The Three-Week Screenplay: Follow This Schedule, Bang Out a Script in Under a Month

Let’s get real! Let’s assume you have “The Great Idea” bouncing around in your head. You are petrified to tell it to anyone. You’re sure they’ll swipe it.

Having fun with paranoia? You don’t have enough money to hire a writer or even take a McKee/Field/Hague/Truby screenwriting course. What are you going to do?

The answer is simple. You’re going to write it yourself in less than one month. That’s correct: 3 weeks to your first draft with 15-25 minutes per day of typing. In 6 easy-to-follow steps. So let’s start.

First you must understand the two sayings for writers. The first is, “Writers write and thinkers think.” The point being if you want to be a writer you must actually move your fingers. You can’t write without writing. If you are being paid to think then that’s a really good lifestyle and I think you should continue it. However, your financial situation may dictate that you must write it yourself. But you’re petrified. You have writer’s block.

Now comes the second saying, “Nothing is written, it’s re-written.” Shakespeare didn’t magically pick up a quill and Macbeth flowed out. I’m sure that Will wrote and then re-wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote. But first things first and the first thing is the first draft. Stop worrying that your first draft will be great. IT WON’T. It will stink. The point is that it is now written and, if you truly have talent as a writer, you can now do the re-write and make it great. So stop being overwhelmed by the blank page. Start typing. Three weeks, 6 steps. Your first draft.

STEP 1 (Monday, Week 1): Write 1-3 words. Type the title. I think you can handle 1-3 words. Now write the title. That’s it. Nothing more.

STEP 2 (Tuesday, Week 1): Write 5-9 words. This is a 300 percent increase in writing over yesterday but I know you can handle it. Write the theme. Squeeze it into 5-9 words (AKA: “men are truly evil beings,” or “boys & girls can’t be buddies because of sex,” or “siblings are born to be rivals,” etc.) and type it. Next, cut it out and scotch tape it onto your keyboard or typewriter or screen. Thus, when you go to write your script you will always be reminded to keep it flowing through the 5-9 word theme.

STEP 3 (Wednesday, Week 1): Write 15-25 words. Another 300% increase in writing. We’re just zipping along. Now type the TV logline. Condense your story into 15-25 words (protagonist, antagonist, or good guy/bad guy, situation, and problem) so that it can fit into TV Guide. If it can’t fit into TV Guide then how is anyone going to know to turn the TV onto your movie some night. Also, if you can’t get the story down to 15-25 words, there can’t be “word of mouth.”

STEP 4 (Thursday, Week 1): Write the treatment. No one knows how many pages a treatment should be. I have heard as short as 3-5 pages and as long as 30-50 pages. So let’s start with writing a 3-5 page treatment. Guess what, it gets easier. Treatments are typed double space so you’re really only going to write 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 pages. All movies are the same. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Haven’t you heard that 20 times by now? So take 3 pieces of blank paper. Call page 1 “The Beginning,” page 2 “The Middle,” and page 3 “The End.”

STEP 4A (Friday, Week 1): Write one paragraph, 3-4 long, run-on (if needed) sentences. Write the beginning. On the first half of page 1, in double-spaced typing, write the 5 W’s and 1 H. Who. What. Where. When. Why. How. Describing who’s in the story, what’s happening, where it’s happening, when it’s happening, why it’s happening and how it’s happening. Remember, no more than one paragraph covering half of page 1. You have now typed your beginning.

STEP 4B (Saturday, Week 1): Now go to page 3 and write the ending of your movie. You should, hopefully, know how your movie ends. This should be no more than 1-2 paragraphs and occupy the bottom half of page 3. Now don’t forget the big car chase.

STEP 4C (Sunday, Week 2): Now let’s write the big middle. The beginning is short (half a page). The ending is also short (half a page). It’s the big middle that is what all storytelling is about. So now you are going to fill in the bottom half of page 1, all of page 2, and the top half of page 3 with your middle. Writing instructors claim that the middle (AKA: Act II) is where most stories fall apart. I agree.

So let’s fill up the middle with interesting events. Writing instructors call these plot points. I call them the “Oh-Shits” and the “Uh-Ohs”. There are about 4-6 points in a movie about 15-20 minutes apart, after Act I, where things seem to be advancing and then dramatically fall apart. These are the “Oh-Shits” and the “Uh-Ohs”.

Come up with 4-6 of these. Make each a small paragraph, in chronological order, and fill in the bottom half of page 1, all of page 2, and the top half of page 3. Re-write it into 3-5 pages. Put on a title sheet. Take it, along with $20, to the Writer’s Guild of America and register it. You have now written your first treatment.

STEP 5 (Monday, Week 2): Now let’s get organized for your first draft. Create a structured outline. Great writers say there are 40-60 scenes in a movie. No one really knows how many there are. I advise renting a couple of movies you really enjoy and counting the scenes. Whatever number you come up with, that is the rhythm you seem to enjoy. Let’s say you came up with 40 or 50 scenes. Then on a large piece of paper, write down the numbers 1-40 or 1-50. Then fill in each scene (chronological order) with 7-10 descriptive words. Start with Scene 1 and a problem. Scene 2 introduces a protagonist. Scene 3 introduces the antagonist, etc. Don’t go exactly down the page. Skip around. Go to scene 40 or 50 and write the ending. Scene 39 and write the great car chase. Scene 38 and write why the car chase is about to happen. Then go to your 4-6 “Uh-Ohs” and “Oh-Shits” and write them in Scenes 10, 20, 30, 35, etc. Now fill in the other scene numbers with what are called B stories.

Voila!! In 1-3 days you have filled in an open-ended jigsaw puzzle and created a story with 40-60 scenes, that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, with 4-6 major crises and several back stories. Your idea is now a fully fleshed out story.

STEP 6 (Tuesday, Week 2): Now you’re structured with a 40-60 scene story based on the idea that was in your head 2 weeks ago and is now a registered treatment. It is now time to write your first draft. It is no longer as intimidating as having an idea and facing 90-120 blank pages.

Start on Tuesday with writing only Scene 1. Spend 15-20 minutes per day. No more. If scene 1 types into 1/2 page or 3 pages it doesn’t matter. Just write Scene 1 and stop. Wednesday write Scene 2. Thursday write Scene 3. I bet that come Friday, now that you’re structured, you are no longer scared of the blank page and actually enjoy writing scene-by-scene. I further bet that you call in sick from work on Friday and stay home and write 10-15 scenes of 20-30 pages. Saturday the same. Sunday, go to church and pray for the ability to have good dialogue and believable characters. Then on Monday (Week 3) you will have your first draft finished in the next 3-4 days.

A first draft is written, step-by-step in 3 weeks, with 6 easy-to-follow steps. Now remember, “Nothing is written; it’s re-written.” All that you have is a first draft. Send this, like your treatment, with $20 and have it registered at the Writer’s guild, and start your re-write.

QUESTIONS FOR MR. HOLLYWOOD

Dear Mr. Hollywood,
I keep reading about all these guys (and girls) that come out of nowhere (or nowhere I’ve ever been to) and make a great first film. But when I look under the surface, I usually find out they actually knew someone. Do you have to know someone to get ahead in the movie business? I’m a sociology grad student in Texas and I’m thinking of changing careers, but I really don’t know anyone (famous that is).
Thank you for your time,
– Cully Griffin, U of T

Dear Cully,
Answer: Absolutely YES. Anyone who says any different is a fool. It helps if you know someone for your first break or opportunity. However, if you don’t know anyone, don’t use this as an excuse for not writing screenplays, buying film stock, learning how to edit and starting a career in the film industry. So first write, then name drop. If you don’t have someone’s name, use it anyway. Call an agent with a big pool of talent, and state that so-and-so development exec at Warner’s said he likes my project but needs a name to star and I was wondering if your actor would like to star in the vehicle. Then name drop again. State that so-and-so Big Name Director is interested. Then call the Big Name Director’s agent and say that the Star Actor is interested. Play the game. If it’s your talent talking and you’re a good salesman then maybe Hollywood is ready for the next Robert Evans and it might be you. If not, just write scripts and mail them out without names.

Dear Mr. Simens,
Hi! I’m a student at the University of Pennsylvania and there is a class that will be producing a feature-length film on video. I was wondering how we can go about distributing this film and if you have any suggestions to help us in our distribution process. Thanks a lot.
– Alicia Rubinstein

Dear Alicia :
This seems to be the college issue. You and your class are shooting a feature film at U of P and you want to get a distributor. It’s possible. Play the game right. First make sure that your film/tape is a minimum of 90 minutes long. Even if it isn’t, say it’s 90 minutes, because no one will ever look at anything less. One month before you shoot, get listed in the “trades” (Daily Variety/Friday and Hollywood Reporter/Tuesday) in the Film Production Chart. When you place the call to the editor, say that you are the publicist for a feature film. Then DV & HR will instantly fax you a form to fill in. After you fax it back, your production will be listed in the chart. The people who read the charts are acquisition executives from all the distributors in North America. They will now call you. Next I would get listed in Sydney Levine’s listing service (West Hollywood, CA) called Film Finders, and get a list of Foreign Sales Agents who are members of the American Film Market (Los Angeles, CA) Association. Just remember, if the script ain’t great nobody is going to want to buy it.

Dear Mr. Simens,
Is it more important that writers be able to direct or directors be able to write? I can’t decide which career to pursue.
You the man!

Thanks,

– John the Confused, Lexington, KY

Dear John,
It’s very simple: don’t put the cart before the horse. Write first. Write second and write third. Finally, if your writing gets produced you will then have enough power to direct. Write first. And that’s coming from The Man.

Dear Mr. Hollywood,
Martin Scorsese once said his idea of a perfect film class would be to lock you in a room with only John Ford’s The Searchers to watch over and over again. What three or four films would you recommend I watch over and over?

– Judith in Chicago

Dear Judith,
Watch Hitchcock. He’s the quintessential low-budget directing genius. First watch Rope, then Rear Window, a one setting location, and then Lifeboat. Then check out a couple of contemporary films shot with mostly master shots, such as Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Billy Bob’s Slingblade. After that I advise watching only first films of filmmakers like Scorsese, Tarantino, Spielberg, Lee, etc. Learn from what they did before they were famous and had all the money in the world. MM

Copyright 1998 by Dov S-S Simens.

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