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.
Step 1: Idea
On every paid gig you’ll have to write from someone else’s idea. So, when it comes to your original projects, don’t waste your precious spec-writing time on ideas you aren’t passionate about. Just keep reading widely and living well, and that perfect idea will work its way to you.
Step 2: Brainstorm
Just because you like an idea or a character doesn’t necessarily mean it will work well in the tight 90 minute, three act structure required of today’s films. What attracted you to this idea? What’s the driving theme behind it? Brainstorm and build, and look for the unexpected.
Step 3: The Think Stage
A feature film is a complex thing. Once you think you have the right premise and key characters, spend some time getting to know them. Dream them into various situations. Think the whole plot through in your head.
It’s awfully tempting to just write anything and everything down, but at this embryonic stage it can be such a gift to keep everything fluid and changeable. Scribbling it down can lock them down in your mind, and they can get stuck there, unchangeable, for the longest time.
Allowing your project to marinate before you start to write it out can greatly improve its depth and complexity.
Step 4: Demo Research
Screenplays aren’t isolated artworks created just to be read, they’re meant to be produced. That’s their function.
As a screenwriter, you should always be doing casual market research; reading reviews and the industry trades. But once you’ve decided what your new project is, and before you sit down to write it, you do need to reconnect with that business knowledge.
How’s this genre trending? Are the style and tone you’re intending likely to find a market? Who is your intended demographic, and why would they want to see this?
Step 5: Think Again
Every writer knows in their heart whether or not they’re respecting their audience and the rules of the genre they’re writing in. If you’re not, reworking your concept at this early stage will save you months of grief further down the track.
Now’s the time to get all the writer’s short docs done.
Step 6: Main Plot Points
What are the main points of the story? It’s one thing to imagine the whole tale in your mind, it’s another to pin it to the page. Start with only the key points.
Some screenwriters swear by a 7 plot points system, others say you need 11 key moments, and then there are those who say that it changes slightly with each project they tackle. Whatever works well for you is the right methodology for this project.
Step 7: Logline
Who is the protagonist? What must they do? Why?
Step 8: One Paragraph Synopsis
Take those major plot points and start to put them into prose.
Step 9: One Page Synopsis
Now ease yourself into a page-long version of the tale you’re telling.
Step 10: 1,000 Word Synopsis
Writing a thousand words about your protagonist, their journey and the emotional growth they undergo helps you really connect with every step of their evolution and how you have chosen to depict it.
Step 11: 40 Cards
Every producer you will ever work with will expect you to be able to break down the structure of your screenplay this way: 10 key points for Act 1, 10 plot points for the first half of Act 2, 10 for the second half, and a final 10 for Act 3.
Get used to creating your scripts this way and, when the time comes, you’ll be better able to articulate the mechanics of your screenplay to producers. Using some version of the 40 card system to plot out your specs not only makes outlining and writing the draft easier, it also builds an essential craft skill.
Step 12: Outline (also known as a Step Outline or Scene Breakdown)
Some writers find it easier to start their outline (on computer) with the 40 plot points and then just add linking scenes. Other writers find that they freeze if they turn on their computer too early in the creative process; they prefer to hand-write a list of all the major scenes, and only once that’s done do they flick on the laptop and click on Final Draft.
Step 13: Redraft Outline
Once your outline’s done, it’s very tempting to start writing a script. All writers love to write dialogue, it’s the fun part. But, taking the time to rework and refine your outline at this stage can save you a lot of time later on. Once you add the dialogue and action there’s just too much text to wade through every time you have to make some structural change. Better to do the gritty, hard lifting early on.
Step 14: Skeleton Script
Instead starting your first draft with a totally blank slate, try writing a skeleton script; take all the scenes from your outline and write them in script format. (A slug line for each scene plus a sentence of two to remind you who is in the scene, the point of it. and the outcome.)
A bonus of working this way is that, even though you still haven’t yet written a word of action or dialogue, you already have a respectable page count. Without that desperation to get the page count up at any cost, you’ll find your writing is both braver and more focused.
Step 15: First Draft
With the sluglines already in the script to keep you on track, you don’t have to waste creative energy worrying about where your characters are going to end up. You can put all your focus into finding fresh and surprising ways of getting them there.
Write scene after scene this way, and before you know it, you’ll have the script done.
Step 16: Rest
Now that your first draft is complete, put it away for a week or a month and get on with another project. Come back when you’ve got a fresh perspective.
Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.