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How I Wrote a Screenplay in 30 Days: Final Part


Getting the Words Right

Download a copy of the screenplay, A Girl Named Trouble.

I continued to hone the screenplay by doing individual passes. In this article, I describe five passes that went pretty quickly.

Clam Digging

I read the entire screenplay, searching for clams. The term clam refers to overused dialogue in movies and television. There is no official list of clams, but here’s a good starting point. Thank goodness – I only had one in the entire screenplay.

Overused Words

Next, I did an overused word pass. And I don’t mean overused by Hollywood writers. During my first draft, I’m just getting the story out; I take shortcuts. This pass allowed me the opportunity to sharpen the language.

Here’s an example. In this screenplay, I used the word gun a lot. I would describe it as overused. There were about a dozen different words I used again and again. So I searched the document for these words and replaced them with something fresh and more descriptive.

Better Word Choices

Next up, I checked my nouns and verbs. When I was creating the first draft, I wasn’t anguishing over the perfect noun or verb. Now was the time to anguish over the perfect noun or verb. So this pass was different from the overused-word pass. I thought of it more as the best-word-choice pass.

Transitions

Sometimes I naturally create transitions between scenes. But I like to go back and find places to inject interesting transitions. One I added to this screenplay was the overlapping dialogue on page 38. I started Racks’ dialogue from the next scene over the top of the Cane barreling down the street. Because his line was the complete opposite of what we were seeing on screen, it made a wonderful bridge between the two.

Professional Formatting

The next pass was to double-check my formatting. For that I re-read the Proper Formatting Technique chapter of “The Screenwriter’s Bible” by David Trottier. It’s hard to go wrong with his advice.

I spent about 20 days writing the script, and almost a week on rewrites. The final few days were dedicated to some of the most revealing passes through the script.

The Logic Pass

I read the script front to back, looking for holes in the story. A logic hole will throw a reader out of the story faster than typos. And I found a couple, both pertaining to the gym bag. For example, who brought the gym bag into the bar? That detail got eliminated in an earlier rewrite. So I added a phrase on page 95. Problem solved.

But not every hole needs an explanation. For example, nowhere in the script do Kong or Etano explain to Roman where they’re holding Trouble. So how does he know to go there? During the lengthy voice-over on page 88, I could imagine someone warning Roman not to go to the bar. There are holes, and then there’s over-explaining things and slowing down the story.

Clarity Pass

The next pass I did was to check whether what was in my head made it to the page. You see, it’s obviously pretty clear to me what’s happening. But how well did I translate that to the script? During this pass I cut out some pretty clever stuff. It was entertaining to read, but just not super-clear. And I added simple sentences to make sure everyone knew what was happening.

Brevity Pass

The last pass I made was to make things more concise. If I could say it in two words rather than five, I cut three words out. It still had to be clear. But the more economical I can make the read, the better.

This had absolutely nothing to do with reducing my page count. It’s a hard job reading more than a hundred pages. If I can make it easier on the reader, the more likely they are to keep reading.

The Weakest Part of the Script

And with that, I was done with all the passes I typically do on a script. But there’s one last exercise I do. And for this one, I have to be painfully honest. I ask myself: What is the weakest part of my script? And then I fix that. One more time, I ask myself: What is the weakest part of my script now? And then I fix that.

Obviously, I could keep asking myself this question again and again. But I’ve found it’s usually simple to identify the first one. It’s a little tougher to realistically identify the second one. But if I honestly have a third aspect of my script I consider weak, this script isn’t ready to share with anyone.

I identified the torture scene on page 84 as the weakest part of my script. It needed some type of torture that hasn’t been used on-screen. My solution was to combine two different medieval tortures: sawing a man in half, and using ropes to saw flesh. Adrenaline injections made the whole thing even more diabolical.

The Checklist

Before I send a screenplay to anyone, I run through a checklist of three things.

1. I identify the following points in the story:

  • Inciting Incident

  • First Pinch

  • Midpoint Twist

  • Second Pinch

  • Lowest Point

2. I review every scene, to be sure it’s moving the story forward or developing a character.

3. I name the intent and obstacle of every scene.

If I’m struggling with any of these, I have more rewriting to do before anyone sees the screenplay.

If I feel it’s ready, then I take the advice of Aaron Sorkin. I start from page 1 and retype the entire screenplay. This isn’t a rewrite – at least it shouldn’t be one. It’s an exercise that culls out the weakest parts of the screenplay. If there’s something in a script a writer knows isn’t good, they’re not going to type it. It’s laziness, pure and simple. And genius.

This is what I consider the official first draft. It took me 30 days to write “A Girl Named Trouble.” But it still needed a lot more work.

After I finished the first draft of the screenplay “A Girl Named Trouble,” I sent it to a proofreader. That would be proofreader number one. I like to use at least two different ones in the process.

My next step was to address the feedback from the proofreader, and then register the screenplay with the WGA. At that point, I considered it ready to share with the world. And I sent it to three different types of people: story editors, technical readers and friends.

Story Editors

These folks helped me bang on the story until it was rock-solid. They typically send notes that start like this:

What if…

Have you considered…

Did you try this…

But occasionally, I got back notes like these:

You lost me here.

What are you trying to say?

Is this scene necessary?

All this is fair game, and part of the process. After I considered the feedback, I got on the phone with them, or we met in person to discuss solutions.

Technical Readers

I had a gun expert review the material for authenticity. I had a car expert review it, too. And I even sent it a prisoner doing 10 years for armed robbery at Stafford Creek Corrections Center. Their notes were invaluable. Nothing throws people out of a movie faster than seeing something that’s unrealistic. I got notes back like how safeties work on different guns, that mags and clips are not interchangeable terms, and that gangsters love old cop cars like Crown Vics. All good stuff.

Friends

It’s good to get non-professional opinions, too. They won’t have the detailed feedback of a story editor, but if the same issue pops up again and again, they help flag it. Also, they’re usually pretty enthusiastic. And who doesn’t need a little encouragement in their life?

The Second Proofreader

After I processed notes from a variety of people, I made more changes. And then I sent it to a different proofreader. I’m always shocked how much the second proofreader catches that the first one did not.

And the last step: apply for a copyright.

So as you can see, I might have written the screenplay in 30 days, but it took a lot longer to gather the feedback and get it proofread a couple of times.

My immediate plans are to submit it to competitions and festivals, and to The Black List, a board for unproduced screenplays. I’ll also pitch it to Hollywood producers and agents looking for material. Of course, preparing for a pitch means I need to write a lot more material. It never seems to end.

Unfortunately, the first 30 days is only the beginning of the journey.

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Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike.

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