweaks to the first and second drafts
  • Seeking feedback
  • Making big changes, such as deleting a central character, giving more emotional depth to the arc of the protagonist, and so on.
  • Seeking more feedback
  • Making decisions to strengthen the script, such as: changing the gender of the protagonist, deleting another two characters, concentrating on yet more struggle and emotional pay-off for the protagonist, reviewing the order of the beats.
Be brutal

Be brutal

  • A total restructure – Planning again
Using planning techniques to re-structure your script

Using planning techniques to re-structure your script

  • Writing a draft beat sheet
Note down your screenplay's beats using the new structure you have created

Note down your screenplay’s beats using the new structure you have created

  • Turning this into a visual, colour-coded story arc table
  • Using the colour-coded table to highlight gaps and structural clumsiness
Visualising the story arc

Visualising the story arc

  • Structuring a final beat sheet
Your beat sheet becomes a guide for your rewrite

Your beat sheet becomes a guide for your rewrite

  • Rewriting the script with all of the changes in place.
Making Changes

Making Changes

And this is where I am now. Once I rewrite the final scene and sharpen the dialogue (cutting any over-writing and/or clumsy exposition) I will, again, seek critical feedback. But having gone through the script development journey, I now know I am closer to the end result.

Writing is rewriting

Writing is rewriting

So rewriting, in a sense, is like an ongoing planning process. But unlike your initial script plan, this time you have more material to go from and a clearer sense of direction. It takes time. But if you are dedicated to your story, to your characters, and to the film you hope your script will become, it is essential that you allow the script time to develop properly. Agents and producers aren’t going anywhere. They’d much rather see a script that had been given time and investment by a writer who understands their craft, than hear from a writer too eager to do the screenplay justice.

Need to know more about where to start when you are planning a script? Take a look at our YouTube video.

The Final Draft… Is there such a thing?

I’ve just enjoyed a telephone conversation with writer/director, Paul Fraser, on the latest draft of my feature script. We talked about the usual points when in development on a screenplay: cutting characters, stripping back dialogue, building the necessary beats needed to create relationships, conflict and pay-off.

Development is all about exploring your options; looking at the ‘what if’ scenarios: what if this character were to be killed off, or this other character played a bigger role in the story? What if this scene was cut altogether? What if you revealed this information later on, or in a different way? If the answer to your ‘what if’, when you strip it to a minimum, is ‘it will make the story stronger, more intriguing, more emotional’ or if it has a positive effect on the script in any sense, then it is worth exploring in your next draft.

A great way to get perspective on the ‘what if’ scenarios, is to seek feedback. Ask someone to read your current draft. But make sure you ask someone who will give you constructive feedback and criticism, for example: another writer, director or producer, a tutor or a writers group.

If you want to be a writer, you must learn how to take criticism. In fact, learn to enjoy seeking constructive feedback, because it is a huge part of developing your script. Learn to take advice by using your best judgement. By this, I mean try to take into account, everything that is suggested and asked about your script. Then ask, ‘what if?’ Only where you believe that the answer will have a positive impact on the story/characters as a whole, should you explore these options. And it’s worth spending a good amount of time thinking about the feedback before you make your decisions. Don’t dismiss anything straight away: question it, let it simmer for a while, and see where it takes you.

The more you enter into the screenwriting development process, the more you will pick up hints and tips that will help you when you come to write your next project. You will start to get a better sense of when to take a step back and ask for someone to critique your work.

But how do you know when you have written the final draft? Will there be a time when you know for sure that a script is ready, final, complete? Well, from personal experience, and from chatting to other writers about their experiences, the short answer is, no – probably not.

Most likely, there will always be something in your script that you can change, or something you can cut. After practice, you might be able to start sensing when a script is ‘almost there’ and trust your own judgement as to how far it has left to go. But, in my opinion, a writer can never really say that a script is ‘final’. And that’s fine. As a writer for performance, the thing to remember is that you are part of a collaboration. The script will continue to change, even once you have submitted it to a director, or a producer, as a ‘final draft’. That’s because the nature of scriptwriting is one of building the foundations for the process of production. And production will add changes to the final outcome – the film.

The script is not intended to be the end result.

But this doesn’t mean you should settle for a piece of work that seems ‘OK’. You should still always strive to get that draft as ‘final’ as it can possibly feel. Why? Because this is your craft; your creation. It should be allowed to grow and develop and strengthen, with every option explored. Your script may be the starting point, the ‘foundation’. But foundations have to be strong and reliable if they are going to be built upon.

So, my advice is to look at it like this: be flexible. When you think you’re at the final draft, seek feedback. When you have explored the ‘what if’ scenarios and exhausted them, trust that you’re almost there, and take a chance on your own judgement.