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The Process: How To Write a Screenplay

By Patrick Kirkland · September 12, 2011

The Good Intentions

In the middle of the night, I get an idea. I think about it. I smile. I really like the idea, and so I say it to myself about a million times. And then, I fall back asleep.

My alarm goes off at 5am. I hit snooze.

My alarm goes off at 5:09am. I don't really remember it.

My alarm goes off at 6am. I roll out of bed and shuffle my way to the coffee pot. It's been brewed for about an hour. Expensive coffee, now hot as hell and overcooked.

I go to my computer, open up my writing program, and then sit there. I put my fingers on the keys, and… wonder about what the heck I thought about in the middle of the night. I don't really remember. So I just start writing.


The Writing Down the Idea

For a little while, the writing is really just blabber. Some words I don't even recognize. Then I start spelling things a little better, and I start getting a character or two in my head. I write dialogue – I'm good at dialogue, it comes easy. My dialogue starts to sound a little too Jersey, so I erase some of it. I wonder if I've gotten my idea back. Yes. Yes, it came to me as I was writing the dialogue. I write it down. I try to make the dialogue fit the idea. Sometimes it works great. Sometimes, not so much.

'Write it down,' I think to myself. 'That was a good idea, I should have written it down.' I make a mental note to put a pen and a notepad on my nightstand.


The Reading of Other Screenplays

The ideas are getting a little rough. The words aren't coming as easy. At this point, I've been at it for an hour this morning, and I think of the Coen Brothers taking a nap in their writing room. This thought doesn't do anything to inspire me. After all, I'm not the Coen Brothers.

It does, however, make me wonder how they turn a scene. I wonder if my scene turns like theirs. I switch to Google and type, "Coen Brother screenplay". I get six-hundred thousand entries in return.

I should get back to work, I think. Then I see they've got a new project in development. I start reading. I find the screenplay. I start reading. This dialogue they wrote is crazy good.

Half an hour later, I realize that my coffee is cold and it's getting lighter outside. I shake out of Google, refill my coffee, and go back to my writing.


The Reading of Books

It's not long before I get stuck. This morning, it's about ten minutes. Yesterday morning, it's about an hour. Tomorrow morning, who knows. I'm at a place in my script where I just don't know what to do. I look at the shelf above me and see STORY staring right at me. Of course, McKee will have the answer. I pick it up and start flipping through it. This book is my goto for quick answers. This and Lajos Egri. And a few others. If I'm not careful, though, another half an hour will pass by.

I flip through to find my answer. This one is about my supporting characters. I read a paragraph or two, and get back to it.


This is the Process

Some mornings, the writing comes quick and fast. My characters are sharp, my scenes are crisp, and the hours go by without me even realizing it. Some mornings are just like this one: work. Hard work.

How do you write a screenplay? Just like this.

You get an idea. Every day, you get up, and you work. You create outlines and characters, and then you write. You think of cool ways to get from point A to point B. You think of great scenes, great moments, awesome lines, and then sometimes, you just get stuck. You pick up the books, the magazines, the Google, and sites like TheScriptLab, and you get through all the dredge and mess until you have a completed work. And then, you start all over again with rewrites. After all, they don’t say all writing is rewriting for nothing.

How do you make this easier? You can't. But really, why would you want to? This is part of the fun of screenwriting – of calling yourself an artist. Because when it's all said and done, and you get that recognition you've been working for, every little piece is worth it. The good and the bad.