Art is never finished, only abandoned – Leonardo da Vinci
Writing is rewriting – every asshole who never finished writing anything, ever.
One of the questions that gets tossed around most when it comes to screenwriting, is how long it takes to write a screenplay. Speaking from my own experience, I´ll say that it takes somewhere between 24 hours and 3.5 years. Now, how long it takes to make a good one is a whole other scenario. But most “writers” you´ll run into never actually finish one.
Here´s how I wrote a screenplay in 24 hours. I´m gonna make a habit of forwarding this to every person I run into who claim to carry around a great story, yet don´t have time to write it. And in a vigilant act of internet bravery, I even included the screenplay I wrote, unedited, so you can tell the world how you could do it better. I´d say it´s about 51% of what it could be if I spent more time on it.
That actually makes it better than a few I´ve written, and also a few I´ve read – that made it into movies.
A bit of backstory
Sometimes, the stories closest to your heart can be the most difficult to write. Just look at the last half-written screenplay you made with yourself as the protagonist: Somewhere along the line you lost track, because you tried to put all your great ideas into it, and let´s face it, you also lack a bit in the self insight departement and people weren´t really that interested in your own personal story. Your “young writer in his 20´s” script became your “young writer in his 30´s” script and somewhere along the lines you started writing passive aggressive posts about how movies that were actually being made suck – hey, I´m just taking wild swings here, and I digress.
The tweet pitch
In the middle of a pitch meeting a while ago, I pitched 10 or so stories. I added one that was based on a drunk tweet I had made a few days before, after watching “Home Alone”, just to show some range. The rest were stories I´ve spent considerable time crafting. Guess which one got the attention?
Hint, it was this one:
Alone again:Macaulay Culkin(33) is home alone on christmas, preparing to end it all, when burglars break into his house for his child star $
Check it, that´s 140 characters, bitch. And before you get any bright ideas: It´s WGA registered #1654261.
Long story short: I wrote it out with my brilliant writing partner. We had a few sit downs, wrote it in record time, while I was working on some other scripts that I couldn´t for the life of me navigate through. This one wrote itself, because, like you do when reading that one line, and like the producers I was pitching it to, you see the movie unfolding before you, you know exactly what you want to see in that particular story, and you can even think of a few surprising and possibly dark twists, obvious homages to the first movies, and the movie trailer itself where a drug-hazed adult puts up cartoon traps with real life consequences. We even had a scene with Macaulay shouting on the telephone “You´re not my real mom”, to which Catherine O´Hara who played his mom in the 2 first movies completly agrees and wonders why the fuck he´s calling her every christmas eve. Guess who saves Macaulay in the end.
The obvious problems arose because, well, we wrote this script based on the biggest Fox-franchise of all time, with only one possible lead, who´s probably gets 15-20 offers from film school students to play himself every week. The good news is, I was so afraid that somebody else would come up with the story that we wrote it in a couple of weeks, between other jobs, meaning the actual time spent writing it was probably less than one week, and it was actually better than the movie I´d spent the last two years “writing”, i.e. talking about and procrastinating. The movie, as they say, wrote itself.
However, that was not my 24 hour script. This was:
Realizing that the 30th anniversary of the “Karate Kid” movie was next year, I started playing with the idea of William Zabka (bad guy Johnny) and Ralph Macchio (good guy Karate Kid) arguing who´d win in a real fight. The inspirations were clear: The sweet Ralph Macchio had made a Funny or Die video where he tried to be bad, William Zabka had made a music video for “No More Kings”, the brilliant “Sweep the Leg”, where he played his old character obsessed with the 1984 fight: Knowing nothing of the actors personalities I wrote characters for them where Zabka was now a drunk, forever typecast as a bad guy, and Macchio the opposite, both blaming the movie for the direction of their carrers. I even called it “Sweep the leg”. I´m not claiming originality here, not in the premise at least, but it had not been done, and I suddenly saw the path unfolding before me on how to write this movie: Zabka wanting to becoming good, with Macchio turning to the dark side, a big climax that mirrored the fight in the 1984 original with the now late 40-s to early 50-s ensemble of the original movie, filled to the bursting point with popculture references.
Luckily, It was a saturday morning and I had nothing to do for the next 24 hours.
Also, luckily, I´d written a few scripts before, so I knew what the major obstacles were. One of the major obstacles with this one were that certain talent necessary to produce this movie were, how shall we put it, fulfilled when it came to referencing the decades old blockbuster (much like with the Home Alone scenario). But I felt a story coming on, and when you do that, you sit down and you write.
Here´s how I did it, and if I can do it, you can do it. And what you write, you can always edit. A first draft feels good, actually more than often it feels better than the 13th draft, although that´s where the quality is usually found.
Note that I don´t claim originality in a single of these pointers below. Just like you, I´ve read the basic literature on screenwriting, opposed to it, rediscovered some of it by myself, and been on both sides of the age old and totally uninteresting “art vs. craft” discussion. Nobody invented these rules, they came to be, I don´t care, they work.
#1: Know your compass.
If you don´t have a compass, you don´t have a movie. A movies compass is the premise of the story, summed up in one sentence. Write it down on a post-it note, smack it onto your computer screen. If you can´t get it down in one line, the “one idea per script”-idea, you´ll get lost. This I promise you. Whenever you get lost in your story, return to your compass. The compass, the logline, is the one place you have to spend some time editing, and you do that before you begin writing the script.
#2: Care about your story
The story needs to be important to you, as it has to be for your character(s). If not, you´ll find yourself stranded when your and your characters passion runs out. On that note: If it´s too important to you, or too big to handle – yet – put it off, let it grow in the back of your subconscious until it´s ripe for writing.
#3: Don´t think – feel
This should be your second post-it note on your screen. Over-intellectualizing is the death of any story, unless you´ve got 5 years and you´re willing to go to hell and back, which you should – but not for this script. Thinking is for your spare time – this is work, and you´ve watched so many hundreds of movies that unconsciously you know exactly were you need to go, but you´re probably stopping yourself aiming for perfection. What was your greatest night ever, was it planned or was it spontaneous and free? You´re gonna be awake for this one, so enjoy the ride.
#4: Don´t edit – don´t research
Editing and research are the pitfalls of screenwriting – they should always be done, but either as a result of a prolonged period of obsessing about something – boom, free research – or after you´ve written your first draft. The problem with research is that it feels like working, and can be an escape from actually doing so. If you´re writing a movie about Facebook, you should be writing about the people behind it (oh, wait, that has been done), and you don´t need to know about coding algorithms to be able to write about people coding. Throw in some bullshit, and it may actually make it into the actual movie. Is your protagonist doing a monologue on the conquests of Alexander The Great? Invent it – you can revisit the facts later. Whenever you go online to search for a piece of trivia, you break concentration, and you´re guaranteed to lose 15-30 minutes every time. So here´s one of the best writing tips I´ve ever got: Write the letters “TK” wherever you feel like you should go back and edit, then search for that phrase later. No English word contains the letters “TK”, so this just marks wherever your script contains placeholders. Or use an asterisk* or whatever, just don´t break concentration. Even better still: Just write something.
#5: Writers block does not exist
When I quit smoking cigarettes after 10 years, people asked me how I did it. That pissed me off. The answer is simple: You don´t put fucking cigarettes in your mouth. It´s the same when people ask how I “overcome writers block”. First of all, I see no reason to get it. Second, whenever I don´t know what to write, I just write something. That´s how you overcome writers block: You write.
#6: Move forward
Your story should always move forward. Instead of analyzing your script back and forth, everything you write should go through this filter: “Is what I´m writing now bringing my story and characters forward?”. If not, scrap it. Or, actually, you might just have to relocate your scene to the right part of the script.
#7: HIT THE MARKS
This is the biggest piece of the puzzle, so I´ll divide this into several pointers instead of one big one. As mentioned earlier, I haven´t “invented” a single on of these. You´ve probably read Robert McKees “Story”, Blake Snyders “Save the Cat”, Syd Fields “The Screenwriters Bible” or whatever it´s called, Joseph Campbells “The Hero with the thousand faces”, or even claimed to read Aristotles “Poetics”, which all basically say the same thing. And even Aristotle stole wildly from the movies he saw, so I don´t feel bad about “ripping” the points from any of these masters, but highly encourage you to buy their books – seriously.
Here´s how you structure your screenplay. Just by tailoring your story around this skeleton, it´s easy to see where you should put your scenes.
ACT 1 (first 30 or so pages): Everything is established.
page 1-10: Meet the hero. Put everything that´s essential about your character in here. Bring him as FAR FROM THE GOAL as possible. He wants to be rich? Guess what: Now he´s dirt poor. This gives you the longest journey, the biggest wish – the biggest momentum. Put that fucker down in the dirt.
page 10-12: Call to action. Also called Shit happens. If you´re writing, say, a 30th reunion Karate Kid-story, this is where you plant the seed that the characters should fight.
Page 12-25: The hero fucks around. Not ready to take on the challenge yet, here is where you put every scene that builds up to to the inevitable:
Page 25: Your hero embarks on the journey. From here, there´s no more back-and-forth: If there is, jam it before page 25. This is where your hero says “fuck it, I´ll do it”, and we go into:
ACT TWO (page 30-90 or so):
The second act is a fucking long haul. The principles most people miss when writing the second act is:
a) ACT TWO IS ACTUALLY TWO PIECES, and
b) ACT TWO IS ACTUALLY TWO STORIES THAT´S HAPPENING AT THE SAME TIME.
I´ll explain b) first: If you have a main story that´s a quest, you also have a love story here. If your main story is a love story, you also have a quest that starts here. AND: In order to make it a fucking story, and not just an anecdote, you pull the lovers as far away from each other as possible, or you make the quest unreachable. I´ll touch on the love part later, read this through before starting your 24 hour journey.
FIRST HALF OF ACT TWO (30-50 OR SO): EVERYTHING IS FINE.
Your hero tries to do what he is supposed to do. Put your trailer moments here. Remeber: Everything needs to be moving forward, and pointing in one direction: If things go a bit bad, then a bit good, then is OK, then is slightly less than OK, then slightly better: Fuck that, that´s not fiction, that´s life. People don´t go to the movies to see that shit. In this part, everything is going fine.
FALSE ENDING (exactly midways):
This is where, in real life, and also in screenwriting, most people give up: The hero here EITHER THINKS HE´S WON, or HE THINKS HE HAS LOST. Everything in the first half of act 2 points directly to this.
No matter if your hero thinks he´s won or lost in whatever he set out to do here, THIS IS WHERE YOU FUCK HIM OVER:
SECOND HALF OF ACT TWO (55-90): THINGS GO TO HELL.
Your main mission here is to get your hero in an even worse spot than when he started. The girl? She starts hating him. The bad guy? He seems to get the girl instead. The protagonists latent alcoholism? Guess what, bitch: It blossoms.
THIRD ACT: (PAGE 90 – wherever): YOU GIVE THE HERO WHAT HE WANTS, BUT NOT LIKE HE OR THE AUDIENCE IMAGINED.
This is where you get a bit crafty. You have to do your worst to bring your hero to the brink of suicide or whatever, then you have to pull him out of the mud, or even better, have him do it himself. It´s about doing the right thing, with a hell of a lot of action around it. Actually, you´ve probably had this scene in your head all the way, the problem is you´ve got to earn it during act 2, or else it feels like bullshit.
You remember when I talked about Act 2 being two stories? This is where they collide. Well, let me give you a few examples:
- In “Pineapple Express”, two guys run from crazed drugdealers (quest), and have a struggling friendship (lovestory), then, after “breaking up”, they realize they need to work together in order to take on the drug lords (to make it even more dramatic, the Seth Rogen character has to rescue his friend, James Franco, after alienating him).
- In “Step Brothers”, the two guys are forced to ´grow up´ (quest) to save their parents marriage, and have a struggling friendship (lovestory), then, after “breaking up”, they realize they need to work together to help fix it (to make it even more dramatic, The Will Ferrel character has to rescue his friend, John C. Reilly, after alienating him).
So, this is actually where you put your awesome emotional- or action climaxes, preferably both, having them collide and happen at the same time for max effect, after fucking everything up for your hero or heroes.
This is also where you nest up every loose thread that you spun out throughout your movie, or in the case of the two movies above: Not do it.
#8: Write down the marks
Seriously. Write down the marks, and put them in your script: Just keep writing your scenes, until you hit the mentioned page. Then, realizing you´re a bit over, copypaste the scene into the part of the script that it actually belongs.
#9: Write your script.
Shit will get in your way. There´s even a place for a little bit of life in between intense work sessions: Keep your mood up, enjoy what you are doing, and don´t take life or your art so seriously. As mentioned (I think I mentioned it, I didn´t rewrite or edit this post), you can always edit your script later. And, while in the mood, it´s not a bad idea to watch one, MAYBE two movies. You´ll be in the mentality of making things work, and watching a movie while working heavily on your own project, will make everything relate do what you´re doing. Personally, I watched “Olympus is falling” and got slightly drunk, which both helped me realize what we´re doing is not rocket science.
#10: Fade out.
Go ahead, crash. You´ve earned it. After reaching page 90, 72, 120 or whatever, you´ve deserved some rest. You should probably have taken a nap between intense writing sessions before finishing, sorry, I forgot to tell you that. It feels great to a script, any script, and now is not the time to realize it sucks. After all, most people never get this far, getting to those magic words: “The end”.
Here, for you to scrutinize, get annoyed by, or possibly even get slightly inspired by if only due to the fact that I managed to hammer out 92 pages before the weekend was over, is my script, SWEEP THE LEG, written in 24 hours.
I´m looking forward too reading yours.
Just kidding, I don´t read scripts unless I´m paid to. But seriously, good luck. You´ll feel better from writing your story, and it might even break down a mental barrier or two. I seriously think it will.
Edit (which I said I wouldn´t do): Here´s the script as the Black List link is members only: Sweep the leg