My friend Sara suggested I write a post about my process.
I also receive a lot of questions regarding the difference between writing screenplays vs. books, articles, etc.
The biggest difference is film (unlike TV) is a director's medium not a writer's medium. When you write a feature script what ends up on screen could be very different. When you write a novel or a play that's it. You will of course get notes from your editor or if it's a play, the producers and/or talent, but no one rewrites you. You're not fired from your book and other authors are "put on" the project.
Every writer has their own process but for most screenwriters an original script goes like this:
Once I have an idea I do a
I spend a lot of time on this. Most of the backstory is never mentioned in the actual script but by the time I start writing I have a very good idea of who my characters are. There will be surprises of course. Sometimes the character will "dictate" to you what they want to do. It's best to get out of their way and let them do it.
Some writers use index cards. Some even have a different colored card for each character. I use a Word document. Not sure why I stopped doing the index card thing. I don't have the room? Basically this is page (or index cards) of 50 scenes/beats. I keep it short just a line or two per scene/beat. I add to this while working on my characters. I also do any research during this stage.
Screenplays have to be structured. Someone asked me if that's why so many Hollywood movies are unoriginal. No, just how we all have skeletons but are unique individuals, that's what a script is. The skeleton of the film. Without structure, it breaks down.
Are there films that follow a different structure than the three-act one? Yes, Pulp Fiction but you have to know the rules before you can break them.
Notice when you go to a movie and you start to get restless, nothing seems to drive the movie forward? That's a pacing problem and no matter how great the dialogue, interesting the characters, if the structure is broken it's a mess.
The outline is not set in stone. Writing is rewriting. Some writers don't outline or spend a lot of time on theirs. But trust, they still have structured scripts.
For me I like have a solid outline because when I sit down the write my first draft I want it to flow. I do not edit my work until after that first draft is done. When I'm writing that draft, I write 5 - 15 pages a day. I try to iron out story, structure and character problems before I start writing. I want to focus on dialogue when I write the script and that's hard to do if everything else is wrong.
By the time I start the first draft, I have lived with the movie for a while and I think about it all the time. Snippets of dialogue come to me at random times and I write them down. If I didn't have the outline I could easily get stuck, especially during the long ass second act. The second act is where movies can get bogged down and where there are the most story problems.
After the first, rough, draft, I put the script aside focusing on another project for a week or so, then start rewriting. This is the meat of the matter...when the screenplay really takes shape. It might come together in four drafts or maybe fourteen.
If you are interested in writing scripts, read them. Most of them are online. Read books, magazines, newspapers, etc. Watch a TON of movies, current and the classics. In different genres.
Don't think because you can write in another medium, poof, screenwriting must be easy because there are so many bad films. You have no idea what the original script looked like and yes, it's hard to write bad scripts as well.
Listen to the DVD commentary. This is a gift from heaven, especially if you cannot go to film school. You can learn a lot from listening to the writers and directors talk about the movie.
Check out John August's blog, it's excellent. If you don't know who John August is and you want to write scripts...start doing research on the A-list writers. Google their interviews on Youtube. Most of them talk about their process and how they broke into the business.
One page of a screenplay in general equals a minute of screen time. Screenplays range between 105-120 pages. Comedies closer to 105.
When I was an exec and would get a comedy script clocking in at 140 pages from a new writer, immediately I knew the screenwriter didn't do his or her homework.
Execs have stacks of scripts to read every week and are looking for every excuse in the book not to read yours. Don't make it easy. I know plenty of execs who will stop reading a script after 15 pages. People are not overestimating the importance of those first few pages. No one is going to keep reading to see if things get better in the second act.
While the first part of my process (especially the outline) may seem tedious, going through my iTunes library for my script's playlist is fun. Any procrastination issues tend to happen during my research/outlining stage. Once I write FADE IN I'm good to go and music helps a lot.
I write in the morning. During the colder months it's the first thing I do since it's too cold to work out outside. During warmer weather I work out first, then write.
This applies to original material (a spec script). When you have a writing assignment, in general you have eight weeks once commenced to turn in a draft to the studios. That's not a lot of time to do all the prep work and a few drafts of the script. Usually you will give the draft to the producers who may give you notes before you hand in the draft to the studio.
Similar to journalism, there's not such thing as writer's block when you have a writing assignment. Nobody wants to hear it. If the studio is paying for a script and you want to have a career in Hollywood, you need to be reliable.
I've heard many executives, agents and managers say while talent and luck are very important, being a disciplined writer is just as, if not more, important.