Before you type a single word of your screenplay, you need to make sure that you do the necessary preparation that many screenwriters ignore, forget, or don’t realize.
Here we offer seven simple but essential steps that you should do before you even think about typing Fade In.
1. Choose Your Concept Wisely
Screenplays take a lot of time and effort to write — and that’s just to get to the end of the first draft.
When you’re developing concepts to write, you need to be diligent in how you conceptualize those concepts and what you choose to write in the end. Too many screenwriters settle for writing their version of their favorite movies. Or they have an interesting gimmick that they want to explore.
Read The Script Lab’s The Secret to Understanding What High Concept Means in Hollywood!
Neither of these options are examples of choosing concepts wisely. Writing your version of what has come before isn’t going to attract industry insiders — and gimmicks (a football video game that controls the outcome of real-life professional games) aren’t enough to drive a compelling narrative.
Every concept you choose has to be chosen for a reason. Maybe it’s a personal, but compelling, story that only you can write for whatever reason. Maybe you have an outstanding genre-bending concept that’s never been done before. Maybe you’ve found a way to blend two popular genres into one creatively.
Whatever the reason is, it has to be well thought out. You need to understand the struggles your eventual script may have because of the concept you’ve chosen — as well as the strengths. You need to know where you plan on taking the script once it’s written.
Writing screenplays isn’t a simple form of literary expressions like memoirs or novels. They are blueprints for possible acquisition so hundreds of other people can go produce it. And for those scripts to be acquired, you need to present a concept worth pursuing.
So choose your concepts wisely before you type a single word.
2. Make Sure the Concept Is Fresh and New
There’s nothing worse than finishing a screenplay after months of literal and figurative blood, sweat, and tears, only to realize that Hollywood films are being released that tackle the same concept.
It’s not about you having to predict the future. It’s about you being aware of the industry and what is going on.
If you plan on writing a script based on a historical battle, you need to make sure that Hollywood hasn’t beaten you to it. This often happens because a documentary or best-selling book has come out — or because the story has been recently featured in the media. We as a collective society ingest the same content, which is why strangers who have never met end up writing the same screenplay.
Just do your best to research the trades and perform some general Google searches on the subject matter before you type a single word.
3. Feed Your Creative Mind
So you’ve chosen your concept wisely and have done the research to make sure that there are no major films in the works too similar to your concept. Now it’s time to feed your creative mind.
Too many screenwriters jump the gun and go right into the writing phase.
Stop. Breathe. You have nothing more than a seed. It’s time to water that seed and nourish it a bit so it can grow into something beautiful and amazing.
No different than a director screening movies for their cast before production begins, you need to seek out a little inspiration and context.
If you’re writing a movie about vampires, it’s time to study up on the subgenre.
If you’re writing a World War II military drama, it’s time to place yourself into that world and find a little tone and atmosphere to work with visually.
If you’re writing a romantic comedy, it’s time to throw yourself into the arms of cinema’s leading men and women and their iconic romantic flicks to get into the mood.
Feeding your creative mind is probably the most fun part of the development process in screenwriting. You get to sit and watch movies. Lots of them. And there’s no guilt because you’re not wasting your time. You’re working.
4. Choose Your Movie’s Temp Track
Writing to music offers you one of cinema’s most important elements — a soundtrack. And we’re not talking about the Greatest Hits of whatever decade. Instrumental scores are a vital part of the filmmaking process. Music sets a tone and can drive emotions.
Read ScreenCraft’s How to Use Music to Write Better Screenplays!
When you’re in this development phase of your process, choosing the right music to listen to when you are typing can be the difference between struggling to put together a cinematic moment and writing with inspiration as you not only see the scene through your mind’s eye but also listen to the temp track that captures that tone and atmosphere.
If you’re writing a horror movie, check out some of the best musical scores from previous films in the genre that are similar to yours.
If you’re writing an adventure flick, find some inspired scores that get your heart moving.
If you’re writing an inspiring drama, find some cathartic scores that pull at your heartstrings.
Find as many tracks as you can and create the ultimate playlist before you type a single word.
5. Research Your Story’s World
Research isn’t just about gathering facts and terminology. It’s about getting into the zone — feeling that world which you are about to explore.
While the internet clearly has all of the information you need, why not consider heading to a bookstore or library to do some hands-on research? Or even better, you could go directly to the source and find locations and people that are embedded within the world or subject matter that you are covering.
If you’re writing a military script, watch some great documentaries, read some informative books, and talk to some veterans.
If you’re writing a script about detectives, watch some of those detective docuseries, read some informative books on compelling cases, and yes, see if you can contact your local police department and sit down with some real, live detectives.
Whatever the world or subject matter may be, dive into before you type a single word.
6. Visualize Your Movie During Walks, Runs, Drives, and Daydreams
Writing isn’t about typing. It’s about conjuring images and putting them together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. You can’t solve a puzzle without the pieces. When you’re writing screenplays, you can’t write a cinematic story without seeing what you’re tasked with describing.
So put your earbuds in and play your temp track as you walk, run, drive, and daydream. Use the imagery and inspiration you attained by feeding your brain through watching movies and television shows.
Take a month to do this, if not more. Develop the critical moments of your story in your head. See them. Feel them.
Generally speaking, you should see 75% of the movie — the major beats of the story and character arcs — within your head before you type a single word.
7. Set a Deadline
If you go into the writing of a screenplay without a personal deadline, you’re setting yourself up for a long, long ride.
Personal deadlines are easy to set. They challenge you. And when you’re challenged, you’re more alert.
Each writing session should have its own goal — be it five pages or ten. And then beyond that, you need a date. Now, you can’t take the easy route and give yourself a year. That’s too long for a single screenplay.
If you want to train yourself to work as a professional, give yourself three months. That’s generally how much time a professional screenwriter has to write the first draft of an assignment — it’s sometimes much less. Challenge yourself even more by cutting that down to two months — or just one.
These types of deadlines will keep you on your toes and help you hone the necessary skills that you’ll need down the road as well.
Set that hard deadline before you type a single word.
Now you’re ready to get those fingers moving as your story and characters come alive!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. Make sure to read his growing archive of posts at ScreenCraft for more inspiration.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies