Full disclosure from the outset here: I am not the most successful screenwriter in the world. Not even close. In fact, I’ve only gotten a few short scripts produced in the 20 years that I’ve been writing and those short scripts were produced by yours truly. So, if you’re looking for advice on how to write a great screenplay that will get produced right away, I guess I’m not your guy. However, over the past 20 years or so, I have probably written about two or three dozen screenplays and I guess I can say that they’re not terrible because many of them placed as finalists in international screenwriting contests out of hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of entries. What, you want to know which contests? Um…well…I can’t tell you right now…it’s um…time for dinner *runs away, we hear a car door slam and then screeching tires as Matt Burns is never seen again*.
Seriously, though, what’s important here is that I have written many screenplays and I usually get them done in a timely manner. For those of you struggling to write your first screenplay or for those of you who have written many screenplays but always drag ass when you write them, I believe I can help you make the process go more smoothly. I’ve spoken about various aspects of this screenwriting process in my book GARAGE MOVIE: My Adventures Making Weird Films and in other articles I’ve written (my blog Writing the Trilogy being one of them), but I thought it would be nice if I devoted an entire How-To-like article to the subject.
Before I begin, I just want to say that I’m writing this article with the assumption that you already know the basic mechanics involved with writing a screenplay. You’re familiar with the proper formatting of a script, you know the basic three-act structure of a story, you know where the first act should end (anywhere between pages 17-25 or so) etc. If you’re not familiar with any of this, I highly recommend reading books like Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and/or The Aspiring Screenwriter’s Dirty Lowdown Guide to Fame and Fortune: Tough Lessons You Need to Know to Take Your Script from Premise to Premiere. Also, for learning about the basic structure of drama (i.e. a story), I would recommend Aristotle’s Poetics. Oh, and since we’re on the topic of screenwriting books, I might as well mention Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger because I read that book several years ago and remember finding it very useful.
Ok then. What I’m going to do is tell you two different approaches to getting your screenplay done. The first approach is the ideal approach, but the second approach works just as well.
Ideally, what I like to do when I’m getting ready to write a screenplay is get a nice pen with smooth gel ink and a nice new notebook or pad of paper (those yellow legal pads are nice) and then I go to a café. Starbucks will suffice, but I prefer going to the non-franchised coffee shops where they usually have even better, stronger coffee and nicer atmosphere. What you want to do is sit down in this café, get a cup of coffee and get a nice caffeine high going in your bloodstream. Then you take your nice, gel-ink pen and literally write down everything that comes into your mind about your story. This includes plot points, characters, pieces of dialogue that come to mind and even themes. This is a stream-of-conscious-type-of exercise. Get it all out of your head and onto paper.
When I took screenwriting courses at BU, my professors talked a lot about making “character trees” during this developmental phase of the screenwriting process. Although I don’t do any official character trees now, I suppose I do unofficial character trees during my notebook-writing process. If you’re not familiar (most people aren’t), character trees are essentially a brainstorming exercise where each part of a character’s body represents a certain aspect of their personality. You start at the feet and go all the way up to the crown. For example, the feet represent factual information like what your character looks like and where they come from, while the groin represents what your character wants in life, some sort of external goal. So you basically work your way up to the crown and write everything that comes to mind about your character’s physical attributes or origins or goals etc. I’m not going to do a deep dive into character trees here, but if you want to learn more about them, read this article or watch this video on the subject. 
Anyway, after I’m done writing every single thing about my story and characters that come to mind in a good-looking notebook with nice gel ink, I then begin an outline and, yes, I recommend typing (not handwriting) the outline because it’s easy to move and shift scenes around without making a chaotic mess. It’s also easy to add action or dialogue to each scene whenever you want. If you’re handwriting the outline, you end up drawing lines and arrows and carets all over the place and, before you know it, your outline looks like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Relax, though: the outline doesn’t have to be anything too fancy or official. You can use Roman numerals or Arabic numbers or even letters from the alphabet if you so desire. You may want to divide it up according to the three acts if you like, but I’m not even sure that’s overly necessary. Basically, what you want to do is simply go scene by scene and write out what happens in each scene. Be as detailed as heavenly possible and I would write out any and all dialogue that comes to mind at the time. The more thorough and detailed you make this outline, the easier it’s going to be to start writing the actual screenplay when the time comes.
As you proceed with your outlining, there will be the temptation—usually when the outline is 25-50-percent complete—to say, “Ok, I think I have enough here to start with,” and then you’ll go ahead and prematurely begin writing the screenplay. In an ideal world, this is not a good move to make, though I understand that we don’t live in a utopia. There are times when you may have no other choice than to begin writing some of the screenplay before you finish outlining and I will address that in a moment (see Plan B). But, yes, ideally, you will need to have the patience to finish a detailed outline before you begin writing your screenplay. And the main reason why you want to do this is because it will make the process of writing your screenplay so much less intimidating!
In fact, if you do a great job typing out a detailed outline beforehand, not only will the process of writing your screenplay be less painful, but it will actually make it fun and even rather easy with little to no moments where you hit a wall of writer’s block and you don’t know what else to write. In other words, you won’t get stuck, freak out and then give up!
Once your detailed outline is complete, then you can begin writing the screenplay and, like I said, this won’t be that intimidating or difficult a process if you spent a lot of time on the outline. Having a good outline is tantamount to having a good map when you find yourself in the middle of nowhere. The fear of not knowing where you’re going with your writing completely dissipates. See, fear breeds inhibition, which breeds procrastination, so the less fear you have, the easier it will be to sit your bum down on a seat and begin writing the screenplay.
When it comes to writing the script, I would recommend having some sort of schedule. My screenwriting instructor at BU recommended a ten-page-a-day writing schedule. This may sound hefty, but if you have a good outline and always know where you’re going, this can easily be done within a few hours. For some people with busy lives, a five-page-a-day writing schedule may be more realistic. Whatever schedule you come up with, make sure you stick to it. Rewards will help you accomplish this. Treat yourself to a beer if you get your ten pages done. If you don’t drink beer, treat yourself to an ice cream. If you don’t eat ice cream, treat yourself to a video game. If you don’t play video games, treat yourself to some other vice that is unhealthy for either your body or your brain, though I would recommend against doing heroin. Heck, your reward could even be heavy petting with your girlfriend or boyfriend, husband or wife. Indeed, an evening session of heavy petting could be the dangling carrot that motivates you to get your ten screenwriting pages done for the day. By the way, what is heavy petting, anyway? Google is literally one mouse-click away from me right now, but I’m not going to look it up. I believe it involves rubbing each other’s clothing in a non-gentle way and breathing heavily while you do it. Let’s go with that.
Anyway, let’s say you are successful in writing ten pages a day. The average screenplay is about 110 pages, right? Give or take? That means you can get a script done in, like, 11 days, guys. Boom. Mission accomplished. Of course, you have to rewrite and edit afterwards, but the point is that the hard part is done, just like that. You did it!
I’ve been writing screenplays for almost the past 20 years now and I would say that, for the first ten or so years, I would almost always go with Plan A every time I wrote a screenplay. Lately, however, Plan A hasn’t been working for me and I’m not sure why. These days, I tend to hit many roadblocks with my outlining and I usually end up giving in to temptation and beginning my screenwriting process prematurely. This is ok, though, because I still get the screenplays done. Plan A is and always will be the ideal plan, but if you get to a point where you realize Plan A simply isn’t happening, Plan B isn’t that bad, either.
Plan B is the following:
You still do all the note-taking with your nice gel-ink pen and your yellow legal notebook and you do your character trees if you want to and all that jazz. Then, you begin your outlining process, but this is where things take a turn for the different. What I’ve been doing lately is I’ve been outlining up to a point, maybe my entire first act or so, but then I’ll stop and begin writing the actual screenplay up to the point where I stopped outlining. Then, I will outline for another several scenes or so, stop and resume writing the screenplay up to where I stopped with the outlining. At around page 30 or so of the screenplay, I go back and smooth over what I’ve written so far. Then I do more outlining, maybe another handful of scenes, then I resume writing the screenplay according to what I’ve outlined. I do this until I reach page 60, stop, go back and smooth over pages 30-60. Then I do more outlining of several scenes. Write those scenes in screenplay form. Get to page 90, smooth over pages 60-90 and then repeat this process until I complete the screenplay at around page 110 or so, give or take.
Boom, before you know it, the first draft of the screenplay is done!
You, of course, will have to go back and rewrite much of what you’ve written, probably even moreso than if you went with Plan A because, since you didn’t outline everything out beforehand, things will be all the messier. But, still, you got it done, man. The point is you accomplished your mission without dragging the process out forever and it doesn’t matter how you got it done, the point is you got it done. You deserve some heavy petting tonight!
So there you go. Whether you’re a first-time screenwriter feeling intimidated and scared of the feature-screenwriting process or maybe you’re a veteran screenwriter who’s been dragging ass on your latest project, maybe some of what I said above—whether it be Plan A or Plan B or Plan 9 from Outer Space—may help you in your endeavor. Don’t give up, don’t ever stop, even if you feel like you’re writing crap, you can always go back and edit. You can do this and you can do it in a timely manner. Just remember to stick to some kind of schedule and, more than anything else, remember to reward yourself with beer, ice cream, video games, or, yes, even heavy petting with your lover!
MATT BURNS is the author of several novels, including Weird Monster, Supermarket Zombies!and Johnny Cruise. He’s also written numerous memoirs, including GARAGE MOVIE: My Adventures Making Weird Films, MY RAGING CASE OF BEASTIE FEVER, JUNGLE F’NG FEVER: MY 30-YEAR LOVE AFFAIR W/ GUNS N’ ROSES and I TURNED INTO A MISFIT! Check out these books (and many more) on his Amazon author page HERE.
For more about the screenwriting process, including how to pitch a project, read Matt Burns’ book GARAGE MOVIE: My Adventures Making Weird Films. Here is the book trailer for GARAGE MOVIE: https://youtu.be/kx1jWsgUjmI.
Other trending articles by Matt Burns that may be of interest to you:
I Dream of Dream Machine (a memoir of the local video arcade)
NEVER FORGET the Fun-O-Rama (a traveling carnival memoir)
A Love Letter to the Emerald Square Mall (about the death of the shopping mall age)