Fade In. For screenwriters, those are two of the scariest words that they type on their computer screens. That’s because everything that follows will come spewing out of their imagination and they better get it right. Too much pressure? Welcome to Hollywood. Just because you have a “what if” scenario which you think will make a mega-blockbuster doesn’t mean you can fill in all the gaps between “Fade In” and “Fade Out.” Here’s how to cut to the chase: remove all your obstacles and watch how the screenplay flows forth. Consider these top ten tips on how to write a screenplay faster.
1. Outline, Outline, Outline
Often screenwriters get stuck with the dreaded writer’s block. The truth is writer’s block doesn’t exist—it is an imaginary barrier created by a tired, disorganized thought-process. A writer who has not fully worked out his or her story usually encounters mental fatigue or stress. Plan out your story first, and you can then use an outline that guides you through the progression of your story.
Much like a roadmap, an outline will tell you where you are and where you are going. That doesn’t mean you can’t make a few side trips, but without that destination you’ll be lost.
American screenwriter and filmmaker, Tony Gilroy Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter who penned the scripts for the Bourne Identity series, is a big fan of the outline. “I have to work from an outline. Every time I’ve not worked from an outline I’ve been completely burned” (Source: Tom McCurrie, hollywoodlitsales.com).
Your outline can lean towards the extremely detailed spectrum, from covering minute to detailed nuances of every scene and every exchange of dialogue. A detailed and organized outline will ease the writing process.
2. Know Your Hero’s Journey
Who your hero is at the beginning of the movie should be different than at the end of the movie. That’s because the journey you’ve taken them through has changed them in a profound way. Whether that means losing their virginity or destroying the Death Star, they will never be the same.
Billy Wilder had worked on more than 60 films in a career that spanned 60 years. He is one of five creative geniuses who has won Academy Awards as a producer, film director, and screenwriter for the same film (the 1960’s classic comedy movie, The Apartment).
Oscar-winning director and writer Billy Wilder (The Apartment, Some Like It Hot) said it best: “Develop a clean line of action for your leading character. Know where you’re going. If you have a problem with your third act, the real problem is with your first act.”
3. Write for a Star
Hollywood is a business and that means making movie stars happy. A happy star is a happy movie. At least when it comes to selling that script. You should always have a star in mind when you write your script. That doesn’t mean this will be the person who will end up being in your movie, but it will help you visualize the action and allow you to hear the voice of your character.
Thomas Lennon played Lieutenant Jim Dangle on the hit comedy series, Reno 911, which ran from 2003-2009 on Comedy Central (6 seasons and 88 episodes).
Thomas Lennon, actor of Reno 911 and collaborative screenwriter of the mega-hit Night at the Museum, suggested, “Always be writing for a very specific movie star. At any given time, there are only about 14 people that can get your big studio movie made. Make sure your screenplay is good for one of them” (Source: Joe Berkowitz, fastcocreate.com).
4. Keep the Action Moving Forward
Too often a writer will get bogged down in trying to tell back-story or having a “moment” with their hero. There are also diversions with secondary characters that create a drag on the script. Every scene needs to drive the action forward. If not, cut it out. Remember: a standard spec screenplay does not exceed 120 pages.
Brian Helgeland’s recent success is his movie, 42 (Warner Bros. Pictures), a bio-pic of baseball legend Jackie Robinson.
A fantastic tip comes from Brian Helgeland, Academy-award winning screenwriter of LA Confidential: “If you write a scene that is lateral, cut it out or make it do something. Make it drive you to the next moment because there’s no time to mess around” (Source: Guardian Careers, careers.guardian.co.uk).
5. Remember Your Audience
You can’t write in a vacuum. Even the Unibomber wanted his manifesto published. A screenwriter is writing for his or her audience. Always. Who that audience is depends on the kind of movie you’re writing—but serve them well. When in doubt put yourself in the chair. What would you want to see up on the screen? “Always mystify, torture, mislead, and surprise the audience as much as possible,” suggested Don Roff, writer and filmmaker of The House of Malik.
6. ABC (Always Be Cutting)
Harsh reality: Not everything you write is gold. Some of it needs to be flushed away. The sooner you do that the sooner you get to the end of your screenplay. The ideal page count for a screenplay should be 105-110. If your first draft is clocking in at 130 then you’ve got some serious editing and formatting to do. (Advice on formatting your screenplay)
Jonathan Ames has written numerous novels and humorous memoirs. His novels include I Pass Like Night (Washington Square Press, 1989), The Extra Man (Scribner, 1998), and Wake Up Sir! (Scribner, 2004).
“The best advice a writer can get is ‘Cut, Cut, Cut,’ so that you can get to the good stuff,” said writer and novelist Jonathan Ames, who also created the HBO comedy series, Bored to Death.
7. Make Your Opening Count
Have you heard that the first ten pages of your script are the most important? What about the first five? What about the first? Openings matter because it’s what pulls the reader in and gets them to stick around. Make sure your opening is a grabber. British playwright and screenwriter Abi Morgan, who penned the scripts for The Hour and The Iron Lady, revealed that openings are very important. Morgan spent two years writing her first play because she rewrote and revised it countless times until she was
8. Don’t Write Your Oscar Speech Yet
You shouldn’t be agonizing over self-doubt. Get on with the writing and make it as good as you think it is—not as good as you think someone will want. Writing your first spec script or a series of scripts may not ever sell or even get read by a producer or agent. But, instead of looking at your unsold scripts as failure, think of it as gaining experience that brings you closer to your goals.
9. Just Finish It
Finishing your screenplay is always trying and challenging because it may take you a very long time to complete it. In between the FADE IN and FADE OUT sluglines, you’ll have other distractions and commitments demanding your attention and time, pulling you away from your writing.
Joss Whedon has had many successful projects, including creating the T.V. series, Angel (1999–2004), Firefly (2002–2003), Dollhouse (2009–2010), and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013).
Joss Whedon, screenwriter of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, said: “I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years…Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure” (Source: Catherine Bray, aerogrammestudio.com).
10. Go to the Movies
Nothing can inspire you to write your screenplay faster than seeing a really good (or bad) movie. Take a break and go to the movies. Watch them in a big theatre with a crowd. Revel in the experience. That fun and engagement is what you want to bring to your screenplay.
By Gregg Hienz