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By Ken Miyamoto from ScreenCraft · December 12, 2018
Believe it or not, you can finish a screenplay in just ten writing days.
In fact, the ability to do so will be necessary if and when you get to the big leagues of Hollywood writing assignments. Yes, many assignment contracts offer eight to ten weeks to finish the first draft (with just a couple of weeks to complete the final draft and polish draft), but you’ll quickly find that many companies ask for even tighter deadlines.
So consider it an expected and desired trait that studios and production companies look for in a screenwriter being considered for assignments — the ability to write under extremely tight deadlines.
This ability will help you to be able to come into a project late and work your magic quickly before production begins. It will train you to conjure ideas, structure plots, and answer story and character questions rapidly.
Hollywood moves slowly in an expeditious way, which means that the development process can be long and arduous, but once a project gains some steam, the process is kicked into high gear.
The talent attached only has a small window in their schedule to act in the film.
The director has another project shooting in six months, so production needs to begin as soon as possible.
The studio wants to shoot for a particular release date, so production is moved up a few months to accommodate that want.
The film has been pre-sold in foreign territories, so it needs to be written, produced and edited starting yesterday so the distributors and investors can turn a profit.
These are all realities that working screenwriters know all too well. It gets crazy.
With that in mind, here we offer ten tried-and-true steps to finishing a screenplay within just ten days — or more specifically, ten writing sessions. These ten writing sessions can indeed be spread out between two to three months, with gaps in between writing sessions for your day job duties, or for time to visualize what you’ll be writing in the next sessions (see below).
Regardless, follow these ten steps, and you’ll see that you certainly can finish a screenplay in just ten days.
If there’s a caveat in this ten-day process, this is it. You do have to prepare yourself before you type one single word.
Understand the Core Concept
Develop your best logline for the concept you are about to write. This helps to give you the direction you need. When you know the core concept of your screenplay, it can be the guiding force to the end of the tunnel (the end of your script).
Know Your Genre
Before you begin, you need to know what genre or cross-genre you are shooting for. You can’t write a scary comedy with action and suspense, set in a future science fiction world with melodramatic story arcs and exploration of alcoholism and drug abuse.
That’s a script that lacks in focus. It would be all over the place.
Going into the writing process, you need to know what genre you’ll be placing this story in.
Feed Your Creative Mind
You need visuals. You need tone. You need atmosphere. You need some general points of reference for your concept, story, characters, and world. And the best way to do that is to watch movies. And not just any movie. We’re talking about watching movies that have similar character arcs, themes, visuals, stories, and worlds. It’s not about stealing from them. It’s about being inspired by them. It’s about taking what those films did right and applying them to your own ideas.
When you know your genre, watch movies in that genre. This helps you to do things right and avoid the mistakes or misfires that previous movies in that genre made.
Visualize Your Script’s Bad Trailer Moments
You need a general visual outline. If you need to write it down as part of your preparation, go for it. But know that you shouldn’t know your story and plot points from A to Z and everything in between. You need to leave room for the inevitable discovery that will happen as you write.
So the best thing you can do is visualize the bad trailer of your movie. You know, those trailers that give away all of the major plot points, including the ending. Yes, we want you actually to create one in your mind.
This process will provide the destinations you need to venture to throughout the script. The trailer starts with where your protagonist is in their world, then the major conflict they are faced with, followed by the many setbacks and hurdles they have to overcome, then just when they think they have the knowledge to prevail, something happens which puts them in the worst possible predicament. And then we see the big twist or turn of events and how they fail or prevail because of that.
Check out one the worst movie trailers that gave away key twists present in the final film.
If you can visualize that type of trailer for your movie, you can use it as a compass during this writing process.
Visualize 75% of the Story Before You Type a Single Word
Once you have that brad trailer in your head, now it’s time to find the stepping stones to each story beat. And this all has to be visual because you’re writing in a visual medium. Too many screenwriters depend on writing plot points down in an outline. If you don’t see them visually first, they may not work as a cinematic experience.
So take long walks, runs, and drives. Daydream during your regular school or work hours. Put some instrumental music on to enhance that cinematic simulation further. And visualize those stepping stone moments in between those larger story beats and plot points.
Read ScreenCraft’s How to Use Music to Write Better Screenplays!
Writing is not about fingers on keys. It starts long before you type one single word.
This development process may take you a month. Since you’re writing on spec, you have that freedom. But anything more than a month is too much. Take it down to a couple of weeks if you can.
Okay, you’re ready. Shall we begin?
You already have your beginning in your head. Remember that you have to open your script in compelling form. There has to be a physical or emotional hook that will take hold of the reader and force them to need to read on.
Your task is to write ten pages. We’re shooting for a 100-page screenplay, which is right at the sweet spot of where you want your spec script to be. So you’ll be writing ten pages for each writing session/day.
Don’t try to write 30. Don’t even try to write 20. Being overambitious can backfire. You always want to leave yourself wanting more. To the point where you are overexcited to take your script to the next moment. That is the fuel that will keep that inner-fire burning hot and will help you to avoid “writer’s block.”
Read ScreenCraft’s 7 Reasons Why “Writer’s Block” is BS!
Now, you can choose to write over the span of ten consecutive days if you want. Maybe you’ve taken vacation time to write this script in a week and a half. Perhaps you’ve dedicated X hours of each day or night after you come home from work or school.
Or maybe you can’t commit to ten consecutive days of writing. That’s perfectly fine. A break in between writing sessions allows you the opportunity to visualize what you’re going to write for the next.
Regardless, it’s Day 2 — your second writing session of this ten writing session process.
Before you start writing pages 11-20, you need to read pages 1-10 two times. The first time is just to experience the read and see that ten minutes (one page equals one minute general ratio) of your movie in your mind’s eye. Once you’ve read it once, you need to ask yourself a few questions:
Has the protagonist and their world been introduced quickly?
Will the reader know what the genre is after reading those ten pages?
Will the reader know what the major conflict is after reading those ten pages?
Is there a moment that will hook the reader and leave them wanting more?
These are general questions. There are certainly exceptions. But understand that when it comes to writing on spec, you need your spec scripts to answer these questions as quickly as possible.
The second time you read through pages 1-10, do your edits. You’re essentially rewriting those pages to make them as good as they can be. It sounds daunting, but it will help you and your script in the long run. You can also fix any edits as far as grammar and spelling errors.
These two readthroughs — along with necessary edits and additional writing — may only take you 30 minutes. For some, they may take an extra hour.
When you’re done, it’s time to carry on with the story as you write pages 11-20.
Once again, this may be your third writing day in a row, or you may have taken a couple of days off in between each day.
When you first sit down for each of these writing sessions from Day 2 until Day 10, you’ll begin by reading the previous pages of the prior writing sessions. And you will rewrite them as you go.
So now it’s time to read through pages 1-20 and do your work on them. When complete, you continue on writing pages 21-30.
Before you begin to question the process of reading pages and rewriting as you go, here’s an explanation of what you’re really doing.
Many scripts from novice screenwriters fail to offer a consistent tone, atmosphere, and pace. This is primarily because most novice screenwriters take upwards of six months to a year to finish a single script. Their writing sessions are sporadic. They get bored with the story. They get frustrated with the process. And they become complacent to the point of just wanting to get it done.
When you reread and rewrite pages as you go, immediately before you continue on writing from the point you’ve left off, you are in constant connection with the tone, atmosphere, pacing, characterization, and beats of your story.
You also want to use this reread and rewrite process as a way to maintain consistent format as well. There’s nothing more frustrating for a reader than inconsistent format, which includes scene headings, character names, scene description, etc.
So after you’ve read and rewritten pages 1-20, go get pages 21-30 written.
Congratulations! In just three writing sessions, you have almost a third of your script done. And because you’ve just reread and rewritten those pages at the start of your fourth day, you have saved yourself from so much work on the backend.
Before you continue, you need to ask yourself some additional questions before you rewrite the first 30 pages of your script.
Is there enough conflict in those 30 pages?
Is the protagonist well on their journey (physical or emotional)?
Has the major conflict caused many additional conflicts that the characters must face?
You generally want to have some conflict injected into the story every few pages. That’s what creates a true page-turner.
Now it’s time to write pages 31-40!
Look, if you’re waiting for some specific “What Should Happen in My Story Now?” answers, you’re missing the point.
Understand that there is no single formula to a successful story. Save the Cat, and its Beat Sheet, offers some excellent food for the brain to help guide you to a possible compelling structure, but it’s far, far from the be all, end all answer. In fact, for every example of its implementation, there are ten pieces of evidence (movies) to the contrary.
Storytelling is in your DNA. It’s quite simple — keep the audience engaged by throwing conflict after conflict at the characters. And while you do so, create consistent plants, payoffs, posed questions, reveals, and revelations every few pages. It’s not rocket science. It’s not formula-based. It’s just good old-fashioned storytelling.
With that in mind, reread and rewrite pages 1-40 as needed and then continue on to pages 41-50.
You’ve passed the halfway mark!
Since you’re 50 pages in, it’s time to go back and do some additional work. As you’ll see, once you get to these later days, the rewriting process becomes much more streamlined because the previous work of each reread and rewrite has offered you a pretty tight 50 pages.
You’ll find yourself not having to rewrite as much because you’ve already done that work and you’ve maintained the necessary consistencies.
But as you reread pages 1-50 (sure, scanning is welcome… you know your story), take some time to pay attention to the dialogue and how you are using it. Ask yourself these questions:
Is there a lot of dialogue on every page, complete with multiple lines of it? If so, it’s time to trim them down to the core (or delete them).
Is your dialogue telling the story? If so, that’s bad exposition and lousy storytelling. Make sure you are showing rather than telling.
So for these 50 pages, double-check the dialogue. Make sure every line counts. If it isn’t partial to the story or the characterization, get rid of it. If it’s redundant, get rid of it.
Once you’ve done that dialogue pass, keep pushing forward with pages 51-60.
Hopefully, you’ve found that ten pages aren’t that hard to write. These ten-page intervals are easily manageable and much better than vomiting out 30, 40, 50 pages and beyond at one time, which is ridiculous and only causes future problems that cost you multiple rewrites to fix.
As you reread pages 51-60 (yes, you still need to do this), you should see a well-paced cinematic story. You’ve done your dialogue pass the previous writing session, so the lessons learned should carry over to pages 61-70 very well.
And remember that with these upcoming pages that you’ll write during this day, you’re building to your final act where there are going to be reveals, payoffs, and resolutions. And your characters are going to be facing their most difficult challenges (physical, emotional, or preferably both).
It’s hard to believe that by this writing session, you have 70 pages done. And after rereading those 70 pages, you see that they are pretty tight. The conflict has evolved and is aplenty. The tone and pacing are consistent and hopefully spectacular. You’ve injected multiple conflicts every few pages. And your dialogue is short, sweet, and the point.
Now the real fun begins. You’re starting to put your characters through their worst moments. Maybe they saw some hope in page 60, only to realize through reveals that what they thought they know was wrong or miscalculated.
As you go write pages 71-80, you’re setting up the big moments that will become the climax of your script.
As you do this, it’s time to focus a little more on the concept of plants and payoffs. That’s what readers and audiences love the most. Poor scripts just present a climax and conclusion. Great scripts build to them. And you build to them by planting plot points and visuals throughout the first and second act and then come back to them in the third act.
Read ScreenCraft’s Best “Plant and Payoff” Scenes Screenwriters Can Learn From!
So knowing where your story is going, go back to pages 1-71 and see if you can find even more ways to plant setups for the third act payoffs that you’ll be starting to write today.
Can you believe that you have 80 pages of your script? You’re just 20 pages away from being done. And because you’ve rewritten the script as you go with each session, you’re going to find yourself sitting on a near-final draft instead of a first draft that you have to go back and rewrite from page 1.
Rewrites are daunting. But the great thing about this ten-day process is that instead of staring at a big 100-some page script that you have to rewrite, you’ve broken that up into ten manageable increments.
Since you’re 80 pages in, and most of it has been rewritten so well, during this day’s reread, just work on keeping an eye out for any spelling or grammatical errors. Then have fun with pages 81-90.
It’s the last day. You’ve gone the distance. Congratulations and well done because now it’s time to write those final climactic pages.
After your reread of pages 1-90, you’ll likely feel that rush that so many writers get. You usually feel it strongly when you first begin a script. And then you feel it, even more, when you’re about to finish.
For some, it can be emotional because you’re saying goodbye to your characters. For others, it’s a thrill because you are going to watch as they either overcome or succumb to the major conflict they’ve been battling since the beginning of your story.
When you’ve written pages 91-100 (give or take, we know), it’s time to take a break. It’s time to lock that script away from your eyes and your mind for anywhere from two weeks to a month. Since you’re writing on spec, you have that freedom.
Don’t think about it, talk about it, or envision any of it. Take a mental (or actual) vacation from it.
When that time is up, read the script cover-to-cover. Any and all issues will stick out like sore thumbs because you’re not as married to the words as you were during the writing process.
One thing we can promise is that this draft will feel more like a final draft that just needs a general polish before you send it out.
Yes, you’ve written your script in just ten days. And yes, because you’ve reread and rewritten during this whole process, you’re closer to a final draft than you would have been otherwise.
But let’s be realistic. There’s never a “final draft” until your story has come alive on the screen. There will always be work that needs to be done. When you bring it to managers, they may want or need some changes. When your manager brings it to producers and executives, there will inevitably be notes that you need to apply.
If you utilize this ten-day writing process for your scripts, you’re training yourself to be a professional as well. One that can write under any deadline. Keep writing and best of luck!
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