By Charles Harris
The latest instalment of How to write your next script - click here for article 1 - The Seed Image
In the last article of this series you finally read your first draft, with all the roller-coaster feelings that a first reading brings.
It's now time to begin the second draft. If you've seen a lot that needs doing, this may seem daunting - the trick is to approach it step by step.
Step by step
Over many years of editing first drafts, I've learned not to try get it all right in one go.
The only way that works for me is to take each element turn by turn.
By focusing on just one element on each pass, you take an enormous amount of pressure off. So for the first edit, we focus solely on the structure.
It doesn't matter, at this stage, how good or bad the dialogue is, whether the characters are consistent or the descriptions cinematic. That's all for future drafts.
In short, what I call (to the outside world) a "second draft" will probably be made up of six or seven mini-drafts.
For the first of these, I simply concern myself with whether the story is being told in the right order, at the right pace.
It's far too unwieldy to do all this to the whole dialogue script, so my second draft is usually a short synopsis. It might be a short as one page or as long as five, but it shows me how the structure of a new draft might look in simple terms.
The structure redraft
Now, there's a lot of hot air created about structure, especially three act structure. I'm not going to get into that, except to say that the big mistake is to think there is one "right" structure for every story. The job of the second draft is to find organically what structure your story needs, not to impose one.
In some cases, the right structure might indeed be three acts. Or it might be two acts (Full Metal Jacket), seven acts (Se7en), twelve episodes (Goodfellas), multistranded (Crash), flashback (Sunset Boulevard, The Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction), circular (Tree of Life) or just about any permutation you can think of.
However, whatever your story, certain structural needs will almost always be there.
So now ask yourself the following questions:
1. Does the story get going from the beginning?
I guarantee that there will be numerous scenes at the start which are there to "set up" things that are coming later. The trouble is, an audience pays to watch a whole movie or TV drama - not just the bit that follows 45 minutes of "setting up".
Set up scenes are boring. You have two choices. Ditch them now or ditch them later. (Guess which I recommend).
Don't worry for the moment how the audience is going to know all that crucial stuff you want to tell them.
Your aim is to get a story going from the very first half page.
2. Do the key moments happen when they should?
No matter what your "act" structure, by page 10, the audience should begin to have an inkling of what the central issue is going to be. If not, they are going to get very twitchy.
By page 30, the protagonist must have faced disaster and made a crucial decision that will lead to the rest of the plot. It can happen earlier, but any later and you'll have problems keeping your viewers watching.
Around 20-30 pages from the end, we should have realised where the final resolution is going to take place and be on the edge of our seat waiting for it to happen.
You can break those rules, but even the greatest writers rarely do. And when they do, they make sure they know why and how to get away with it.
3. If not, should I be cutting more scenes?
Every first draft I ever see has far too much at the start and far too little at the end. (Including my own). The story starts around page 45. The big decision lurks on page 90. The final climax is squeezed onto the last five pages.
It's time to get ruthless. If not, the people you try to sell your script to will be ruthless instead... Put those key moments where they are supposed to be. Cut the setting up scenes you were leaving till later.
Now, with the space you've created, you can push your protagonist further than she thought she could ever go.
Plan it out
Now work your new structure into a brief outline to see if it works. Adjust as necessary.
You've done your second draft. Easy, wasn't it. As long as you have a ruthless determination and very sharp pair of scissors!
<Previous - How to read your script Next - Character>
Charles Harris is an experienced award-winning writer-director for cinema and TV. His first professional script was optioned to be developed by major agents CAA in Hollywood and he has since worked with top names in the industry from James Stewart to Alexei Sayle.
His books Complete Screenwriting Course and Jaws in Space: Powerful Pitching for Film & TV are recommended reading on MA courses.
How to plan and write your next script - 3
by Charles Harris
In the first two parts of this series on writing and editing your script for cinema or TV, I focused on the seed image that starts it all, and the premise or pitch that provides the dramatic fuel (re-read them here). Now we move to writing the treatment (aka synopsis or outline).
1. Writing a treatment is by far the best way to plan out your script in advance
It’s true that some writers dive in and fly by the seat of their pants, but they are rare and almost always writing novels. A screenplay is much tighter and will run away from you if you don't plan. I have only written one successful screenplay without a treatment to start (and even then I spent time sorting out my ideas while I tried and failed to!)
2. Writing a treatment is invaluable for rewriting
Once the first draft is done, you need to stand back and get perspective. Otherwise you get lost in the mess. I find that the best way by far is to go back and rewrite the treatment based on what I have now learned.
3. Writing a treatment is essential for selling
More and more producers and agents insist on seeing a treatment before they’ll consider reading your script. It doesn't matter how brilliant your writing is - if the treatment doesn't fly, the script will never even get read.
However, the good news is that you don’t need to write three kinds of treatment. The effort entailed in ensuring your writing is clearly understood by others will make it all the better for planning and editing too.
Starting the treatment
If you followed the last article and worked up a strong log line then you have a solid basis to build on for the treatment. You know your genre, the protagonist and his or her main story goal.
Treatments can be of any length - from half a page to 30 pages or more - though most range from two pages. (the length you need for the Euroscript Screenwriting Competition) to five.
I find it best to start with a very short version, maybe less than a page - to help me focus.
I follow with a deliberately overlong version - to allow the writing to expand. I then cut that version short again. Alternating lengths allows me to get the best of both worlds - brevity and flow.
Write in the third person, present tense (like the script). Focus on the most important beats of the story - and as with the pitch: be ruthless. But at the same time, keep the style flowing. Allow it to reflect the genre - light-hearted for comedy, dark for horror, etc.
Don’t forget character. A good treatment is just as much about character as plot. I find it useful to alternate sentences between character journey and outer story. This draws the reader in and also avoids the dreaded “and then… and then… and then…”
Your aim is to make the treatment fit the proportions of the planned script - in other words the first quarter of the treatment should equal the first quarter of the script, and so on. This is a tough one - most of the treatments I see spend far too long on the opening, feeling that they have to explain everything. You don’t. It’s not about how much you can squeeze in, but how much you can get away with leaving out!
And unlike the pitch, you must include the ending. This is an unbreakable rule. No matter how much of a surprise twist you've got, you have to tell us. Without the ending, we can’t appreciate the point of the story. Or be sure you know how to end it yourself.
Start now. Focus clearly on your story, the unfolding of key events, the development of the inner journey and how it all comes together at the end. Create treatments of different lengths - you’ll need them later. And make your writing sizzle.
Next: Writing the first draft
If you liked this article, Charles Harris runs Exciting Treatments for Euroscript - a one-day workshop on writing treatments for cinema and TV in February and November. He'll take you through basic and advanced techniques for writing the strongest treatments and series proposals - including language skills that you need and which aren't taught in normal screenwriting classes.
This is always a popular class and gets rapidly booked up. Check here for the next available date and to see if there are still places available.
Yes, I know, your competition entry is unique and took months of blood and tears, but I've read hundreds, if not thousands, and I see the same problems time and time again.
So, bear with me. See if any of these could possibly apply to you.
1. Your treatment doesn't match your script
There's too much about the beginning, too little about the middle, and almost nothing of the end.
The first page and a half of your two page competition treatment correspond to the opening 30 minutes - with the second act taking up a third of a page and the ending crammed into a sentence at the end. Does this ring a bell?
We all know how difficult it is to explain all that stuff you need to know at the start... so, don't.
We actually don't need all that information. Tell us the story - in proportion. A quarter of the treatment should equal a quarter of the film. It's tough, I know. But that's the job.
(Of course it could be that your script really does spend an hour and a half setting things up, in which case, boy, have you got problems!)
2. Your protagonist doesn't drive the story
Your treatment is so busy telling me all the awful things that happen to her, that your protagonist never gets round to doing anything for herself. Her actions, if they exist, are reactions.
Your protagonist must take the story by the scruff of its neck, and make things happen. She must decide on a goal and go for it.
I don't care if it's thriller action like Gravity or gentle indie romance like Juno, she has to drive the story forwards by her own actions.
3. The basic premise or pitch of the treatment/script is flawed
This is the biggie. The most common fault with the competition entries I see, and most difficult. You can sometimes fix the other two, if the idea behind the treatment is strong to begin with. But if the premise is weak, there's nothing there.
Most competition treatments have one good idea, maybe one-and-a-half, but a great premise needs at least two good ideas, maybe three. Often, those ideas are there, half developed in the writer's mind, but need to be brought out.
As a competition judge, I can only go by what you write. If the ideas aren't on the page, I can't guess at them. It's a shame. I'm sure many treatments and scripts could be great, if the premise had been developed more clearly.
Get your entries ready for the Euroscript Screen Story Competition 2014
If you win the Euroscript Screenwriting Competition you'll get three full script reports (usually running to 10-15 pages) on three drafts of your screenplay and as many meetings, telephone conversations and as much email correspondence as you need with your Script Editor. This intensive script development programme has one goal: to get your screenplay ready for market. Deadline for entries 31st March.
See full details of the Euroscript Screen Story Competition 2014
And if you want to fix your premise/pitch...
...I'm running a weekend workshop on selling and pitching to help you develop the best premise for your treatments and scripts. You get two days of practical information on what producers and agents want to see and how to approach them for the best results. Plus intensive work on your individual premise/pitch with personal feedback. January 25-26 - there are a few places left.
Find out more about the Complete Selling and Pitching Weekend now.
THE ONLY PLACE TO TALK ABOUT THE CRAFT OF SCRIPTWRITING.