Kathy and Chris Riley
Kathy and Chris Riley

A tip of the paw to Mike Rinaldi, for once again bringing Christopher Riley our way. Chris is best known as the author of
The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style. Chris spent 14 years in the script department at Warner Bros. as well as writing for Paramount, Mandalay, and Touchstone Pictures. More recently he produced the thriller Red Line, directed by Robert Kirbyson and starring Nicole Gale Anderson and John Billingsley, and taught in Pepperdine University’s MFA program in Screen and Television Writing. Chris and his wife Kathy wrote the psychological thriller Crawlspace, currently in development at Yellow Line Studio with Amardeep Kaleeka to direct. Chris previously wrote the outstanding blog, “Why Story Structure Matters, Even if You Don’t Want It To.” Here’s part three of this powerful and perceptive three-part series:

Step 5: Write the first draft.
Before you’ve completed steps one through four, you may feel an almost irresistible urge to begin writing script pages. You may feel certain you’re ripe to write. You may know you could plant yourself in front of your MacBook and write your way clean through the movie to fade out. Don’t do it. You don’t know where you’re going and you’ll invariably run off the road into a ditch. I’ve done it. You may need to do it, too, before you believe me. But for the sake of argument, let’s say you’re willing to learn from my mistakes and have completed steps one through four. That sensation you’ve got of being ready to write? It’s no longer a delusion. Let it rip. The poultry shears have done their work. A heap of bite-sized morsels lies before you. It’s time to feast.

Sit down at your keyboard and tackle the script one beat at a time. Follow your beat sheet. Draw on your rich period of preparation. Pull out your characters like so many Barbies or G.I. Joes and watch them play and hear them talk. Write down what you see and hear in vivid, economical, specific detail. Work at it steadily, day by day, knocking down one beat after another. If you work five days a week, writing one beat per day, you’ll blaze through the 40 beats of your first draft in eight weeks. If you write one beat per week, you’ll finish your first draft in nine months.  Much more could be said about the art and skill of scene writing. For now, I’ll offer these few suggestions:

Write every day, or as close to every day as you can manage. You’ll build up emotional momentum which will carry you from one writing session into the next. That momentum can be destroyed by gaps in your writing schedule during which the emotion of the piece drains out of you and you’re forced to upload the story into your heart and brain almost from scratch.

Set aside a time and a place for your daily writing where you can be protected from whatever distractions you find most difficult to resist. (Stephen King, in his imminently practical On Writing, treats this subject better than anyone I’ve read.)

Understand that the most difficult part of any writing session is getting started. For that reason, bring all your willpower to bear to begin writing each day, knowing that once you’ve taken the day’s first step, the subsequent steps will come more easily. I find that, though I encounter much internal resistance to beginning, once I get rolling I can lose myself for huge chunks of time as I continue laboring without any great need for exertions of self-control.

Arrange for a little pain. Tell someone about your writing schedule and the goals you intend to meet by some deadline that isn’t too far off, say a week away. Ask them to check in with you as soon as the deadline arrives for evidence that you’ve reached your goal. Ask them to mock you if you haven’t finished your work. Or assess a mutually agreed penalty. Here’s how it works. You say, “If I don’t finish my first draft through beat 10 by next Tuesday, I’ll dig up your old septic tank and replace it.”  Something along those lines will often do the trick.

Keep moving forward. Especially if you’ve ever displayed perfectionist tendencies, defy the impulse to go back over your first three pages again and again, honing them instead of making progress through your beats.

The above advice notwithstanding, begin each day’s writing by going back over yesterday’s work. I’m frequently amazed by the clarity I have about the previous day’s work simply by virtue of getting a little distance from it. I find that I’m able to polish the scene in a matter of minutes and then launch myself into the next scene carrying speed from the earlier one.

Finish your work.

Forgive yourself when you fall short of your goals. Pick yourself up and go after it again.

Keep going. Bite by bite, the shoe will go down.

Finish your work.

Celebrate milestones.

Finish your work.

Celebrate completion of your first draft. If it’s your first-ever complete first draft, congratulations. You’ve arrived among the relative few screenwriters who have earned that name by having actually written a draft of a screenplay from beginning to end. Reward yourself with a bar of dark chocolate and a midnight walk in the falling snow.

Step 6: Rewrite. Having finished your first draft, you now possess a tangible expression of your movie, something you can throw down in front of a film-loving friend or a fellow screenwriter whose wisdom and taste you trust.

Step 6a: Getting notes.
If you’re as insecure as I am, the only note you want to hear from your readers is one that prominently features the words “brilliant” and “don’t change a word.” Nonetheless, you now ask your trusted pals to read your script and give you something you must learn to draw out of them and treasure: a frank and accurate description of what your movie looks and feels like to them. You’ve designed your story to surprise your audience, or to throw suspicion on a red herring and divert it away from the true culprit, or you’ve crafted a joke or action sequence or dramatic confrontation to evoke laughter or adrenaline or tears.

You only know if you’ve succeeded when actual readers become your first audience and tell you what they experience when they take in your movie page by page. Find out where they’re confused. Make them tell you where they’re bored. Do they root for your hero, willing to trade their lives for his, or do they hope he sinks in a tar pit? Where did they laugh? Did you, um, want them to laugh at that point?

Gather notes from as many trusted readers as you can recruit. The number should be no smaller than three. Four or five wouldn’t be too many. (An important caveat:  If you know Scorsese or the Coen boys, don’t bring them into the mix yet. Save your industry connections for later in the process, after your baby learns to walk. You only get one shot with the pros so you want to make it your best.) Either get your readers to put their notes in writing or you put their notes in writing for them, the good and the bad, what works and what doesn’t.  Make a neat stack.

Step 6b: Digest and evaluate the notes.
Read through the notes thoughtfully, remembering that your worth doesn’t derive from what you write and what others think about what you’ve written. If you’re going to be a screenwriter, you’d best solve that riddle now. Understand that you possess worth because you’re a human being, loved and loving despite your many imperfections. Cling to that as you read these notes. Where do you find consensus? Writers often say if one person gives a note, they can ignore it. If two people give the same note, they have to think about it. And if three people give the same note, they have to make the fix.

An important caution when dealing with notes: listen not so much for solutions as for the problem the suggestion is intended to remedy. You’re the writer so you will often know a better solution that is truer to your characters than will your readers. But notes come from somewhere and as farfetched as some notes will sound, they usually point to a problem in the script. That’s because readers who are breathlessly turning pages to find out what happens next to a character about whom they’re desperately worried forget they’re reading a script. They think they’re watching a great movie. And people watching a great movie don’t stop to write notes. (Note to self: Stop hating people who give me notes.)

Step 6c: Read your own script.
If you’ve had the luxury of letting some time pass since you finished the draft, you’ll see with fresh eyes things about your script that will surprise you. You’ll groan at bits that don’t work at all. And you may well experience the wonderful surprise of reading something that works so well you can’t quite believe you wrote it. Write down your reactions to the script, including the stuff that works really well. As important as knowing what to jettison is knowing what to hold onto. Decide, based on your own reading of your script, your opinion of each of the notes you’ve received. Where do the real problems lie? What makes this script work? What needs to change? Where can you make it better?

Step 6d: Make a rewrite plan.
Once you’ve identified the problems you’re going to fix and the weaknesses you’re going to strengthen, list them in some orderly manner. Go back to your prep documents: beat sheet, treatment, Eight Essential Story Points, character work. Brainstorm solutions to each problem and add those to your list of problems to be fixed.

Step 6e: Execute your plan.
Sometimes you’ll implement all your notes in a single, global pass through the script. If the work is extensive, this amounts to what is commonly called a page one rewrite. Other times, you’ll make several separate passes through the script, with a different focus for each. I recently completed a theme pass on a film I’m writing, giving my complete attention to understanding and clarifying what the story is about, what it means both to my characters and to me. You might do the same for page count. Or for budget. Or for a character’s arc, charting the moments where she grows and changes throughout the script. You could do a dialogue polish or a comedy punch-up. Or you might give your attention to subplots, maybe the romance that’s threaded through the action.

I make a habit of going through my scripts last of all to remove needless words, hoping to please Mssrs. Strunk and White and improve the force and clarity of my writing in the bargain. Remember to proofread your script for format, spelling, grammar, punctuation, and typos. When you’ve done all you know to do, it’s time to return to step 6a, looping through this stage, rewriting, polishing and wordsmithing until your readers sit up all night because they can’t put your script down and when the sun comes up they begin cold-calling agents and producers on your behalf, begging them to read you because your story and storytelling are simply that good. It can happen. But only to those who stick with the meal bite by bite until they’ve eaten the whole shoe.

Next week: A special message from Tracey Jackson