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.

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