When a movie trailer comes on TV, something in the back of your mind switches on. As you see movie posters in the mall, a feeling passes through your gut. Any mention of the Oscars, Sundance, or Cannes moves your heart a little.
You have a Big Idea, and you ache to see it written, revised, bought, cast, shot, edited, and projected onto a big screen in front of an audience. And you believe that your job is Job #1: put the Idea on paper. You want, or dare I say, need to write a screenplay. You are compelled, and if you’re the Believing type, you believe that it’s the will of God in your life. Simply put, it’s your dream.
However, dreams aren’t easy to achieve; otherwise they’d just be chores. So you frequently ask yourself:
What if I never write this?
What if someone has the same Idea and makes the movie before I do?
With my schedule, how and where do I even start?
And every night in bed, you kick yourself just a little (easier to do if you’re a stomach sleeper) for not recording one word of your Idea onto paper.
This is where I was about two years ago. My Idea hit me a year before that. I believed that God was pushing me to write this movie. Grand plans of a new career flooded my imagination.
ERIC Hey, I’m Eric. So, what do you do for a living?
GUY I’m a heroic heart surgeon for cute puppies. What about you?
ERIC Oh, I’m just a SCREENWRITER. Here’s my friend Oscar. Oh wait, this is Best Adapted Screenplay. (fumbles in pockets; pulls out statuette) Here’s Best Original Screenplay. My 2009 one.
However, for a year, I didn’t do anything about my Idea except dream. Regret is a spur in my side – it hurts, yet drives me forward because I don’t want to feel it again. By the end of that year, regret was kicking me in the ribs with both boots. I had to start writing or risk the dream imploding.
Last summer, I completed my first screenplay. I’ve even shopped it around a little to some positive feedback. I’m still waiting for that one person to believe and invest a little in me. But the important thing is that it’s done.
If you have an Idea and dream to see it written, I hope that this article will guide you to stop worrying and start writing. This is not about the essential elements of a screenplay, like story, dialog, and industry-standard formatting. Nor is this on the elementary brainstorming of your script. All of those things have been expertly explained by Dave Trottier in his legendary book The Screenwriter’s Bible.
This article is about arranging your life to allow you to write. If you’re like me, the challenge is not the work to accomplish a task. The challenge is rearranging my schedule to merely start that work. At first, I would have a good brainstorming or writing session, but then the next one wouldn’t happen until a couple of weeks later. With God behind this whole screenwriting thing, I knew that I had to make time for it.
When it comes to trying to write, I’ve heard earnest advice like
Set up a serene, inspiring environment in which to write.
Block off specific times of day or week for writing.
Those practices are ideal, especially for the full-time writer. However, the aspiring writer with a full-time job and other responsibilities can’t always follow ideal practices. I wrote most of the screenplay right after our son was born, so ‘serene’ was not in my vocabulary. Here are some tips that enabled me to complete my first screenplay.
Gather your tools
You don’t need an arsenal of advice books, Moleskines, and screenwriting programs to write your script, though those tools help. Here is my screenwriting toolbox on a budget:
- Notebooks, index cards, scratch paper, napkins, and a pen – Be sure to keep a pen and something to write on nearby at all times, so that you can record your ideas when they come.
- Microsoft Excel (or equivalent spreadsheet program like Google Docs) – Being a nerd, I look for any reason to use a spreadsheet. I lay out my scenes in Excel, which allows me to quickly move them around or highlight them.
- Celtx – this is a free, feature-laden screenwriting program that outputs industry-standard formatting. I’ve had a few professionals read my script, and formatting never raised a red flag.
- The Screenwriter’s Bible by Dave Trottier – this book is loaded with wise guidance on story-writing, script elements, formatting, polishing, and marketing your screenplay.
As far as advice books, it’s wise to educate yourself on the craft of screenwriting. However, don’t put off the actual writing too long just because you haven’t read an arbitrary number of books.
Forget the sanctuary
With a newborn in the house, all bets on peace and quiet were off. He slept a lot, but I was usually rocking him or passed out asleep, too. So, I didn’t wait for the perfect writing atmosphere. I just did my best to isolate myself when I wanted to write. Sometimes I went to another room. Other times, I put on headphones or worked through the noise. It was not easy or the most creative environment, but getting scenes written and moving forward were worth the difficulty.
Redeem any unproductive time
I love to daydream during mindless tasks like sitting in traffic or waiting in a doctor’s office. I love efficiency even more, so I decided to redeem that ‘lost’ time and envision the movie in my head. I wrote and directed many scenes while idling in morning traffic on the way to work. When I got to the office, I took notes on all of the brainstorming I did while going 3 mph.
Know what inspires you and use it
Because I grew up with MTV (when they played music videos), I feel like onscreen drama is fundamentally linked to music. Many great scenes linger in my memory because of the music that reinforced the emotions of the actions and dialog. There are several songs that inspired key scenes in my script. I imagined those songs playing during those scenes, thus inspiring me to write as deeply and emotionally as possible.
Discover what inspires you to envision your story – songs, places, people, etc. Use them early and often. They make scenes develop much easier than writing them from scratch.
If you have the time, resources, and discipline to set up the ideal conditions for writing, then go for it! Seclude yourself in peace and knock out that screenplay. However, if you don’t, I hope that these tips can help you start on your dream. Whatever your situation, please grab your dream, wrangle it, and hold on as it takes off.