Screenwriting 101 — Finishing The Damn Thing

   asks —

“I have about 100 different little ideas for themes, or characters or scenes, and I will start working on a screenplay and at about the beginning of the third act I get frustrated and what originally seemed to be a well thought out idea ends up seeming as if it falls apart and I will put it aside and start working on the next project. In all i have about 47 unfinished screenplays ranging from 1 page to 60 pages to about 100 and in total, i have finished two in my life; both for classes. Is this common?”


It’s interesting that the two screenplays you’ve finished were for classes. Maybe what you need is a deadline. Before I was a screenwriter with dozens of unproduced screenplays I was a playwright with dozens of unproduced plays, plays that no one wanted to read but which I had to write anyway. Since I knew no one was interested in reading them, I had to create my own deadline or else I would never finish them. So I would set a completely arbitrary deadline, say, six weeks, from beginning to end, and I would write toward that deadline, and I would stick to it.

But maybe deadline is not your problem. If your screenplay gets tied up in insoluble knots at the top of Act III, it may be because you didn’t plot it out well enough ahead of time. This is where treatments come in handy. They take a lot less time to write and they reduce the stress of writing the actual screenplay. If you’ve plotted the whole thing out ahead of time, the screenplay should be a simple filling in of the blanks.

I see that you have “about 100 different little ideas for themes, or characters or scenes.” What about story? David Lynch once said that writing a screenplay is easy, you just jot down ideas for scenes on notecards, and when you have 70 of those, you’ve got a feature. Well, David Lynch is one of the most imaginative, creative artists of our time but in this regard he is full of shit. You need a solid story before you start writing your screenplay, otherwise you are wasting your time, your screenplay will become a tangled mess by the end of Act II, justwhen it should be turning into an unstoppable dramatic juggernaut.

In fact, maybe it’s the second-act break that you’re getting stuck on. By the end Act II, the entire “problem” of the screenplay should be in complete focus and honed to its irreducible point. By the end of Act II, the protagonist should know who he is, what’s going on and where he needs to go to get to the ending, and then Act III should be how he gets there (whether he arrives at his goal or not is a different matter). At the end of Act II, Dr. Kimble has identified the one-armed man. At the end of Act II, the killer Brad Pitt’s been chasing suddenly turns himself in to the police. At the end of Act II, Clarice has her final confrontation with Lecter and he gives her the clue she needs to solve the case. If you’re arriving at the end of Act II and your script is suddenly falling apart, you may be structuring your acts wrong.

If you know how your second act ends but you don’t know what happens afterward, think of what you want the ending to be and write that. I do this all the time; there will be big spot in the script where I don’t know what’s supposed to happen, and instead of giving up I just type a row of X’s and skip to the next place where I know what’s supposed to happen. Or else write what we in Hollywood call “the bad version,” just the dumbest, most cliched version of events you can think of. Then at least you’ve got something written down and you can finish the thing and then go back, read it as a complete thing instead of a broken idea, and set about fixing it.

One thing I know: all writing is re-writing. If you don’t like re-writing you should not write screenplays. Early on in my career I had the good fortune to have a conversation with Scott Frank.  I had just finished working on Curtain Call and he had just finished working on, I believe, Saving Private Ryan (I know, I know, he didn’t get a credit — this is the life we’ve chosen).  I was carping about how often the producer of Curtain Call had made me endlessly re-write scenes and all I wanted was to have the damn thing done, and Scott said “Gee, that’s weird, I have the exact opposite problem, my scripts are always going into production before I feel like I’m done with them, I’ll see the movie in the theater and think ‘Man, if they had only given me one more day with that scene, I could’ve really made it sing.'”  And he’s right — you have to enjoy the whole process and look forward to working on the script more.

Hope this helps.

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29 Responses to “Screenwriting 101 — Finishing The Damn Thing”
  1. toliverchap says:

    Your insights are helpful, thanks for writing about this stuff, it means a lot coming from a practicing professional. I’m taking a screenwriting class now and structure is the biggest thing the instructor is focusing on. I figure just because it’s a formula (Lock the conflict, first plot point, second plot point, climax, denouement) doesn’t mean that the story has to be boring or predictable. Writing is rewriting and problem solving to come up with something that’s dramatically griping. I think a big part of that is keeping Aristotle’s Poetics in mind and cutting out all the stuff that is useless to the plot OR finding a way to make that stuff relevant without being self indulgent.

    • Todd says:

      Your instructor is correct in his emphasis: screenplays don’t just need structure, they are structure. The rules are there not to stifle creativity but to encourage it. When one has no rules there is no reason to be creative. It’s not “formula,” it’s the way it works. If it was formula, every screenplay would feel the same and people would stop going to movies. The “rules” give pulse and life to every different kind of story imaginable if you have the humility to accept their truth, the discipline to apply them to your story and the creativity to make your story live through them.

      • toliverchap says:

        Definitely, those rules are essential. You are right, without the structure you have chaos and even in this Post-Modern world most chaos isn’t very interesting or fad proof “art”.

        • Todd says:

          I think of it more like a boat. There is an infinite variety of boats you can build, but your designs must follow specific rules of boat-building or else your boat will sink. A screenwriter who does not wish to obey the rules of storytelling is like a boat-builder who decides he’d like to build a boat with the mast on the bottom, or the keel on top, or the sails out to the side, because that’s how he feels life is. And what that boat-builder would end up with might be interesting to look at, but it is not a boat.

  2. Anonymous says:

    There’s a way to pacify that endless need to write on the same script, just start writing for soaps. The issue there becomes one of patterns and cycles in the endless story, where one story arc is peaking another is low and so on. I had to collaborate with one such author, and aside from the relative merit of the TV program, it was obvious over the years writing for the soaps he had honed quite an ability to focus on construction and analysis. This from a person who started out in art school, politics and art films.

    • Todd says:

      It sounds as though you’re saying that “art school, politics and art films” are good and “construction and analysis” are bad. I don’t think that’s true. Construction and analysis is what makes good “art films” possible. My favorite writer is Samuel Beckett; he’s as “artsy” as they come, yet his powers of construction and analysis are truly awe-inspiring.

      As far as “endless” tinkering goes, I’m not advocating tinkering for the sake of putting off completion, I’m advocating humility in the face of the rules of drama.

      • Anonymous says:

        Oh miscommunication there – mid-1980s “art school politics and art films” is where I would be found as well, and not cynically, I meant it as an obviously-idealist counterpoint to the role he ends up at, having to follow the “bible” of characters and their demands in Tv-soaps, that’s all. Construction and analysis is even more interesting as far as I am concerned – and the interesting point about learning-from-soaps is the never-ending story concept, they basically allowed to build long term narrative structures (even multi-author to some degree) unfolding over months on a daily basis. But of course, at the expense of certain dimension one would enjoy on the other side.

        As for Beckett, man the term “artsy” doesn’t even do him justice, he raised the meaning to some level that I doubt even oxygen is available at. But still, “Film” is really a letdown – I know he didn’t direct, but he was hands-on involved and script of course.

        • Todd says:

          You didn’t like Film? But it’s about the horror of being perceived! What’s not to like?

          • Anonymous says:

            Anyway, even Buster Keaton didn’t like it. It should have been reversed, or inversed, as really Beckett was more stoneface than Buster in reality, Buster’s was a character — have Buster direct a film with Beckett in the acting role. Now THAT would have been a great legacy for Buster and Beckett. Buster: “Now Sam, in this scene, I want you to take a fall after they pull the carpet from under you.” I’d pay to see that.

            • Todd says:

              Film as a legacy for Buster Keaton is a bust, but as a beginning for James Karen it’s a positive boom.

              • Anonymous says:

                “but as a beginning for James Karen”

                Ok now I am actually surprised as well as impressed. Listed for one’s role as none other than “passerby” in Beckett’s “Film” is already sort of, obsessive for IMDB levels, but to see what James Karen built out of what was essentially a walk-by? Just goes to show you, in Beckett’s highly constructed world, there is no such thing as “just a passerby.”

                • Todd says:

                  Karen was, apparently, a good friend of Keaton’s which presumably is why he got the part of “passerby.” And he is also, of course, a character actor supreme in his own right.

  3. kornleaf says:

    this has been more helpfull than most of my classes.

  4. vaklam says:

    Outstanding advice! Helpful, concise, and full of good examples.

    Have you considered writing professionally? 😉

  5. ndgmtlcd says:

    You’re using the emblem or logo (two snakes curling around a rod, with wings on top) of Mercury, patron deity of merchants and crooks. Doctors and other medical types use the emblem or logo (a single snake curled around a simple rod) of Asclepius.

    This is a common mistake, unless of course it’s done on purpose, if you want to emphasize the commercial or somewhat crooked nature of show business.

    • Todd says:

      Actually, I’m using the first image that came up in a Google search for “script doctor,” but as long as we’re at it, the crooked nature of show business is well documented but, imho, is dwarfed by the crooked nature of the medical profession.

  6. edo_fanatic says:

    oooo. Interesting considering I’ve got a short film (for school)planned. It’s about two young men who know nothing of the world and only know how to do their job. They’re the kind of people who don’t go outside…maybe make them into slave laborers or robots…idk. They get fired because they’re inefficient at it and are kind of weird. It’s all about how they’re trying to find purpose after their loss. The secondary conflict is they end up fighting and separating. The conclusion being them realizing no one has true purpose and that they’ll have to either make their own or keep living without. I think if I wrote scripts for a living it would kill me. It took me 2 hours to think of the scenario. so kudos.

  7. themacguffin says:

    excellent advice, thanks. I have been linking to this blog from my regular online blog but I recently started an LJ account to make it easier.

  8. No matter what I write, I always seem to bog down at the 3/4 of the way thru mark. I’ll even finish writing the ending first. I think it’s because that’s usually when the characters are at their lowest point and I’m taking it too personally and so depressed myself that I don’t want to have to write about crap happening to the characters, too.

    • Todd says:

      Well, that’s a different problem. Us professionals solve that problem by seeing all of human life not as a thing to be experienced but as a stream of plot points to be endlessly hyped and manipulated. Try it!