I get this question a lot—possibly even more than "are you single?"—and my answer has evolved over the years (in both cases). Since I can't remember a time when I wasn't writing screenplays, I’ve distilled my answer down to one book, one workflow, and one secret weapon that will set you back a cool $2.36.
Save the Cat! by the late Blake Snyder.
Before you pick up that pen—okay, laptop—pick up this piece of genius from your local library. Or better yet—on Amazon right now. This book is hands-down the most comprehensive beginning-to-end screenwriting how-to I’ve read. Trust me—I’ve read a lot of screenwriting how-to’s.
Blake, who authored dozens of scripts, including Disney's "Blank Check" serves up a proper amount of humor throughout the chapters. It's a bullshit-free look at the industry, the format, and how to make a story work on film.
Ten years ago, I experienced a multitude of ah-hah moments perusing this masterpiece. To this day, I keep it literally in my bedside table and return to its many advices when I'm feeling stuck in a story.
As a second recommendation, Save the Cat! Strikes Back (incidentally, the third book in the series and published post-mortem) goes even further, with more scene-by-scene tips and one very useful chart outlining how characters become heroes through transformation.
Ideate, Logline, Outline, Treatment, Script.
This proven workflow follows the standard of many of the great screenwriters, going back a hundred years. Who am I to be original? I’m just a writer.
Ah, the filterless! The fearless! The raw creation of new stories! Any time you have even a glimpse of an idea—something that compels you—get in the habit of jotting it down ASAP. Even if it seems stupid at the time, it might connect with another partial idea and be your next nugget of gold when returning for review. I use my iPhone notes because they automatically synch with the cloud and I can’t lose any work. I use a pen and paper when I’m sitting down later and ready to expand.
Once you’ve got that perfect idea, hit it with a logline—one or two sentences explaining what the story is. If you can’t say it in a sentence or two, go back and re-think. Your idea may be too broad or convoluted. A good longline might read like this:
A street-kid-turned famous contemporary artist struggles to reconnect with his manipulative, dumpster-diving family. Omar the Artist
Don’t use that one though—it’s a script I’m working on. Also, don’t worry if your longline eventually changes. It will. Change is part of the natural flow of original work. At the same time, if you don’t start with a concise direction, you’ll get nowhere fast.
This is often the toughest part for me. For help, Snyder brilliantly explains how to fill in the missing scenes that weren’t part of your original idea in Save The Cat! to complete your outline. Some outlines look like sentences stacked on top of one another, detailing what happens in each scene, others are just a flow of words connecting the ideas swimming in your head with how you envision things playing out. You can always extrapolate and expand later. Don’t edit whatsoever during this time. If it’s flowing, keep going.
You’ll know you have a complete outline when you see the formation of a beginning, middle, and satisfying (and always the most difficult) end.
Treatments usually read like present-tense short stories, with each new scene being summed up in a paragraph or two. Don’t limit yourself by trying to hit a certain word count. Treatments usually end up between 10 and 40 pages long.
Okay. The treatment is fleshed out, now it’s time to throw in those present-tense action lines, character descriptions, and dialogue. Congrats, you’ve made it further than 99% of most script ideas!
Still, try to edit as little as possible during this step. Make sure to skip around, starting with the scenes that excite you the most. Writing a script is mostly in the re-writing, anyway—save that work for later. Keep this first draft as a raw, horrible mess. This way, you won’t pre-judge any magical new ideas that might come through your brilliant little noggin as you go—those details that really make your story special.
When I am at my best, I’ll look back at a first draft and and be truly surprised. “Hey who wrote this?”
One Secret Weapon
Blank index cards.
You’ve probably heard this before. They can’t be over-utilized. Some writers prefer sticky notes, or cards they can tack to a cork board. The point is, it’s something small and rearrangeable. Each card represents a scene in your film, so you can take a look at the entire story at a glance. See where it drags, see where you lose characters, find loopholes, etc. It’s far and away the number one most consistent tool that has helped me follow through and complete each of my screenplays. They’re most helpful for me whilst developing my treatments, wherein I outline each and every scene chronologically. Pictured is a recent layout of mine.
My personal method involves laying cards blank-side out on a table or floor—separated between acts one, two and three—and using a short word or phrase that reminds me quickly what happens in each scene. Now, I can immediately see when I’ve got a long first act (happens all the time), a foreshadow that I don’t pay off, or a character that disappears with a loose end.
Let me know when you start your process, and tell me how it goes! Maybe you’ll discover a new secret weapon I haven’t thought of. I shared my secrets with you, and I fully expect you’ll reciprocate!