If triple digits is how many it takes…

math lesson
“So you see, Billy, if you edited out 5 pages from the previous draft, that would put your new midpoint around page 54.”

I recently read in an interview with screenwriter Eric Heisserer that included him being asked how many drafts he wrote for ARRIVAL.

“Over one hundred.”

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Keep in mind that this was also spread out over time, not all concentrated in one specific period. And that a new draft doesn’t necessarily mean a complete rewrite. It could be anything from that to a few words changed on pages 33, 52, and 88 through 89.

And ARRIVAL was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards, so looks like all those drafts Eric went through were worth it.

About two years ago, I had lunch with a writer friend. He was familiar with my western, and liked it very much. When I mentioned I was considering returning to it to work on it some more, he said “I think it’s fine how it is. If you keep messing with it, you run the risk of making it worse.”

At the time, I really took that to heart. I didn’t want to mess up the script, but deep down I also knew it could still be better.

As you probably already guessed, I eventually ignored his advice and dove back in. I got a few more rounds of feedback from trusted colleagues and professional consultants, always tweaking and fine-tuning with every draft.

There’s no way I could say exactly how many drafts I went through to get to where it is now, but it’s probably safe to say it’s at least over one hundred. That is definitely a lot, but reading the script now, the results of all that work are evident on the page.

Plus, all the notes and all the rewriting have combined to make a really positive impact on my writing. While the overall challenge of putting a script together is still pretty daunting, the whole process seems to move forward in a much smoother manner. And, to be honest, maybe a little faster too.

Even though someone may tell you your script is “good enough as it is”, the final product is all on you. Keep working on it as long as you think you need to, with as many drafts as it takes.

You might not get an Oscar nomination, but getting your script to where you want it to be will definitely make you feel like a winner. Yes, that’s a sappy and corny thing to say, but it’s still true.

My race, my pace

half-marathon
Focus on finishing, not winning

This past weekend, I ran my first half-marathon of the year. Luckily for me, it was a pretty flat course, and I accomplished my primary goal of finishing under two hours. 1:58:43, to be specific.

That works out to about a 9-minute mile, which for me is pretty good. It’s faster than I run during my training runs.

Because it’s an actual race, I tend to push myself a little bit more. Not because I’m trying to beat any of the other runners, but to see what I’m truly capable of.

Naturally, there will be those who finish much sooner than me. I think I was somewhere around the 7-mile mark when the eventual winner passed by in the opposite direction. They were maybe a minute or two from the finish line, while I had just passed the halfway point, so still had another six miles to go (equaling about a little less than an hour or so).

Was I bothered by that? Not in the least. I’m nowhere near being able to run that fast anyway. The takeaway is that we were each going at the pace that worked best for us. Theirs just happened to be significantly faster than mine.

“Well, that’s all well and good, but what does it have to do with screenwriting?” you might ask.

Easy. The results from when I do a race are similar to the results of when I write: I go at my own pace, which is different from everybody else’s. Some writers will get done faster, and some will take longer. As long as you’re happy with the results of how you did is what matters the most.

I know several writers who’ve had some very productive writing sessions the past few weeks; a few have been churning out pages at a seemingly inhuman rate. Do I wish I could emulate them and crank out double-digit numbers of pages every day? Sure, but my personal circumstances being what they are, that’s just not an option. For me, ending the day with three new pages is a victory.

It’s very easy to see somebody else’s progress, compare it to your own, which isn’t as much, and feel like you’re doing a lousy job.

DON’T.

How somebody else writes is absolutely no reflection on how you do. That’s them and you’re you. Comparing and contrasting both sides is pointless. All of your focus and attention should be on you; everything else is a distraction.

Like with running, if you want to improve, you need to work at it. It’s not easy, and takes time. But if you’re willing to put in the effort and keep at it on a regular basis, you’ll find yourself gradually doing better than you did a few weeks or months ago. That, in turn, will boost your confidence and make you want to keep trying to improve.

Writing a script is a long journey, and every single step gets you a little bit closer to finishing. And all those steps add up.

Put in the work, and you’ll see the results. Today, three pages. A week from now, four. After a month, five, six, or even more. Before you know it, you’ve got yourself a completed draft.

All without breaking a sweat.

Respect your reader/audience

audience
Treat them the way you’d want to be treated

What we read on the page is what we would expect to see and hear on the screen. Pretty simple, right?

Sadly, not every writer gets it. As a result, some feel they have to explain what it is we’re seeing and hearing. Too many times I’ll read a spec script where a character does something, followed by WHY they’re doing it, or WHAT IT REALLY MEANS.

Maybe they think their writing isn’t getting the point across, so they feel the need to throw this additional info in – just to make sure you’re really getting it? It’s a practice I highly recommend not doing.

Imagine you’re reading your own script. How would you feel if there was a stop in the action to explain what just happened?

My initial thought is that this is how it’s done in books, so the writer figures they should do the same thing for a script. But I’d say that would have the opposite effect.

By laying everything out in front of us, the writer is doing themselves a disservice by not having faith in the intelligence of the reader/audience. They want your story to entertain them. People actually enjoy being able to figure stuff out and reaching their own conclusions.

Which do you think would be more effective and memorable? A script that spoon-feeds you everything, or one that makes you think and challenges you to pay attention?

Another part of this is when the writer includes WHAT A CHARACTER IS THINKING, to which I always ask “How do we know that?” Film’s a visual medium, so we can’t see what’s going on in their head (unless some kind of scene showing exactly that is actually part of the story).

One of the many jobs of the screenwriter is to show the character’s thoughts via their actions and words (or lack thereof).

(Please note the key word in that sentence – show. As in “Show, don’t tell.” Three little words every screenwriter should constantly heed. Make a sign of it and keep it near your designated writing area.)

I’d much rather reach these kinds of conclusions on my own through how the story’s told instead of the writer adding it into the mix. Including the WHY, WHAT IT REALLY MEANS or WHAT THEY’RE THINKING will highlight your abilities, but not the way you want.

Doing this is counteracting how a script should read, interrupts the flow of the story, and just comes across as lazy writing. You want to have every word on the page be there for a reason. Why have something there that doesn’t need to be?

A great piece of advice that’s always stuck with me is “Imagine the sound went out while you were watching the movie of your script. Would you still be able to follow the story?” I’d say yes, to a certain degree. While I may not have all of the specific story details, I’d definitely have a strong sense of what was going on based on what I see the characters  doing and how they’re doing it.

Two suggestions to see this in practice:

-read scripts. Focus on the storytelling. Pay attention to what’s on the page (and what isn’t).

-watch silent movies. Take note of how the actors convey emotion through their actions, gestures, and expressions.

You want your reader and audience to enjoy watching your story unfold as much as you enjoyed writing it. Believe me, they’ll be able to tell.

What you want VS what the story needs

838-02491755
Sometimes it takes a little more evaluation

Over the course of several drafts, the core elements of my scripts remain more or less the same. There might be a few changes here and there, but to me, the end result is pretty darn close to what I originally intended.

As part of the development of those drafts, I get notes from trusted colleagues and professional analysts. Everybody has their opinions, of which there were many, and I can pick and choose which ones to use.

I was still presenting my stories the way I wanted to tell them, but is that the way they should be told? Was I falling into the trap of “I’m the writer, so what I say goes! End of discussion!”?

I recently got notes on one of my scripts that offered up some keen insight regarding the antagonist’s storyline. This included the reader’s frustration about what they perceived as a lack of knowing the character’s goal and the reasoning behind it.

At first, that was pretty surprising to hear. But as is usually the case, I took a step back and looked at the big picture, trying to be as objective as possible. Was it really not as apparent as I thought?

And as is also usually the case, their comments were spot-on. I had never made any big changes to how that storyline was written because I saw it as being “just fine the way it is”, which also happened to be the way I wanted it to be.

Which was counterproductive to how the story needed it to be. It wasn’t working within the context of the story itself.

Was it my writer’s ego that prevented me from seeing this through all the previous drafts? Maybe a little. I’ve seen this kind of thing before in other scripts, but just couldn’t see it within my own material.

I knew the script wasn’t perfect, but there’d always been this nagging thought in the back of my mind that it still needed work. Something had to be changed, but I couldn’t identify what. This could also explain why I always felt compelled to keep working on it.

But with those notes, I now had a much firmer grasp of what the reader was talking about, and could begin to rectify the situation.

It took a little time to work through it, including some significant edits and rewrites. It  also entailed cutting some scenes that absolutely broke my heart to see them go, but were totally necessary. All part of the process.

I know I’ve said all of this before, but looking through the latest draft, the script really does seem different now – in a better and much stronger sense. The characters, especially the protagonist and antagonist, feel more developed. The story reads as more concrete. I’m very happy with how it turned out.

Once I was able to put what I wanted aside and focus on what was best for the story, it all came together a lot better than I expected. My hope is that this kind of self-analysis will be a bit easier for me to figure out for future drafts of other scripts.

Can’t wait to give it a try.

Characters are people!

soylent green
Go ahead. Say it like he would. You know you want to.

I’d always heard how your script should somehow reflect “the human condition”, but never really had a firm grasp of eactly what it meant or how you would accomplish that.

I mentioned the phrase in a discussion with another writer, to which they responded “I don’t care about that. I just want to tell good stories.”

But isn’t the story about the characters to begin with? And a story with under-developed characters won’t be as good as one where the characters feel like actual people.

Accomplishing that has always been one of my biggest challenges.

A comment I’ve received more than a few times in the past is that the reader finds my characters good, but somewhat incomplete. They’re established and believable, but only to a point. This isn’t saying they’re flat, one-dimensional caricatures (something I’ve unfortunately seen in many other spec scripts), but they don’t feel completely real.

Readers/audiences want to be able to relate to the characters in your script. They might feel they’re only getting a glimpse into what kind of person the protagonist is, or know there’s more to them, but that “more” isn’t there, and they want to see that. And this doesn’t just apply to the main characters; it’s everybody.

Digging a little deeper and offering up a few more details would help flesh them out, which in turn would make for a stronger story.

When I recently sent a script out for notes, the reader asked if there was anything specific I wanted them to focus on. Without a doubt, it was the protagonist and the antagonist. I felt while they were good, there was definitely a need to make them better.

The reader agreed and made some good suggestions about how that could be achieved. “We don’t know as much about these two characters as you might think,” they wrote. Since I was the writer, I had a little more insight into their respective backstories and what made them the people we see, but some of those details had stayed in my head, rather than been transferred onto the page.

So I went about adding in some small details here and there; a line of dialogue or a seemingly insignificant action. A few touches to give a little more insight into what makes them tick; why they are the way they are.

All of this, combined with a few alterations with the plot, makes this latest draft feel really different, and hopefully stronger, than its predecessors. I’m giving it a few more days to simmer, and will then give it another look to see if that vibe still holds.

What I’m also hoping is that from here on in, I’ll be able to apply this kind of approach to all future drafts, which would in theory, help achieve the same results but in a shorter amount of time.

Hope and ambition. Just two parts of the human condition, right?