The 10-Step Screenwriting Process: A “Suggestions Only” List

Screenwriting-101_thumb[2]I’ve had so many writers and readers of my blog and articles share their individual screenwriting “process” with me, asking if they’re doing something wrong or out-of-sync. To me, processes are as individual as the writer. I know some who are extremely meticulous is their outlining and character developments, and others who wing it from “FADE IN”.

This is my process, and you are free to emulate it, pick and choose parts to include in your own screenwriting process, or ignore it completely.

1. Concept: In my opinion, this is the most important part of screenwriting. If I were to assign importance based on percentage points, I would give this 98%. Your end-game should be what drives your concept. In other words, I might write about something that I just need to write or want to write, but I know deep down it will never go anywhere. Other concepts I have are derived specifically with optioning or sales in mind. I still want to write it, but the concept will be skewed with this result as my target. As a result, I tend to write more one location, few character action/thriller/comedies.

2. Strong Title/Character Names: I believe titles are often one of the more under-appreciated and, as a result, least considered of most of these processes. I target short, powerful titles that usually have a double meaning; “SAFE AT HOME” might be a story about a baseball star who suffered abuse at the hands of a stepmother; etc. I also do a lot of research in the area of character names. My protag, often a guy, will usually have a strong, manly name that is regionally and historically correct. I avoid names that end in “s”; using the possessive is so much easier when you don’t have to play tricks with the apostrophe (“Jess’s car was wrecked…”). I use female names that I personally find sexy. I avoid unisex names (no reason to confuse readers), and I always avoid tricky spellings. No reason to call a chick “Joey”, and to spell it “J-o-e-i”.

3. Theme: I admit, I often struggle with this, but it’s a good idea to have it before you start writing it. You want the theme to be obvious, perhaps even stated, within the first ten pages, and you want the plot, and your protag, to be consciously consistent with maintaining the theme. Good theme ideas can come from nursery rhymes, the Ten Commandments, the golden rule, parental rules, school rules, societal mores, etc.

4. The Ending: I have a tendency to work backwards. I pretty much know where my story is going to end up, and I backfill from there.

5. Character Development: I think it’s essential to know all you can about your character(s) BEFORE you begin to write them. At the same time, I’m not obsessive about it. I don’t care what their sign is, or if they were a first-born or the baby of the family- unless it is imperative to the story itself. I pretty much determine their individual goals, motivations and obsessions, where they “came from”, and where they want to be. I give all of my characters a moral compass, and I purposely have every character’s compass conflict with everyone else’s. Why? This adds a layer of conflict in every scene and in every interaction (hopefully). I always give my characters a physical trait and a speech pattern that, in my mind, matches their names, goals, and motivations. I probably won’t be writing a heroic character named Lenny, a social networking troll who is skinny with bad acne and braces, although it certainly avoids the heroic clichés!

6. Plot Plausibility: While we are, for the most part, writing fiction, and we do go to movies to enjoy the suspension of belief, my plots are usually rooted in reality. Doesn’t mean the concept HAS to be real, but in my mind, the reaction to this “unreal” concept has to be real. In “E.T.”, the concept of a small boy befriending, keeping and helping an alien creature is NOT exactly based on actual events, but the reaction of the family, the school, the police and the government was, at least IMO. I try like hell to avoid any chance of a “deus ex machine” ending, and I really try to avoid the clichés whenever and wherever possible.

7. Structure: I believe in structure- beginning, middle and end. I believe in the three act structure, and I believe in STC story beats. I usually whip out a quick 15 step beat sheet, and use the STC 3.0 software (okay, that’s a lie. I won it in a contest and haven’t opened it yet, but plan to, and plan to use it as well).

8. Logline: I work on a strong, effective logline, using the LOGLINE formula developed through The Script Mentor program, keeping it at or under thirty words, and then I share it with some trusted writers of my “peers” and “rocketeers” groups.

9. Research: I do whatever research I deem necessary on the subject and/or time period or elements of the story that I’m writing about, including dialects, newsworthy events, politics, etc. I also research the title and IMdbPro for similar plots or storylines.

10. Trial Runs/Feelers: Once I have a firm grip of the story I intend to devote the next twelve –to-eighteen months of my life to, I share it with a small group of trusted individuals; my personal inner circle (no, you’re probably not in that one). This group doesn’t necessarily include only writers or producers, but anyone I feel comfortable sharing the story with and who enjoys watching movies. The age range of those in this inner circle is really 8-80. Admittedly, I’m not very good at verbalizing my thoughts; I tend to ramble incoherently. I prefer to do my communications in writing, so I have to feel REALLY comfortable in opening up to them. Chances are they will critique the hell out of my “baby” before it’s even been gestated, so keep an open mind and listen to their feedback, concerns and watch their immediate reactions and facial responses.

I probably include many other smaller steps in my process, consciously or subconsciously, and these steps may change in their order, depending on the project. The process evolves as my skill, knowledge and dedication to writing evolves. But each one of these steps is, at least, considered before I even make the first keystroke. Decide on a process that works best for you, and stick to it. It will help you achieve deadlines and provide a “structure” to your writing.

I wasn’t lying when I said I believed in structure.

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