When people talk about fiction they usually mean novels and short stories, but a screenplay is also fiction. It’s fiction with labyrinth-like structural constraints. Within these parameters, however, there is infinite room for creative maneuvering. The key is to understand five essential truths:
#1: Size matters. Screenplays need to be about 110 pages long. Why? Because screenplays become movies, and movies need to be between 90 and 120 minutes so that the theaters can get in enough daily showings to make money. It doesn’t matter that most screenplays never become movies, or that most screenplays aren’t ever sold. The rule applies to all of them. You must think economically in every sense of the word.
#2: The story has to be compelling. It also has to be original, and you must love it because you’re going to be living with it for a while. I know this isn’t much to go on, but it actually leaves you a great deal of room creatively. Make sure to have a beginning, middle, and end. You also need obstacles. Without obstacles, there’s no tension. No tension equals boring. Boring equals death. Make sure it moves. Get in the scenes late, get out early. Take leaps. You don’t have time to fill in all the blanks (kind of like this paragraph –- get it?).
#3: You will write many drafts. You will not have a true sense of your characters until you have completed your first draft. It is only then that they will begin to appear to you in any real light, and probably only in the last few scenes. Now you can really start writing. In each consecutive draft (realistically speaking, you are looking at a minimum of five drafts), you must connect feeling to behavior. Also, in terms of motion, remember that the reason for walking is always destination. No one ever paces or walks (anywhere) for no reason. Think about it in terms of your own life — you’ll see that it’s true. Apply this to your characters; always know their destination within a scene, and always know the feelings behind their behavior.
#4: Contrary to popular belief, description matters. “Show, don’t tell’ is a writing cliche. It’s true for screenwriting, sort of: Yes, screenwriting is a visual medium, after it’s been turned into a movie. But before that it’s something that is read, and it’s read by impatient people (producers/studio execs/agents) who HATE to read scripts, because that’s all they do and frankly, it gets tiring – especially when the bulk of them are crappy.
Therefore, you need to make sure that it’s a ‘good read,’ which means that in addition to fantastic characters and a story that captivates, your descriptions must be compelling. To accomplish this, you must devote an entire draft to tweaking descriptions. So how do you write great descriptions? You spend hours honing sentences. There is no shortcut. But before you struggle trying to make your opening paragraph brilliant, consider this: most people never read screenplays. They see the movie, but they don’t read the scripts. You need to familiarize yourself with great screenwriters, just as you would great novelists. Find your favorite screenwriters and imitate them. Transcribe their work. Nora Ephron learned to write screenplays by transcribing William Goldman. I did the same with Ron Bass. Re-writing the work of others gets your brain moving in the right direction. It teaches you how to convey tone and how to hone construct. You will, of course, need to find your own voice, but at least you’ll have a solid foundation to build from.
#5 Like a fine wine, your screenplay needs to breathe. Toss your index cards, and don’t overly outline. Let the story breathe. Hash out a short two-page synopsis, then start writing. Write quickly, maybe five pages a day – but try not to do more than that. You can’t rush it. No one writes a screenplay in three days. They’re lying if they say they did. It’s a slow process. Let your brain have time to play with things.
A good script can take anywhere from three months to a full year (10 days? Hah!), and at some point you will get stuck. The story will fail you, or rather, you will fail the story. This is when you may sit for days unable to figure anything out. This is to be expected. Stick with it; let the characters talk to you. Let them tell you what they think. If a strange idea occurs to you that involves slashing twenty pages – try it. It’s probably the right instinct. If it isn’t, it will take you down another road that may provide an answer. Just keep searching. The answer is there.
Kristen Buckley’s upcoming movies include Shoe Addicts Anonymous and We’ll Be Out By Christmas. She has written a novel, The Parker Grey Show, and a memoir, Tramps Like Us. Her essay, “What I Am Is What I Am” appeared in Christina’s co-edited collection About Face and her horribly embarrassing personal tale, “Escape from Downtown” was included in Larry Doyle’s novel I Love You Beth Cooper. (Larry now owes her.) She is also a frequent contributor to The Nervous Breakdown.