Ten Pages a Day: Getting Your Screenplay From First Page to First Draft

Traditional screenwriting is kaput, in my humble opinion.

For those of you who follow my tweets and Facebook status updates, you might recall that a few weeks ago I finished the first draft of my latest feature-length script Caput, a hyperbolic Hudson Hawk of an action drama that centers around a mafia hit man who’s peculiar quirk inhibits him from “getting out” for good.

Back in December I was determined to write Caput “the right way” which meant sketching some character bios, finishing a full outline, organizing a scene-by-scene breakdown on index cards, and getting through all the other step-by-step instructions that you’ll read in just about any book on screenwriting. It works for so many of my friends and colleagues whom I respect a great deal, but I found that it just doesn’t work for me.

When I write, the words need to flow. I can’t put too much thought behind them. I spent January, February, and March doing absolutely nothing with Caput except a very rough outline, which only got me up to the midpoint (in Syd Fieldian terms) before I was completely stumped. I spent a few days ruminating over it, sketching out some possible directions, but nothing seemed to work. So I put it aside, defeated for the time being.

Then I woke up on the morning of April 4th and got ready for my normal Monday teaching back-to-back Civilizations courses at one of my universities. I had packed my laptop since I was showing The Passion of the Christ as part of our chapter on Christianity, so I had a good five hours to sit down in that dark room amongst my students and write ten pages. That was my goal. It sounded reasonable enough. Ten pages, and that was all I wrote. And even though I felt the drive to continue, I parked my thoughts at page 10.

The next day, after a modest workout and even more modest breakfast, I sat at my little faux-wood table and wrote another ten pages. And ten pages a day it would be for the next two weeks, typing practically non-stop for an average of between two to three hours. By getting into “The Zone,” and most importantly by not thinking too hard about what I was writing, I was organically creating a bigger story with new characters, an entire subplot, twists and more twists with MacGuffens and other textbook elements strewn in here and there. It’s a beautiful mess of a script, I’m sure. But it’s fresh! And beginning this week, I’ll be putting together a tight revision of this first very rough draft that no eyes but mine will see.

Now I suppose it’s the poet in me, working from inspiration, letting the words flow from brain to page as if they were being whispered into my ear by some magical muse with a thick Italian accent (and pointing a gun at my ribs, too!) And although the two mediums are not worlds, but galaxies apart nowadays, one feature is the same for both: Words. If we spend too much time in our minds plotting and re-plotting, nothing gets written.) Just write out that first draft! It’s only when you have it writ that you can tell if it’s a hit.

So then, back to what I stated earlier, that traditional screenwriting is kaput. Okay, not quite. Though many script coaches and analysts will disagree with me here, I’ve found you don’t have to spend your time writing those character sketches, outlining on index cards. Just get the basic story and scenes written out and run with it. And most importantly, don’t overdo it. If you’re a writer in this day and age, you’ve probably got a job to go to at some point in the day, so write what and when you can. Tennessee Williams used to get up at 6am and write until noon every day. Well, we’re not him; most of us have to squeeze in our daily dose of writing with our morning orange juice. For me, it’s ten pages a day. For others it may be Pilar Alessandra’s Coffee Break Screenwriter approach or the “Million Dollar Method” popularized by Chris Soth and USC. And still some may simply learn tips and tricks of the trade by following the insightful tweets of The Script Lab, Screenwriting U, and Raindance Film Festival amongst others.

Whatever your method and however you do it, just write that script!

7 thoughts on “Ten Pages a Day: Getting Your Screenplay From First Page to First Draft

  1. Do you think this works for everyone? Or is it you own way to funnel your muse?
    I was also curious if you ever found it actually DIFFICULT to write a full 10 pages? Or were most of your days filled with so much inspiration that it exploded on the page?

    1. Thanks for reading Nathan! As with anything, nothing is proven to work for everyone. But, I think that if you jump into your own stream of consciousness with a basic idea and message as your lifeboat, you’ll be able to ride the rapids with exhilaration and excitement, never knowing what might happen, where you may turn, or whether or not you’ll topple over and drown. In short, you’ll put down the basics. Then (as is the case with me now) you’ll be able to cut away the fat and the fluff that just doesn’t work and dam up the original stream so that the thematic concepts and deeper meanings can flow effectively into the reservoirs of your audience, thus harnessing the ultimate power of your original ideas. But you’ve gotta start with everything before you can get to anything.

      Have I ever had trouble getting those ten pages written? Not yet. But I know that the minute I start thinking so hard that my fingers stop typing at their steady 85 words per minute, I’m doing something wrong.

  2. I’m not experienced with screenwriting, and the task of putting one of the many ideas I have down in that form has been daunting enough to keep me from even trying for too long. You’re right, there are plenty of how-to books out there. A great way, I’ve found, for putting off actually writing! Luckily for me, one of those screenwriting gurus suggested a book that actually got me writing – How to Write a Movie in 21 Days, by Viki King. I’m a firm believer in doing whatever works. For me, it’s always different, no matter what I’m doing. But for screenplay #1, which is currently running at page 75, this method has worked. Maybe for #2 I’ll try the note cards, and #3 something else entirely. Who knows what it will look like when I’m holding the first draft in my hands, but it will be a finished feature length script, and it will feel good. Thanks for the post, and good luck with rewriting!

    1. Thanks for commenting on the post, John! Like I mentioned to Nathan, I don’t believe there are any proven methods that work for everyone, especially when it comes to writing. But for me, it’s gotta flow and flow, and I always have to start with rapidly typing fingers and no thought except my basic themes and the message (and, of course, the general concept for the script.) Now I’m at the part where my mind has to take over, and the ten pages are getting just a little bit harder to reach 🙂 But we push on! Thanks, my friend, and best of luck with the writing!

  3. Jeffrey Schwinghammer May 4, 2011 — 1:59 pm

    As you are writing 10 pages at a time, are you planning out what happens next too or is that open to interpretation at your next writing session? I typically go from big/abstract idea to story details (ain’t the best way) instead of building up a story out of character development. I was curious how you think about your script.

    1. Thanks for reading my post, Jeffrey, and for the comment. I had a rough outline for CAPUT, as I mentioned in my post, which took me up until the mid-point, which is the point at which I got stuck outlining. So when I started developing the scenes, letting the dialogue and actions flow out of me, I think unconsciously I was thinking a step ahead, but in no means did I think critically or even very deeply about them. It’s more like a quick flash ahead, then it vanishes. I’d say when I write my 10 pages, I’m 90% focused on the scene at hand, 10% on the subsequent scenes. The real thinking happens during the first rewrite for me. And working from big/abstract idea to details sounds like a pretty solid way to write; I’m a character guy, so I fine tune from character necessity outward to cover all my plot points (again, that’s in the rewriting stage; first I let my characters run rampant on the constantly moving ground of my plot.)

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