Write or Acquire a Screenplay

Screenwriting is the heavy lifting for your movie. Without a good script you limit your chances for success from the onset. Your goal is to only work with the best material you can get your hands on. You will want to decide if you will write your screenplay yourself, with a writing partner or if you will acquire a screenplay from someone else.

If you choose to write your screenplay yourself, do not be afraid to write a crappy first draft. Most screenwriters in Hollywood claim to have a screenplay, but that is not true. Rather most would-be screenwriters have the first 15 pages to screenplay and they will never finish. This is because they are afraid of failure. But not you. Your goal is to write, and write, and write. Finish a crappy first draft. Then refine it.

In the event you simply want to acquire good material, many filmmakers post an ad on craigslist.com whereby seeking a competent screenwriter. But if you do this I guarantee you will be inundated by gazillions of writers seeking a producer. I suggest that you research established but new screenwriters who have a similar vision. You may have to pay, but at least you will know the type of work you are getting.

For additional screenwriting resources, check out the Indie Producer’s Guide To Writing Movie Scrips.

Seven Ways Screenwriters Can be More Productive

Seven Ways Screenwriters Can be More Productive

Do you want to write your screenplay faster but without giving up quality? Here are the top tips based both on my own experience in writing more than 100 episodes of TV as well as TV movies, a feature film, and script doctoring, as well as the experience of top writers I’ve interviewed:

  1. You don’t have to write the script in order. Sometimes you get stuck on the best way to open a script, or on a scene where you’re not quite sure exactly what a character would say. There’s no rule that says you can’t jump forward or backward and write the scenes that you do know how to write at the moment. You may find that writing other scenes helps you figure out the ones that were stopping you.
  1. You don’t have to do all the research before you start. One successful novelist I interviewed puts an X in his draft when he encounters something to research and keeps on writing. When he’s finished the first draft he goes back to all the X’s (using the search function to locate them quickly), does the necessary research and incorporates it into his second draft. This won’t work all the time, of course, because sometimes you need the information before you can write the scene, but  when you can delay it, bunching the research is a great time-saver.
  1. Set daily or weekly page goals, not time goals. If you say you’re going to spend an hour a day working on your script it’s easy to spend that hour reading the trades or checking out a few sites that relate to writing your project but not actually get any writing done. Once you’re in the writing phase, set a page goal for those sessions—e.g., to write 3 pages a day, 3 days a week, or whatever fits your schedule.
  1. Don’t keep going back go revise what you’ve already done. Instead, if you know you want to change something, make a note in the margin and do it when you write the second draft. The note might be something like, “Have this take place in Joe’s apartment instead,” or “Make Millie more aggressive.”
  1. Instead of writing character biographies, discover your characters using your imagination. I adapted this from a method Alvin Sargeant told me he uses. He writes scenes in which his characters experience a variety of things, just to see how they react and what it reveals about them. These are not necessarily situations that will be in the script. I do the same thing, but in my imagination (it’s faster). For instance, imagine your protagonist saw someone trying to break into a car. What would he or she do? Call the police? Ignore it? Try to stop the crook? Usually your intuition will give you an answer quickly.
  1. When it’s time to evaluate your first draft, print it out and go into a different room to read it and make your notes. When you are at your usual writing location you are in a creative mode. To evaluate your work you have to switch to a critical mode and it’s easier to do that when you’re in a different place, with a different posture (perhaps sitting back in a comfy chair). In the critical state, identify the problems. Then go back to your usual creative state to figure out and implement the solutions.
  1. When rewriting, tackle the big issues first. Don’t start doing little dialogue rewrites, for instance, when the bigger fixes may mean that scene may not even be in your script anymore, or may require drastic changes.

Want more? Be my guest—Free!

I’ll be sharing more ideas for writing faster and writing better on Saturday, March 3, on our online Massive Action Day. It runs for 16 hours so that people in just about every time zone can take part. For instance, whether you’re on the West Coast or the East Coast, you can join in from 9am to 4pm your time. If you’re in the UK, we start at 9am your time and keep going 16 hours!

You declare your goal at the start of the day (e.g., write an outline of a short film, clean up my office, compile a list of agents, etc.) and check in every hour to let us know how you’ve done. At the start of every hour I do a live video feed for about 5 minutes with tips and to answer questions. I also give away prizes and we have a lot of fun along the way.

Usually this costs $15, but I’m inviting Jason’s people to join me for free. Just send me your name and email address and I’ll send you the instructions. Email me at [email protected]. Please do that now, because Saturday is not far away and I think you’ll find it will be a most productive and enjoyable day.

Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of television, the mini-series “Midnight Man,” starring Rob Lowe, the feature film “The Real Howard Spitz,” starring Kelsey Grammer, and as been a script doctor on projects starring Eddie Murphy, Michale Caine, Kim Catrall and others. His books include “Your Writing Coach” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) and “Creativity Now!” (Pearson Publishing). For more tips from Jurgen Wolff, also see www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com

How to apply “show, don’t tell” in screenplays

I have a fairly large collection of “pitching sessions from hell” stories, but there was one that stands out because I blew it—afterward.

This was early in my career, and actually the pitching session itself went great. The executive loved the idea and commissioned a script for a TV movie.

I wrote the treatment, which included quite a few vivid character descriptions.

He loved the treatment.

I wrote the first draft.

He didn’t love the first draft.

He said, “In your pitch and in the treatment, your characters really came to life. I don’t see these people in the script. They’re not really coming off the page.”

He was right. I’d focused so much on having my characters hit their plot marks that I’d forgotten all the great plans I had for them as characters.

Fortunately he didn’t fire me and I had the chance to put things right in the next draft. I found ways to bring back the nuances that had made the characters interesting in the first place. The plot worked better, too, because you understood more about why people were doing what they were doing.

Now I find two things useful to think about from the start:

1: How does the character reveal who he or she is?

2: What does the character try to conceal about himself or herself, and how does that come out anyway?

Maybe that second one requires a little explanation. Usually people try to hide what they consider their bad or weak side. A guy tells people he’s over his ex and it was the best thing for both of them that they split. How do we show that he’s not really over her? Maybe he parks outside place for a few minutes every night (how this is presented will tell us whether it’s wistful or menacing).

Another example: A woman makes a point of giving a homeless person money when she’s with her friends, but when she’s by herself she walks past him without a look.

When you work these things out, your script will be richer—and your buyer happier.

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Jurgen Wolff is a veteran screenwriter. You’ll find his screenwriting tips here every week and also on his website, www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com. Also get his book, “Your Writing Coach,” published by Nicholas Brealey.

How NOT To Get Your Screenplay Read

Get Your Screenplay Read

Get Your Screenplay Read. Image via Wikipedia

A few years back I finished the first draft of my first screenplay ever. Like a lot of folks who dream of Hollywood success, I was eager to share my work with the world. Problem was, I had no idea what I was doing.

Through a friend of a friend, I was put in contact with an “entertainment attorney.” I put the words in quotes because while there are tons of people with a strong work ethic and great integrity, this particular guy was not one of them.

I remember getting off the phone. I was super excited because this guy had agreed to read my screenplay and offer me feedback. So like most writers, I sent off my screenplay – packaged with the appropriate cardstock cover and two brass brads… And a few weeks later I get a email:

“Jason. Thanks for sending me your screenplay. I read it. Because you want to produce your own movie, I think you will need a lawyer who understands how to put together a private placement memorandum. And also, while we did not talk about this prior, you owe me $250 dollars for the hour I spent reading your script. Please send me a check ASAP.”

These days I would tell him to go “F” himself. But back then, I had no idea what I was doing. So I sent him his money. And to make it even worse, $250 dollars represented an entire week’s salary.

The whole point of this is – if someone agrees to do you a “favor,” it’s best to get reciprocal expectations in writing.


Write A Crappy First Draft

Example of screenplay formatting. Writing is o...

Image via Wikipedia

Unless you’re an experimental filmmaker, you rely heavily on having a great screenplay. And if you’re like a lot of people I’ve met, you probably have a gazillion ideas for movie projects – but you might not have any completed screenplays.

If this is you, you’re not alone.

Since producing my first feature, I have received about a gazillion emails from writer-producer types with great ideas for movies… The problem is, after having these types of conversations, I realize that very few “writers” have actually written anything.

The sad part is, over the past decade, I’ve realized that everybody has an idea for a movie. But few people have ever actually sent me a finished screenplay. In fact, can you guess how many people actually followed through with sending me a script?

A. One Person?
B. Two People?
C. Six People?
D. None of the Above.

If you chose “B” you are correct. Two people in ten years.

How about you? If you were given the opportunity to get your material read by a working Hollywood producer, would you be ready to go?

If not, that’s OK. I think one of the biggest challenges writers face in a first draft is an unrealistic standard of perfection. And as a result, it’s easier to talk about writing than actually writing. So let me offer you a strategy – don’t be afraid to write a crappy first draft. And second to that, don’t be afraid to suck.

Because even if you write something this year and you think it’s brilliant – I guarantee that your brilliance will dim in a few years when you look back on your work. So if your present work is going to suck in the future anyway, why not accept sucking as part of the creative process?

I’m writing this very late at night. Hopefully what I’m saying makes sense.

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