by Fin Wheeler
Made a New Year’s resolution to get more serious about the way you write? Here’s a step-by-step guide to crafting a spec screenplay like a professional. (Read Part I here.)
Step 17: Read Your First Draft Twice
Now that you’ve had a break, it’s time to read the entire screenplay in one sitting.
Make a list of all the major problems, and note the scenes where you zoned out or put the script down. Those are the biggest problems your subconscious is red-flagging. This is also the time to really think deeply about the theme of the project.
Most of us kind of know what themes and issues we’re naturally drawn to, but it’s not until you write out that first draft that the full force of your underlying concerns occur to you. Whatever made you chose this project, it’s important to you. And you need to respect that. Take some time to think about why it is you are driven to write this story.
Good producers will always ask, “What is your personal connection to this story?” and “Why are you the best person to tell it?” Go for a walk and really think honestly about how you would answer those questions. You’re not trying to tell the best sounding, most convincing lie. You just really need to know, for yourself, what is driving you to write this screenplay.
Then sit back down at your writing desk with that first draft. You’re not looking for a little word here and there that you can tinker with. Think about which sections of the screenplay you can cut and condense, and whether the story is hitting all the right points. Would it be more effective if you re-ordered some sections? Is this even the right protagonist for the theme?
Step 18: New Outline
Many screenwriters are reluctant to move away from their script, now that they finally have one. It’s not going backwards to write a new outline. The new outline is a chance to leave behind the not-so-great parts of the first draft while keeping all the best bits.
The first draft wasn’t a waste; it helped you develop and refine the structure, and it also enabled you to get a much deeper understanding of your characters and environments.
But now that you’ve toned those muscles and done all that character development, you need to set it aside. We write the first draft for the knowledge it provides, not for the actual physical pages.
Writing a second draft outline allows you to focus on only the structural elements, and making them better.
Step 19: Second Draft
When you’re happy with the new outline, write it into script.
Step 20: More Rewrites
Write as many new drafts as necessary. At least four drafts is considered the norm for professionals, but when you’re starting out, logic suggests you’ll need more.
Step 21: Submit For Assessment
Once you’ve hit the wall and feel there are no more improvements to the project that you can make on your own, it’s time to send your screenplay off to a reputable script assessment service.
If you have millions of dollars to fund productions of your own screenplays, you can afford to turn your nose up at script assessment, but for proper screenwriters, script development is a reality, and paying for your specs to be assessed gets you ready for that aspect of professional life.
Step 22: Review Feedback
When that feedback notification pops up, a lot of screenwriters are still far too attached to their darling project. Before they even open the email, they’re on the defensive.
Take a moment. Breathe. Remember why it is you like this project and what it is that’s important to you about it. No one’s trying to take that from you. The feedback is just one industry insider’s opinion on how you could maybe better articulate this tale of yours. They’ve read thousands of specs over their career, they’ve seen which specs get picked up, and which ones made it through development to a greenlight. They know what the most common mistakes and pitfalls are.
They may not know more than you about writing, but they sure know more about what scripts get snapped up and why.
So, go ahead and read that feedback you paid for. Then think about it for a day or two. It’s never easy to hear and process criticism, but for professional writers it is an essential skill.
Step 23: Rewrite
Don’t rush into it. When you’re ready to address the weaknesses in your script, be thorough. And do as many re-writes as necessary, until you’re sure that the script you have created is ready to be seen by professionals.
Step 24: Take a Moment
Once you finish that final industry-ready draft, print a copy. We screenwriters don’t really need to print hard copies these days, most firms don’t accept paper copies anymore… but we’re writers, it’s who we are. There’s nothing finer than taking a moment to flick through a real, physical copy of your latest creation once it’s finally finished, savoring all the hard work that went into its creation.
Step 25: Write Short Docs
Now it’s time to put your business cap on. Write your short docs (logline, synopsis, mock up of the query letter) so they’re ready to send out to the industry.
Step 26: Send Query Letters / Enter Reputable Contests
You should’ve already done your research about which production companies work in your genre, and you should know from reading the trades who has a little room on their slate. Remember that a few polite, well-considered inquiries are better than a flood of sloppy ones. You aren’t trying to sell the most boxes of cookies; you’re trying to find that one producer who will respond to your material. (LA Screenwriter highly recommends Virtual Pitchfest for effective querying.)
Best of luck creating (and finding a producer for) your new feature screenplay.
Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.