I’ve heard every excuse from screenwriters as to why they’re unable to finish a screenplay. A year ago, my close friend was working on a screenplay and he wanted me to read the first thirty pages. I read it and gave him my notes. He thanked me, and I assumed he eagerly continued on his journey. Alas, I recently asked him about his script, and he told me it wasn’t finished yet. A year later? That script should have had multiple drafts and been unleashed upon Hollywood by now. His excuse was that he got “stuck” and couldn’t figure out where the story was going. I know he also got disillusioned by his idea because it wasn’t working and he didn’t spend enough quality time with it. He should have never typed FADE IN without knowing the entire story and characters.
Sadly, I hear this story all too often from screenwriters. Too many times, the writer didn’t respect the outline process and wanted to jump right in and start pages. Many writers believe they can just “wing it” with a simple idea and go where the pages take them. It’s a fool’s endeavor, and the writer will end up either getting bored by their story, or procrastinate so much because they got lost, and end up with their script unfinished. Or it will end up a jumbled mess with so many issues that you will suffer multiple unnecessary rewrites. It becomes the project with no deadline and no ending. Do not fall into this trap.
Excuses are easy. We have a myriad of things going on in our busy lives that can distract us from the job of filling pages. Regardless of what you have going on, if you want a career as a screenwriter you’ll have to manage your screenwriting time and protect it. I learned how to do this early on when I attended film school and working four to five nights a week in a restaurant as a waiter. It trained me to respect the efficient use of my time and I never took it for granted. We have to be careful because the forces of distraction and procrastination are always lurking and will try to derail us from our splendid screenwriting plans.
If you start your screenplay without a solid outline or treatment, you may find yourself lost in the barren wasteland of Act 2 and wonder how you’re going to trudge through the next 55-pages to reach Act 3. It’s a nightmare. I’m a huge advocate of starting outlines before you write any pages and it’s probably 50, 60, 70 percent of the work that needs to be done. Your screenwriting should be the easiest part of the process because a solid outline makes the load a lot easier, and you can write a faster screenplay when you know what’s going to happen and why.
I’ve heard writers complain that outlines are too constricting, but there is always room for new ideas or improvising because you still have to write the actual scenes. You’re going to have a bumpy ride if you don’t have a solid roadmap going in. I’m also not an advocate of what people call the vomit draft or just spilling it out and seeing if something sticks. When you start working on assignment screenplays, you won’t have the luxury of spilling it out and hoping it works. There are producers, executives, investors, studios, and networks all involved in the material who have their own requirements and responsibilities. On my assignments, I have to probably turn in a screenplay that is a seven or eight out of a ten scale because if it’s anything less, I’m holding up development if my first draft needs a long rewrite process to get it right. Another benefit of doing outlines now before you write your specs is that it actually trains you for the time when you do land an assignment job, and you’ll be ready to write a full screenplay in two months or less.
We’ve all made excuses for the reason we’re not writing. Some writers allow their excuses to affect them to the point where they are helpless to finish any new project. When the work gets difficult, you have to face it head on and not avoid it. Distractions and procrastination will always lurk and help you to find even better excuses as to why you’re not able to write. Don’t allow your excuses to derail your splendid screenwriting plans. Fully develop your idea in the form of an outline or story treatment before you start any pages and stick to a disciplined writing schedule free from distractions. This is the key to a successful first draft and a solid starting point for your next project.
Keep writing and keep the faith because if you stop you’re guaranteed to never have any chance at success.
Copyright © 2020 by Mark Sanderson. All Rights Reserved. My Blank Page blog.
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“Don’t think of it as art, think of it as work.”—Paddy Chayefsky
Hemingway said it best, “I still believe, though, that it is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes. He writes to be read by the eye and no explanations or dissertations should be necessary. You can be sure that there is much more there than will be read at any first reading and having made this it is not the writer’s province to explain it or to run guided tours through the more difficult country of his work.“
“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”—Pablo Picasso
“This is, if not a lifetime process, it’s awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, becomes more observant, becomes more tempered, becomes much wiser over a period time passing. It is not something that is injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and say, ‘Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!’ and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.”—Rod Serling
“Give me a good script, and I’ll be a hundred times better as a director.” – George Cukor
“Seeking support from friends and family is like having your people gathered around at your deathbed. It’s nice, but when the ship sails, all they can do is stand on the dock waving goodbye. Any support we get from persons of flesh and blood is like Monopoly money; it’s not legal tender in that sphere where we have to do our work. In fact, the more energy we spend stoking up on support from colleagues and loved ones, the weaker we become and the less capable of handling our business.” —Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”