Norman Mailer once said that “writer’s block is a failure of the ego.”
I’d rather say it’s a failure of motivation, preparation, and discipline—a failure, in other words, of time-management.
The method I describe here, based on nearly thirty years’ experience in film and television, is all about motivation, preparation, and discipline.
If you follow this system, you will be able to write a professional screenplay in 24 hours.
Sitting in front of your computer agonizing over the next word is always counterproductive.
Start by taking a solemn oath that you’ll never again sit at your computer without knowing what you’re going to write before you sit down.
By simply preparing your thoughts and ideas ahead of time, you can ensure that when you do sit down to write, you’ll have something dramatic to say. This simple change in your writing habits can help you write more and stress less.
But first, let’s analyze what you’re trying to construct when you write a screenplay. It’s not a nebulous, monumental, or overwhelming task.
It’s just producing 115 written pages—with not that much writing on each page, at that.
Outlining Your Screenplay
Let’s start by mapping that simple and unintimidating reality out on a single page, starting with your screenplay’s page 1 (an opening that hooks the audience) and ending with its page 115 (that satisfies their expectations of good storytelling):
Act 1: Compelling beginning (Hook), dragging your audience into the midst of action.
End of introduction of the protagonist.
Note: Make him relatable to the audience. A protagonist is convincing when all of the follow four dimensions of his or her makeup are clearly focused:
- His motivation
- His mission in the story
- The obstacles he faces in pursuing his mission
- The change he undergoes from the beginning the story to the end.
Introduction of your story’s theme (emotional mood and viewpoint of the film).
End of introduction of antagonist.
Note: Make the antagonist worthy of your protagonist. The stronger the antagonist, the stronger your protagonist will look.
Major event launches your character into action, (inciting incident also called the inciting event) into Act 2.
Act 2: Rising and falling action (not just action, dramatic action), plot twists and turns, obstacles to his mission—constantly keeping the audience in suspense, and surprising them.
It helps to break up your dramatic action into three acts within Act 2.
First meaningful encounter between protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist succeeds or fails to advance his or her cause.
Turning point: New information, or the triumph over a major obstacle, turns everything 180 degrees.
Twist & turn: Build to a climax. Darkest moment for hero. At the crossroads. Will he win or lose?
Act 3: Protagonist at lowest point. Begin resolution as character breaks through with a final decision.
The story draws to a dramatic close, underlying its theme or moral impact.
Mission accomplished, Change occurs. Conclusive ending that satisfies the audience and sharpens their mood as they leave the movie. Answering the question, what was this story about?
Using Final Draft to Write Your Screenplay
It helps to have an idea of how many pages you type an hour in Final Draft. That way you can budget time accordingly.
For example, if you can type five pages an hour and can allocate two hours a day on weekdays (take weekends off to recharge your batteries and let the story build up pressure in your mind), that means you’ll be able to produce 10 pages per day or 50 pages per week. At that rate, it will take you exactly 12 work days (allowing 2 days for those last 15 pages). A total of 24 hours of actual writing.
My advice is to schedule the same time to write each morning or evening, and stick to it religiously, not stopping until you’ve spent the time you’ve allocated—let’s say two hours on the stopwatch.
7 Steps to Prepare Your Story for Writing
Before you sit down to “fill in the blanks,” prepare yourself by making sure you’re ready with the following items:
- You’ll need to start with a story that’s well-worked out in your mind already, so I’m assuming you’re writing a screenplay based on your own book or unpublished story.
- Read five of your favorite screenplays based on movies that did well at the box office. Consult www.boxofficemojo.com to make sure the ones you choose did well; and consult www.script-o-rama.com to download the screenplays free. Studying screenplays from successful movies can help you see what to do, and what not to do, when you write your screenplay.
- You’ll need to create your screenplay in Final Draft, the professional standard of the Hollywood entertainment marketplace. So don’t set your start-clock until you’ve mastered the program; which shouldn’t take more than a few hours.
- Unlike a novel or nonfiction book, a screenplay is nearly all action,and action consists of either physical action (she slams the door behind her; when she turns around he’s holding a gun) or active dialogue. The missing “nearly” part is narrative, simple and direct transitions from one action to another, setting the stage and clarifying the movement of the actors who are doing the action.
- This means all you need for your screenplay is action, and you start by asking yourself what are the obligatory actions of your story, the actions without which the story makes no sense. Those are the ones you use to fill in the blanks, above, estimating where they should come in the story.
- If you need help deciding what goes where in the story, reduce all the most important actions, whether they’re physical or verbal, to a single 3×5 card for each. Make all the cards you’ll need for your screenplay, and I can tell you from experience that you’ll rarely need more than 100. When you’ve finished the cards, sort them in terms of where in the story they should go. Then re-sort them with the power of hindsight (gained from doing the first sorting). Now you should be ready to list the obligatory actions in the page outline, above.
- Spend as much time as you need to fill in the page spread until it has a clearly visible through-line. That’s another way of saying “the story flows.” Here’s a tip from one of my books that helps you assess the intensity-level of the various moments in your story so you can rearrange them to make sure you’ve built a rollercoaster of rising and falling action:
This chart is easily constructed:
- Summarize action in a few words.
- With a single hyphen for each degree of intensity, rate each action, ending with an arrow after each action’s line.
- Draw a line from one arrowhead to another. That gives you a graph of rising and falling action.
- Turn the graph on its side to see whether the rollercoaster is dramatically effective enough. In this example, the story could use more dramatic variation between Act 1 and Act 2, and especially in Act 3 where falling action needs to be enhanced to make the rising action more compelling to the audience.
- Now’s your chance to vary the scenes to make for a more satisfactory rollercoaster ride.
Once you’ve done all that, you should be ready to finish filling out the page spread, if you haven’t done it already.
When You Sit Down to Write, Everything Should be Prepared
Once your page spread is filled out, you’re ready to start your clock on the actual “writing.” But note that you now already know what you’re going to write, so it’s time to sit down and just do it.
At this point you should have such a clear idea of where your story is going it should be a lot easier to write your screenplay than if you were simply sitting down and writing a brand new story from a blank page.
One more practical tip: get a ream of paper ready for use. Five hundred blank pages are way more than enough to write a screenplay with plenty of waste allowed along the way. But at least you know as you stare at your ream that it’s not an insuperable, monumental, mountainous task. It’s just filling out as much of that ream as your story needs.
Time to sit down at the computer and type, following your page spread outline and aided by the cards on which you’ve recorded the details of each action required to tell the story.
Don’t worry about transitions between one action and another, and definitely don’t worry about “CUT TO,” “FADE OUT,” etc. Directors reading your script will only be annoyed by your attempt to dictate to them how to use the camera.
Just tell your story without telling us about it—just showing it.
No stopping to worry about research, spelling, or even grammar—that can all be checked automatically by Final Draft when you’ve gotten the draft down. You do that checking on Work Day #12.
Now all you have to do is revise (including checking your research). Give yourself at least as much time for that as you did for your first draft. Then send it out for a “friendly read,” and revise accordingly.
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Dr. Kenneth Atchity
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