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The Four Phases of Drafting a Screenplay

Or how to hit a flaming target, one bite at a time

 

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by Naomi in screenwriting

There’s an old joke that goes something like, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”

Yeah, it’s not a funny joke, but you know what? At least it makes more sense than the approach a lot of aspiring screenwriters take. Meaning, too many screenwriters try to write an awesome, complete, final draft of a script in one giant f*cking swallow.

First of all, this is impossible.

Second of all, this is a bad idea. (And not just because it’s impossible.)

The thing about screenwriting (and any writing, really, but I can only speak to screenwriting) is that you need to iterate.

Screenwriting is an iterative process, and you have to challenge yourself to go from “Well, it’s one hundred pages in screenplay format” to “Hey, I don’t hate this!” to “OMG, I just signed with an agent / won the Nicholl / sold my script” over the course of several drafts.

Almost no one gets to shortcut the process. (Okay, yes, there are a few weirdos whose natural story instincts are so strong that they show up great. But those people are the exception, not the rule.)

For the rest of us, the only way to write an awesome screenplay is to do it one draft at a time, discovering, learning, and refining as we go.

THE FOUR PHASES OF DRAFTING A SCREENPLAY

Tackling the big job of writing a screenplay isn’t just made more manageable by breaking it into smaller steps, although an iteration-focused process does that too.

But iterating also makes the final product better. Smarter. More layered and robust. Your characters and story not only improve, but evolve over the course of the process. They become something they could not have been had they been set down fully formed on the first pass.

(I totally just pictured my screenplay as a sentient AI. Creepy.)

Hey, this is good news. You don’t have to show up a genius. You just have to stick with it until you achieve genius (or, you know, submission-worthy).

Great. Now you know why you should write many drafts. But how do you go about it?

Imagine that there are four phases of writing, and you only have to focus on one of them at any given time:

1. The “Me” draft

When you’re working on a “Me” draft, forget about the audience. Don’t worry about how your ideas or words will be received, only worry about what’s true for the character and what gets you excited.

2. The Audience draft

In an Audience draft, your goal is get what’s on the page lined up with your intentions. So you’ll work on structure, and creating a framework to convey the story you want to tell. Think of this draft in terms of bringing clarity and order to the passionate, inspired chaos of your “Me” draft.

3. Producer draft

Now that the spark has been fanned into a flame, it’s time to throw some wood on and turn this thing into a legit fire.

Enough of that metaphor. In the Producer draft your work should be aimed at turning your story into a movie. Amplify the stuff that makes this project worth producing. Mine the genre. Exploit the concept. Make it so cool that someone will say, “I have to make this movie!”

4. Reader draft

Not to be confused with the Audience draft, here you’ll focus on polishing, formatting, wordsmithing, and just generally making the actual read as entertaining as possible.

 

You may choose (and need) to do more than one draft in each of these phases. Don’t let that worry you now.

Focus instead on knowing which phase you’re in, and letting that theme be your guide as you show up to write. Each phase gives you a different target to hit. By focusing on each one separately, you’re much more likely to hit ALL of the targets.

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