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Thursday, January 21, 2010

How to Write a Screenplay in 1 Week

Writing a full length screenplay is easy. Step 1 write an 80-90 page treatment. Step 2 that treatment into a 120 screenplay. Step 3-

What was that? Back up to Step 1? The 80-90 page treatment? How do you get an 80-90 page treatment? You don’t know? Don’t worry it’s not as hard as it sounds.

I met screenwriter Kario Salem once at an event and he talked about writing the teleplay for Don King: Only in America. He said he got the job because he wrote a 90 page treatment of the original book to show the producers that he had a clear vision of the story. At the time I thought that was a little obsessive. In case you don’t know, the word count for a 90 page treatment, single spaced, exceeds the word count of a 120 page properly formatted screenplay by a large margin. In short he’d written way more than the actual the screenplay. But now I see exactly what he was doing. If properly done, a treatment of that size makes “writing” the final screenplay a snap. You’re not really writing so much as editing and formatting. There’s still some writing to do, putting in small establishing shots or a few last minute tweaks of the dialogue. Plus deciding what to leave in and what to jettison is a huge, underrated part of the writing process. But all of this should take only about a week or two.

But how do you get that 90 page treatment to begin with. Now that can take some time. Usually about three months. It can be 60 to 90 days if you’re really on fire with an idea or if it’s dragging it may take you half the year. But 3 months is a pretty good average. John Ford once said he could SHOOT a movie in one week provided he had three months to prepare. That’s what you’ll be doing on these three months; flawlessly preparing your screenplay.

So where do you start? Well a good way to start is to know where you are going to end up. To get to a finished screenplay, you need a super detailed treatment, basically nearly all your dialogue and scenes descriptions written out single spaced. To get to that treatment you start with a shorter less detailed treatment of around 40 pages that has only the most important scenes and dialogue. To get to that stage you need to start with an even less detailed treatment of 10 pages that has only a summary of the scenes and dialogue in the story. To get to 10 pages you need a 1 to 4 page treatment that covers only the characters and the main beats of the story. To get to the 1 to 4 page treatment you need a bare bones outline of the story. To get to the bare bones outline you need a logline. To get to the logline you need an idea.


Sounds like a lot of steps and a lot of work but believe it or not the easiest steps are going from 40 pages to 80 or 90 and going from 10 pages to 40. The real hard part occurs from the idea stage to first 10 page treatment. (Going to jump ahead a little bit) What makes these stages so easy is that you’ve created a story “sponge.” You just spend a few hours everyday just adding whatever scene or bit of dialogue pops into your head regardless of where it occurs in the story. Have a great idea for the ending? Put it in. Have a great bit of dialogue in the middle? Put it in. Can’t think of anything for the beginning? Leave it for now and write what does come to you. Just keeping adding bits and pieces to your treatment like layers of varnish on an oak cabinet. You’ll be surprised how quickly your page count shoots up. You just keep filling in blank or grey spots until the whole story is there from the first scene to the last.

To be honest, if you’re diligent and work on the treatment every day it doesn’t take long in the layering stage to get to your 40 or 90 page count. What really takes a lot of time is getting TO that stage. That stage where it’s just a case of letting your imagination and your writer’s spirit roam free. Before you do that there’s a ton of preparation work.

Robert McKee argues that you should do tons of work planning and preparing and outlining your story before even starting to write. He has the right idea. Jump all the way back to beginning of the process. You start with an idea. How do you turn an idea into a story? How do you work that story into the “sponge” state?

You’ve got an idea for a screenplay. Write it down. Take you about ten seconds. And then, leave it. Don’t go back to it. Don’t research it. Don’t do anything. Just leave it. Let other ideas come. Work on something else or do those important things you’ve been putting off like the laundry or paying taxes. Leave it for at least a week. Then look in on it again. Still vibrant? Still alive? Still excited to tell this story? Then we have a winner! It’s important to gage just how committed you are to an idea and how compatible you really are. Sometimes I write down ideas and when I come back to them I can’t believe they were written by me. Maybe I was caught up in the moment but what I wrote down, really wasn’t me. Better to find out this way then to get 10 or 20 pages into a project and find you have no connection with it.

After you’re certain of your idea time to turn it into a logline. Creating a logline can be a weeklong exercise in itself. A logline is a summation of your story. But that’s just the start really. It tells you what happens and who’s doing it. But it also has to sell your story by, among other things, giving the personal stakes for the main character, hooking people with a twist or something unexpected and creating a visual image that encapsulates the narrative. Where to start?
First you decide who your main character is and what he does during the story. A prince avenges a murder. But you can’t leave it at that, you need to give the main character a personal stake like “a prince avenges the murder of his father.” There you have Hamlet. So how is your Hamlet going to be different than that other Hamlet? Hamlet in space! Okay so then what does sci-fi Hamlet have that makes him sci-fi? Time travel. He’s not haunted by a ghost but by his actual father who travels ahead in time to warn him what’s going to happen.
Okay now you’re getting somewhere. Perhaps. Maybe.
Now is a good time to hit people you know with your logline to see what they think. Is it catchy? Does it fire up their imaginations? Does your friend who works in a production company or agency like it? Do they love it? Do they have constructive criticism. If they say no, don’t get too discouraged. If it’s still burning a hole in your imagination it’s probably worth pursuing. Though if your agency friend nixes it and your whole goal is to get repped at THAT agency you may want to take it under advisement. Loglines are a hard thing to get a handle on. You need a LOT of practice to get them right. What excites you may be blah to someone else. It’s not a good sign if it’s blah to EVERYONE else.

After you have a logline, time to structure it out. I hope you’ve been reading up on your Syd Field, Robert McKee or Blake Snyder. You need to decide at this stage how it’s going to play out. You could just start off writing. Bang your head against the keyboard and come out months later with a 120 pgs. But you’re just as likely to wind up with 5 pages of nothing as a full length script.
It’s all in the planning.
This is where things start to get a little hard. From your logline you have to decide on a basic story arc for your character, what’s wrong, how does he try to fix things, does he succeed or fail. From that general yes/no tree you start, just begin to decide on the concrete elements of the screenplay. You fill out the major beats, how does it open, what is the inciting incident, what are the Act breaks, what’s the midpoint, how does it end. You’re just making the barest impression. Nothing’s written in stone. Which is good because you’ll probably changing at least a little bit of it.
Next step you leave the writing alone for a little bit and you research. Research your characters, research your world, research everything you can think of. Write those character biographies. Fill out all the important roles. Your story takes place in 1920’s New York? Well you better read up on 1920’s New York! You may find something or come up with something that makes a major impact in how the story plays out. Better to find out now than when you’re 50 pages in! Fill your head until the world of your story is as real as the one outside your door. Then go back to your structure outline. Does the general direction still make sense? Do the important scenes still sound good or do you have better ones? Make changes if any. Time to move on to your first treatment.

Your first treatment should consist of your major beat scenes written out with some, but not a lot of detail with some loose idea how they transition from one to another. This will usually take between 1 and 4 pages. Then here’s where the real work begins. You start filling in the blanks between those beats with scenes. Sometimes with just a scene header or one sentence. Some people use flashcards for this part. I personally think flashcards are a holdover from the typewriter days. I prefer to just write it out in Word and cut and paste. And cut and paste. And cut and paste. Here is where the bulk of your time should be spent. You’re looking for a dramatic flow, do your scenes move seamlessly from one to the other. Is there something that’s missing? Here’s a good time to throw in a few lines from your characters. Good ones. Ones that make them less paper bios and more flesh and blood characters. Throw in a few details about the world of your story. Just the telling details, the ones that make it stand out. Did you write a lot about the theme of your story or the character’s internal struggle? Did you research the iconography or mythology? Well those notes shouldn’t be in the treatment, but their influence should be obvious. At this stage you are moving away from abstracts towards concretes. By the end of this stage it’s all about the concrete reality of the story. The characters and the world they inhabit should be real in your head. That’s what makes the next bit so much easier.

This is the stage that you should again look for opinions and criticism. If you’ve done your work correctly there shouldn’t be much difference between this treatment and your final screenplay. Any mistakes or shortcomings should be visible in the 10 page version.

After that then you start adding more good stuff. Dialogue mostly as that is what brings characters to life. Then more descriptions and actions. By this stage it should be easy. The world of your story should be as real as the one outside your window. You’re not so much writing as popping your head out for a look and writing down what you see.

And only after all that are you ready to write a screenplay in one week.

Simple wasn’t it?

Oh and step 3, leave it alone for at least a month, forget you wrote it. Then come back with completely fresh eyes to rewrite it.


  1. What if you have a book and a screenplay for the same story. Do you still need a treatment, and what would be the differences between a book and a treatment? And is a trailer needed?

  2. Doug,

    This is for when you don't have a screenplay yet and want to get one. :)

  3. This is in no way correct. It takes me, on average, 5 weeks to complete a screenplay (first draft). My first screenplay was written in only 3 days.

    1. and who are you again? ya, that's what I thought.

    2. Yeah... Thank God Seth Morgan is here to give us his insight.

      Thank you Michael Lee, I thought this article was very helpful as far as looking at your particular creative process.


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