This week, I turned in my screenplay three days before my contracted deadline. It was a pitch that I sold in December, and the first draft took me twenty-seven days to finish. Maybe you’d say, “I could never write a screenplay in four weeks!” Sure, maybe when you’re first starting out, but I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and the script I turned in was number forty-two on my journey. I could have never achieved the fast writing pace of five pages a day unless I had my solid outline to follow. The producer sent the script to the network, we received their minimal notes, and I’m on to writing the second draft. I give full credit to my deep work on the outline before I started any pages. A solid outline allows you to write a faster first draft.
When working on your specs, you want your first draft to be the best possible draft you can write at the time… and why not? Don’t stress if it’s not perfect. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But why would anyone want to write a first draft using it as an exploration exercise? Or be rewriting while they write. It wastes precious time. Even if you rewrite your script to the point of being “written out” where you are totally confident with it… it will be looked upon as a first draft in the eyes of any new reader. And you should never tell anyone how many drafts it took to get to the one they are reading. It’s none of their business. Let them think it’s a “first draft.”
Don’t subscribe to the hype about the “vomit” draft where you just write off the top of your head from a few loose ideas. I recently consulted on a screenplay where the writer followed this method. His script suffered from overwriting with too many issues and came in about thirty pages too long. If you enjoy rewriting yourself and wasting time on a first draft, by all means go ahead. You will never get that chance when working under a contract and a deadline.
This is why I strongly believe that beginning writers should train now with their specs and try to nail the first draft. It does not have to be “crap.” Trust me, you will not have the luxury of turning in crap when you start working as a professional screenwriter on assignment work. Most of the writing in the feature arena in Hollywood is on assignment, as fewer than a hundred spec screenplays sell in any given year at the studio level. In fact, only thirty-four specs sold in 2021. A stat like that will open your eyes to the reality of the business. When an opportunity comes your way, you want to be ready to perform at the level of writing and speed necessary to complete an assignment under a contracted deadline. You’ll sign a contract, receive a payment, and it’s “go” time. Every assignment job requires an outline. The outlines also go through rewrites until the producers, investors, executives, studio, or network is comfortable the story they want is the one that you will write. No surprises!
Once the outline is accepted, you will be given your marching orders to start pages and the clock starts to tick. It’s not stressful because you have lived with the characters and story for a few weeks as you have created the outline from the concept. It gives you that precious time to envision the movie and now you have seen the entire movie played out in your head. Your pages should be a breeze and pleasure not a struggle. Creating and using an outline makes the screenwriting process a fun experience. You won’t get stuck in the barren wasteland of ACT TWO trying to figure out what happens next. It also still gives you creative freedom while working with a story safety net.
Outlines can be long and detailed and can range from ten to fifty pages in length. My latest outline that I turned in for this current assignment was twenty-three pages. I’ve also done extensive outlines up to thirty pages. My good friend who directed a studio film last year turned in a fifty page outline before he wrote the first draft. The outline length varies to how in-depth your story requires or how deep you want to go with details. The more details you work out ahead of time before you start pages, the better your first draft will be.
A fellow screenwriter friend always tells me he doesn’t like to work from a detailed treatment because he feels it stifles his spontaneity as he writes pages. His method is using a loosely structured beat sheet and he fills in the blanks as he writes. Different writers use different methods, but I’ve never gone astray writing the script from a detailed outline. Many times, a producer or executive only gives you a logline and it’s your job to return with a full story outline before they allow you start the script.
Screenwriting is all about structure. I always find plenty of creative breathing room and spontaneity even when working from a detailed outline. I still have to write the scene and let the characters interact, but I’ve already created the story world, the structure, and character’s motivations, so it allows me to play within the story’s parameters and create ideas not listed in the outline. I’ve always found that so many good ideas spring from a solid foundation because it’s a creative framework and suddenly one good idea begets another, and so on.
Outlines can be a powerful tool to help you prepare to write the script. If you’re getting paid for a script assignment, it’s standard practice the producer or executive will ask you to create an outline before they allow you to start any screenplay pages. Writing an extensive outline is similar to doing a pre-draft of your script. If you embrace the outlining process and craft a solid framework for your story, it will help serve as your guide to a successful first draft with fewer rewrites in your future.
Keep the faith and keep filling your blank pages on your road to success.
© 2023 by Mark Sanderson on MY BLANK PAGE. All rights reserved.
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“In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me.”—Kurt Vonnegut
“You can write any time people will leave you alone and not interrupt you. Or rather you can if you will be ruthless enough about it. But the best writing is certainly when you are in love. If it is all the same to you I would rather not expound on that.”—Ernest Hemingway
“Most directors do not want to rewrite the script. They have more pressing commitments on the sound stage. The writer’s best insurance against a rewrite is to have an understanding of the directorial problems. Write a scene that can’t be played, no matter how beautiful the words or thoughts, is begging for a revamp.”—Jerry Lewis
“Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard. When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.”—Florida State University’s Anders Ericsson
“The time we have alone; the time we have in walking; the time we have in riding a bicycle; are the most important times for a writer. Escaping from a typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give your subconscious time to think. Real thinking always occurs on the subconscious level.”—Ray Bradbury
“I never feel the need to discuss my work with anyone. No, I am too busy writing it. It has got to please me and if it does I don’t need to talk about it. If it doesn’t please me, talking about it won’t improve it, since the only thing to improve it is to work on it some more. I am not a literary man but only a writer. I don’t get any pleasure from talking shop.”—William Faulkner