I don’t have ten tips, or five tips, or even three tips. I can only give you one tip: Please, for the love of all that is holy, know your story before you start writing.
This is so much more difficult than it sounds. I always thought writing was exploratory, an attempt to exorcise a subconscious theme I was wrestling with. While this approach can work for short stories or short film scripts, it becomes unwieldy and time-consuming when tackling feature screenplays or novels.
BEFORE you type FADE IN:, plan the beginning, the middle, and the end.
If you cut corners in the planning stage, saying you’ll figure it out “in the writing,” you will be like Bugs Bunny tunneling blindly underground to get to Pismo Beach. When you pop your head back above ground and take a look at your finished draft, you will most likely find yourself wishing you had taken a left turn at Albuquerque. Do yourself a favor: Plan your route and consult your map en route.
Story ≠ Screenplay.
Think of story as the plan and screenplay as the execution. A screenplay is a story told in scenes, each scene necessary to tell the story. At this stage you’re just testing if each scene is necessary. When planning a screenplay, I try to write the story in prose first, without dialog, with each scene represented by either a sentence or a paragraph. Then I read and revise the condensed story, omitting what is unnecessary.
This blueprint, your script “treatment,” can vary from one to forty pages. The more detailed your work at this stage, the less chance your script will derail in the writing. So don’t just say it’s a boy meets girl story. Figure out who the characters are, then ask yourself: What happens? Then what happens? And then what happens?
How do you know when you’re ready to begin screenwriting?
Try telling your story to a friend. (If you can’t tell it, how will you write it?) Don’t narrate a screenplay. Just tell it like you’re telling them what happened last night. If they are interested and follow along without questions, you’re probably ready. If not, take what you’ve learned and refine your treatment further. It’s easier to get feedback on a one-page outline than it is to get a friend to read a 120 page script.
Now ADAPT your story into screenplay format.
Now that you’ve already tested the structure of the story, you can focus your energies on what’s really important: exciting set pieces, memorable moments, and clever dialog. Now it’s all up to you how to stage each scene. Let your individuality shine: Different writers will execute the same story entirely differently.
Be patient with yourself.
I am always in a big hurry to be done. But if you short-change planning your story and spotlighting weaknesses in advance, you will spend ten times the work in revision. Worse yet, you will hold in your hand something that looks like a script, but isn’t what you envisioned, and you may even lose enthusiasm for the story.
A structural approach to screenwriting requires patience and discipline, but the rewards are great. You might find if you spend three weeks hammering out your story, the actual screenwriting will take only a week. So please, don’t even install Final Draft until you know the story you’re telling. Use Microsoft Word, note cards, lists, whatever you like, but save the Courier 12pt until you have a map in hand.
Greg Marcks’ 2005 feature debut 11:14—an intricately plotted suburban noir with a wicked sense of humor—has become a cult classic. Marcks wrote scripts for Lions Gate, Summit, and DreamWorks before his second directorial effort, the techno-thriller Echelon Conspiracy, hit theaters in 2009. Marcks is currently adapting Jonathan Lethem’s novel You Don’t Love Me Yet—an indie rock love story—for himself to direct. Visit www.gregmarcks.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/gregmarcks.