A LESSON FOR THE METHODICAL SCREENWRITER

When I was a kid, I always ate candy and snacks very methodically.

Take the Hostess Ho-Ho for example:

Man, I kinda miss eating those...
Man, I kinda miss eating those…
I would never EVER consider just taking a big ol’ bite off the end, and scarfing it down in a few seconds. No no no!

My approach was WAY more, lets say: unique.

First, peel off the outer layer of chocolate — delicately! — so as to preserve the integrity of the spongy chocolate cake and the incredible creamy filling.

Then, unroll the cake — BUT DON’T BREAK IT! — and lay it out flat.

Then sumptuously (for a 4 year old…) lick off the layer of cream, and slowly devour and enjoy the moist chocolate cake…

Yeah, I know, they’re disgusting rolled up sugar bombs that will cause acne and diabetes, but man did I love my method of eating those as a kid.

Point is: I still approach much of my life in a very methodical manner. Needless to say, screenwriting is no exception.

I’ve spent years writing screenplays. The first one I co-wrote with my (now) business partner was way back in 2008 or ‘9, and we wrote the entire first draft, very methodically, in about 40 hours of work.

Not bad, right?

Well, yes, actually. The script was not good. For fun one time I put that script up on The Blacklist and paid the $50 for a review, and it received an underwhelming 3 out of 10.

Ouch.

Turns out, though our method allowed us to write a complete 90+ page scrips in about 40 hours of writing, it didn’t get us a good story.

So, over the years I went through a (very methodical) process of learning about story and character and plot and everything.

A few screenplays and pilot scripts later, I figured I was a decent writer. I was fast, competent, and what ended up on the page was no longer horribly bad.

If I had to guess, I‘d put myself somewhere in that 6 or 7 out of 10 range…

Flash forward to today, the sting of that 3 rating still lingering like a scar from the knife wound from that time your friend stabbed you in the back.

Last week I finished a second full rewrite on a script that we plan on producing next spring. This draft was a MASSIVE improvement over the last draft I did, which itself was a very drastic shift from the original script that we optioned.

However, different does not mean better.

After sitting on it for a few days, and getting a few notes and other feedback from readers, I realized that despite all this time and all these scripts and continually improving my method, I forgot one important step — a step that I’d heard over and over and over again:

VALIDATION

I did everything else right though! I swear!

I started with a logline, moved on to a synopsis that I felt worked, then a very detailed outline, which allowed me to blast out a 90ish page script in about 6 days, or 20ish hours of writing.

Yet, as I sat down and read through that script again, I realized one very important, GLARING issue: it wasn’t compelling.

And I instantly knew why:

I had failed to create a compelling character. I had a character that “worked”, but that’s not the same.

We wrote a convincing synopsis of the story and plot, but it wasn’t compelling.

The outline was slick and it worked, but again it wasn’t COMPELLING.

So we were left with a script that worked, kind of (but not really), and was absolutely, without question, NOT compelling.

 

SO, HOW DO YOU WRITE A COMPELLING SCRIPT?

The quickest way to a great story (in my relatively inexperienced opinion) is feedback.

It looks like this:

Describe your character in 5 words to someone else, anyone else. If it’s compelling, you may move to the next step. Here’s a simple formula I stole from Ty Templeton:

[My protagonist is] The _____iest _____ in (the) _____.

(The blankest blank in the blank…)

Simple. James Bond: The greatest spy in the world. Even though that is a pretty basic description, what it does to the person you’re pitching it to is the interesting part: you can start thinking of stories based on JUST that description. That’s compelling!

As soon as you have a compelling character that’s been validated by feedback from others (not just your own ego), you may now pass “Go” and collect $200.

Strike that last part. You don’t get paid for this part of the writing process…

Next? Logline. Is it compelling? Great. Next step.

Synopsis, validate, check. Outline, validate, check.

Only after going through these four steps can you — or should you — move on to the script.

It will now be much easier to write a compelling script because you’ve gone through those checkpoints along the way that ensure you have a compelling story on your hands.

It’s what I failed to do on this film. It’s not to say that the work I’ve done has been time poorly spent, because I’ve learned a lot and made tons of headway. What it does mean is that I could be way closer to a shootable script if I had done these validation steps along the way, rather than after writing two complete drafts, two outlines, two synopses…etc.

So, learn from my mistake, don’t move to the next step without validating, and seriously, don’t just start writing a script on page 1 and hope that it turns into the next Indiana Jones movie. It ain’t gonna happen.


And yes, in case you’re wondering, I totally just wrote a “How To” post based on something that I failed to do.

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