As we are the architects of a movie, structure becomes extremely important in the process of writing your screenplay. As the architect, you wouldn’t build a house without the blueprints, would you? The place could become a house of cards and fall apart when you build it up too much. The same thing can happen to your screenplay. Why start down the path of writing your script without the structure fully in place? I actually know some writers who prefer to begin “FADE IN” with only a vague notion of how their story will progress. They prefer to just start writing and allow the story to find its way. I know a writer who followed this method and his scripts were always far too long. Finding your way without a road map might work with your spec script, but it would never work with an assignment job and deadline. A solid treatment is always the best place to start.
I’m thankful my writing professors in film school were industry professionals. They always stressed the structure of a script first, before any pages were even written. You must know your story and characters. Every scene must propel the story toward the climax and resolution. We used index cards, one per scene and mapped out the entire film on a big board. I have a 3’ by 4’ corkboard that holds about seventy index cards, more than enough to structure a feature screenplay. Of course, Final Draft has the same tools, but I like to see the entire movie flow up on the big board. Call me old school, but for me it has worked every time for my nearly dozen screenwriting assignment jobs.
I remember my first paid screenwriting assignment and two feelings come to mind — anxiety and terror. It was my first time writing a movie under a deadline — and I was getting paid! There was no turning back and the producer was expecting great things. Luckily, I had a solid treatment going into page one and it helped guide me to complete the script on time. The process of starting with a solid structure helped me to become a more efficient screenwriter. This has been extremely important asset in my last eleven writing assignments. Of course, the producers would never allow me to start the script in the first place until they read and agree to a solid treatment first. Several times, the treatments were twenty pages and very detailed. I already worked out the story problems before they became problems. Now with nearly a dozen assignments under my belt, I love to have the security of a solid story treatment. It also forces you to live with your characters and their back stories before you start on the first page of script.
Producers want to know they will get the script they are paying you to write – the only surprises are left for the audience. The investors and executives are expecting the script to reflect the treatment they just read as well. Producers hire you for that “your name here” feel. Studio mogul Lipnick hired Barton Fink for his “Barton Fink” feel. A tight structure may have helped him to get past the first line of his script and fill those blank pages to meet his deadline. Poor Fink. I’ve been in his situation when I didn’t have a treatment to follow, and I too came up against a wall. The first act is always easy to write. The set up is the fun part. It’s the long second act that will kill you. When you take your head out of the sand and look around, an unstructured act two becomes a vast barren wasteland. While you’re stumbling around and can’t see those fifty odd pages ahead of you, it’s a complete disaster and wastes precious writing time.
I like the safety net a tight structure affords, but no producer will allow you to start on a screenwriting assignment job without a road map to follow in the way of a treatment. I was able to write my last script assignment in 34 days from start to finish. That included working through the Christmas holidays and being sick for three weeks. I started the assignment in mid December and by New Years, I was only on page 12 and was completely behind as I didn’t work much during the holidays. I was able to power through, working from my treatment and finished two and a half weeks later. I took another week for my own polish — I use a pen and make changes by hand, and then enter my final changes into the computer before turning in the script. I have yet to beat my record of twenty working days for a first draft. Again, that treatment was solid and I was able to power through and focus on the writing. Now, if the producer gave me two months, it would be a different situation, but I don’t have that luxury of time.
When writing becomes your career, you must learn to write efficiently, under pressure, within a particular budget, and meet your deadlines – all while being able to turn in an excellent script. It’s taken me years to master this method and it seems to work as they keep hiring me back.
A solid treatment has always been my trusted roadmap and has served me well on this journey as a working writer.
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“Of the total creative effort represented in a finished work, 75 percent or more of a writer’s labor goes into designing the story… designing story tests the maturity and insight of the writer, his knowledge of society, nature, and the human heart. Story demands both vivid imagination and powerful analytic thought.“—Robert McKee, “Story”
“Good screenwriting is about carpentry. It’s a juggling of beginnings, middles and endings so they all inevitably seem to be moving correctly together. Your first draft is dangerously important. Don’t ever kid yourself into thinking, “It’s okay, it’s just the first draft.” Beware of that thought, because it’s ten times more difficult to go in a certain direction once you’ve already gone in another direction.”—Ernest Lehman, screenwriter of Sweet Smell of Success, North by Northwest, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?
“Generally speaking, if you don’t set everything up in the beginning, you’ll pay for it… in the middle or in the end. So I would rather pay for it at the beginning. It’s not television and they’re not going to go off into the icebox, or they’re not going to change channels. An audience in a movie will forgive you for just about anything for the first 10 minutes or so. But really nothing at the end. So it’s the time to prepare… the beginning.” —Robert Towne