Writing a feature film script in 3 days

(I’m blogging more regularly as I prep an indie action-comedy animation I wrote called Lester. Most people think it’s too ambitious to do something like this, but they said that when I did Contour as well. So I’m blogging about it, hoping that more of you will try it out someday. Lester will be a mostly open-source process.)

I’ve written many feature film scripts. From the time I open Final Draft to exporting a version 1 pdf file, it often took me a year or two.

Writing 90 pages in Final Draft (or Celtx or whatever) is an organizational nightmare. I learned the hard way not to even open Final Draft until the very last minute.

And that’s how I managed to write the first draft of my action comedy Lester in 3 days.

When you build a house, you don’t start building after your first Home Depot run. First you source materials, get tools, cut wood, pay off the local mob, etc. All this is planning. The same goes for writing your script. Before you open Final Draft, you should have a lengthy pre-production process.

For Lester, I started with concept design.

  1. Who is the hero?
  2. What does he want in the beginning?
  3. What gets in his way?
  4. How does he resolve this?
  5. What does he want now?

#2 is where I found the vector of my concept. The hero’s desires might change as he undergoes some kind of conversion, but the driving force is the hero’s need to accomplish the mission.

Once I had a concept, I wrote a simple Save the Cat-style beat sheet. The description of each beat varies, but here’s the template I used for a simple 90-page action concept:

  1. Opening Image (page 1) – The world in disarray
  2. Theme (1-4) – Hero’s strengths
  3. Setup (1-9) – Who the hero really is
  4. Catalyst (10) – Hero changes course
  5. Debate (11-22) – Exploring the new world
  6. Break Into 2 (22) – Make a decision
  7. B Story (22-26) – Enter the new world
  8. Fun & Games (26-45) – Explore the new world (trailer stuff)
  9. Midpoint (45) – Something bad (or false hope)
  10. Bad Guys Close In (45-65) – Self-explanatory
  11. All Is Lost (65) – Someone dies
  12. Dark Night of the Soul (65-75) – Hero wishes he never did this
  13. Break Into 3 (75) – New plan
  14. Finale (75-90) – Execute new plan
  15. Closing Image (90) – The world is fixed

I kept each beat succinct without getting bogged down with details. For example, in Catalyst I wrote, “Lester takes a new job.” If the beats made sense, I expanded on them.

If the beats caused plot holes or pacing issues, I’d move them around. I originally crammed a ton of story into the setup: we meet Lester in the middle of a key relationship, and the Catalyst was “Lester gets unexpected news”. I moved this beat to the B Story so I could instead introduce Lester to this person for the viewer, which was much better paced.

The beat sheet is the testing lab. I’d often end up writing a dense, 12-page beat sheet, only to scrap it when it became bloated. Sometimes I’d lose track of what the whole point of the movie was and just start over from scratch to clear my head, a very clarifying process. I would always go back to What does the hero want? If I couldn’t answer that, I would start from scratch again.

The beats grew increasingly detailed as I became settled on Lester’s pacing. I turned it into an outline format, with roughly one chunk equaling one page. I’d include location details, dialog, and whatever else needed to color the world.

  • Setup
    1. Lester’s real life
      1. Lester teaches out of a strip mall
      2. Interaction with a local
      3. Bills to pay
    2. Lester’s secret life
      1. They’re running a secret lair here
      2. Lester’s mentor helps out
    3. Lester’s mentor
      1. Helps Lester be the best he can be
        1. Mentor, “Lester, great job.”
        2. Lester, “Lot of good it’s doing us, check out these bills.”
        3. Mentor, “Forget the bills, we’re doing good things.”
        4. Lester, “Then we need to get better at it.”
      2. Lester shows Mentor the numbers
    4. Theme restated
      1. Mentor reminds Lester why they do this
      2. Lester puts his headphones in, he’s heard this song and dance before

I spent a year on Lester‘s beat sheet. A year. That’s what it took for this story to make sense.

But Eric, why not just spend a year in Final Draft?

Because fixing your beats in Final Draft is like pouring a slab after tiling your roof. It’s terrible planning. It’s the opposite of planning actually. Final Draft is not a planning tool. It’s for finishing. Do not plan anything in Final Draft.

Writing in Final Draft also gives a false sense of finality. You start feeling like, “This is the one!” Most likely it’s not and you’re going to throw it away.

By the way, a year in Final Draft is nothing. In fact, I bet you’ve got at least one unfinished script in Final Draft that’s 3 years old. Or 10 years old. We all have those. If I can make a very gentle recommendation, close Final Draft, and start over with a beat sheet. Limit your time in Final Draft as much as possible.

If you want to make clear, coherent beats, do not open Final Draft. Write in Notepad++ or Open Office, or use paper and pen. Find a good note-taking device for when you’re driving or walking around. I’ve tried Post-it notes and 3×5 cards and found they were too hard to track, but your results may differ. You can chisel rock if you want, just don’t go to Final Draft yet.

In the end I wrote a 30-page beat sheet with nearly-final dialog. Editing dialog within the beat sheet is easy too. It’s easier to gauge flow and write more freely. Concepts can be grouped so we don’t rehash the same point over and over.

With a final beat sheet in hand, I copied one chunk at a time, pasted it into Final Draft, and formatted it. After tweaking dialog, fleshing out action scenes, and pacing it properly, I had a 90-page script after 3 days.

C’mon, man, I thought you came up with your story in 3 days in Final Draft, you click-baiter. Ah, you’ve missed the point.

The purpose is to make a workable first draft in Final Draft and get feedback. Working through your beats to create a first draft is painful and torturous inside Final Draft, but outside of Final Draft, it’s fun and energizing. Use whatever technique you need when building your beat sheet, EXCEPT FINAL DRAFT.

Send your script out for review. I used (and recommend) getting script coverage from Script Reader Pro. Pay them to rip it apart. The feedback will hurt. Your pacing will be bad, you won’t be able to answer basic questions like, “What is your hero trying to do in Act 2?” and stuff won’t tie together at the end. That’s a small sampling of the issues with my first draft.

They also send you a report card.

After receiving coverage for Lester draft 1, I spent a few weeks in Notepad++ and Open Office tackling the 86 problems they listed. Fixing these problems required a page 1 rewrite.

Fortunately, I did not spent 3 years in Final Draft. I only spent 3 days there. A page oner would be easy. And it was.

I rewrote the beat sheet from scratch. This meant moving beats around for better pacing, changing the villain, removing one of my favorite action scenes and writing an entirely different finale. The entire location of the movie was more centralized, which was an opportunity to build a more coherent world that Lester lived in.

I also took some time to get inspired by some classics like Rock & Rule and uncover old gems like Looker. Watching movies with your coverage notes in mind can drastically change your beat sheet, even your concept, for the better.

After another month, I wrote the second draft of Lester in 4 days and sent that off for coverage, and received 10. 2 more weeks in Notepad++, another page 1 rewrite (a 90% rewrite anyway) and we had a pretty nice draft 3.

Stay away from Final Draft until you have a massive, overly detailed beat sheet, and then bang that thing out in 3 days. You might enjoy writing your story again this way.