Screenwriting

Three Questions To Ask Before You Start Your Script

Photo by Michael Coté

You’re on the cusp of two words:

FADE IN.

There before you lays the trackless wasteland that is the first blank page of Final Draft. It’s empty. Waiting for you to step across its tabula rasa snowscape, leaving footprints that look like words, words that form into a script, a script that will go forth and carry all your dreams Westward, and it’ll end up on the big screen in 3D and it’ll make you rich and give you an Oscar and Hollywood will have a parade with you at its center and next thing you know Spielberg will be begging to work with you, pounding at your door late at night, sobbing, drunk on 18-year Armagnac and blubbering something about a sequel to 1941.

To that, I say:

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold up. Don’t get rammy. Unkink your knickers. Calm the fuck down. What did I tell you about Adderol? “They’re not Tic-Tacs.” That’s right.

Before you begin writing that script, you need to take a moment. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Now, go over this quick list.

1. What Is It About?

You think you’ve got this covered. This is easy, you say, making sounds like psshhh or pffft and waving me off like I’m an impertinent gnat. You answer, “It’s about a boy and his dog and their adventures in the hobo kingdom of Bindlandia.” And to that I say — well, I don’t say anything. I just flick you in the eye. Because that’s the wrong answer.

Let’s try this again. Pretend we’re in the jungle. We just drank some wild hallucinogenic tea and went on a crazy vision quest where we beat the King of the Spider Monkeys at a game of dice. Now we’re back around the campfire and I pull you close by the collar of your jaguar pelt robe and I say, “No, what is your script about?” Add in, “dude,” or “man,” if that helps the trippy, no-I’m-not-fucking-around-let’s-get-deep emphasis. That’s when you answer, “It’s about how it’s hard growing up, and how kids sometimes just want to run away, and sometimes running away for a little while is the best thing you can do. But you always have to come home again. You know?” And I nod. Because I know. I know.

And I hand you the cup of weird jungle tea again, and we toast to your vision.

The point is to have a point. That’s what will separate your script from others. You have a perspective and a point-of-view all your own. You have messages you’d like to share with the world — beliefs you hold dear — and some are big and some are small and your script should endeavor to share some of that with the world. No, every script isn’t a “message movie.” But every script you write must have your message — your mental and emotional DNA — spackled all over it like blood and semen at a crime scene.

2. Why Are You Writing This?

By now you’re saying, “Wait, aren’t we going to talk about act turns? Sequences? Beat sheets? Any of that technical mumbo-jumbo? I came here for technical writing advice…”

And again, I flick you in the eye. The other eye this time. For variety’s sake.

No. The technical mastery will come. Don’t worry, we’ll talk about that. But that’s not important right now. We’re not worrying about surface stuff. We want to dig deeper. We’re looking for buried treasure, not a handful of wampum sitting on the sand.

And right now we’re looking for the reason you decided to write this script.

“Because it sounds cool,” you respond. Then, because you’re smart, you cover both eyes with your hands. That’s okay. I can just flick your ear.

“Because I hear hobos are trending right now and I want to make lots of money?” Go ahead, cover your ear. Ever been flicked in the lip? You have now. That shit hurts. Like you just got stung by a cranky bee.

These are the wrong answers. Or, rather, answers that may be true but are not enough. Here’s the deal: everybody and their mother is out there right now writing a script. And, if hobos are, as you suggest, trendy (disclaimer: this is probably not true), then a lot of those people are writing hobo scripts. You need reason for your script to stand-out. Further, you need a reason to push through the pain of writing and finish a kick-ass draft.

The school-of-cool? Not enough. Trends? Not enough. Money? Not enough.

You need to dig deep and find a real reason to write this thing. I call this the give-a-fuck-factor. You have to give-a-fuck. Maybe you give a fuck about the character in a way that goes beyond the superficial. Maybe you sympathize with the hobo plight and you yourself have been searching for the Big Rock Candy Mountain for years. You respond to something within your own idea. Find it. Go beyond the superficial. Dig deep.

If you find it, then during the writing you’ll help to expose it so that others may more easily see it. Agents, producers, directors, and above all else, the audience.

If you give a fuck, they’ll give a fuck.

3. What’s Going To Stop You?

Final question: what could stop you from finishing this script?

“Well, my day job…”

Nipple flick.

“Ow! My kid’s in day care –”

Trachea punch.

“OW. If there’s a tsunami –”

Crotch kick.

Wrong! All of it, wrong.

It was a trick question. You fool! You fool.

Nothing should stop you from writing this script. Neither Hell nor High Water. If you have a message to share and a reason to share it, then no day-to-day rigors or earthly disasters should stop you. Your number one goal is to take the script you now have reason to write and — duh — write it. And not stop until it’s done. Because the one thing that will separate you from the endless infinity of other writers out there is you finished something.

Because, honestly? Most don’t.

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5 Comments
   Alan said on June 20, 2011 at 5:59 pm

It just chokes me seeing a blank comments thread when I really like something. Which I did. Cuts to the nitty-gritty right through multiple layers of screenwriting BS.

   Jeanne Veillette Bowerman said on June 20, 2011 at 7:34 pm

I bow to you, oh great Pen Monkey. As a co-founder of Twitter’s Scriptchat, I’ll probably get kicked out of the treefort for admitting the very first screenwriting book I read was Screenwriting For Dummies, and that I had no idea I was supposed to have a theme… wait, I was supposed to actually have a message? This isn’t AP English! Because I was absolutely clueless, my first script sucked balls… and even a couple after that. The advice you give today is dead on! I’d also add one more thing: “Who is your audience?” You have to know who would buy the ticket to go see it. Thanks, as always, for your great tips!

   Angela gottamustwrite Williams said on July 4, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Ouch! I got it.Geez that lip flick still hurts!

   Bobby Beggins said on August 18, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Was the language really necessary? Yes, I believe it was.

Unique, honest article. They should name the x-factor ‘giveafuckfactor’. But nobody does. So maybe they shouldn’t.

I digress. Love it.

   Amelia said on April 30, 2012 at 6:03 am

Great article. Also, all true. I laughed till I realised my co-workers were watching me suspiciously.

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