Last week I did something I’ve never done before – completed a full feature length screenplay in exactly 5 days.
I’ve written quite a few features over the years, on average taking anywhere from 3 – 6 months to complete, which I believe is par for the course… But this time around I wanted to experiment with an extremely aggressive writing schedule, if nothing else to see how it would affect the creative process as a whole.
I’m a big believer in experimenting with new techniques while writing… Sometimes I’ll front load the process, and will spend months working out the idea, generating pages and pages of notes, and doing countless hours of research before actually sitting down to write the script. Other times, I might start writing before the idea is even fully formed, and will type out individual scenes as they come to me, only later stringing them together.
In some cases, my experiments have succeeded and in other cases they have failed, but they all helped me understand how I can get the best work out of myself. No two writers are going to have the same process, and I’m a firm believer that the only way to know what’s best for you is to try as many approaches as possible and see what sticks.
One thing that I’ve noticed over the years, is the scripts I’ve written in the least amount of time are often my strongest. There have been exceptions to this, but generally when I am able to work quickly and efficiently, I get the best creative results out of myself. So naturally, I wanted to see what would happen if I wrote a script in a ridiculously short amount of time… And I had a hunch the results would be positive.
I’m also a huge believer in the mantra “don’t get it right, get it written”, so I figured the sooner I could get past the first draft, the better. If I’ve learned anything about screenwriting over the years, it’s that the real writing comes during the re-write phase. The first draft is never great. Ideas that work well in your mind don’t translate to the page, and new issues, plot holes, and inconsistencies emerge. It’s during the re-writing that a great screenplay truly comes to life.
When I embarked on this experiment to write a feature in 5 days, I knew it would only be possible if I followed a very rigid set of guidelines. I was essentially cutting down my usual writing time by 90%, so I couldn’t approach this the same way that I’ve approached anything else I’ve ever written. Below are the rules I laid out for myself before writing a single word:
Take as much time as needed with the concept
If I was going to only give myself 5 days to write an entire screenplay, I knew the concept had to be firmly in place before I typed fade in. For that reason alone, I decided early on I would take as much time as needed to conceptualize the piece. I wanted to make sure the DNA of the film was rock solid. That the character’s objectives were clear, relevant backstory elements were in place, and the major goal posts of the story were set – Act breaks, turning points, etc. all had to be bulletproof.
I don’t believe this part of the process can or should be rushed. Ideas need time to incubate, and writing any project is a huge time commitment (even on this kind of schedule), so I gave myself permission to take as long as I needed to drill down the basic premise and story. In the end, I only needed a few weeks to flesh out the fundamental building blocks that would pave the way for the writing frenzy that was to come.
What I didn’t do during this period, was write out the story beat by beat. The vast majority of these few weeks was simply spent thinking of the idea… Maybe jotting down the occasional note here or there. I intentionally didn’t write a rigid treatment or beat sheet, as I wanted to leave lots of room for spontaneity during the writing process itself. Once I had the core idea locked in, and a thorough understanding of who the characters were, it was go time.
Write 20 pages per day
This goal was simple math. I wanted to write a feature in 5 days, and I knew the final draft would be no more than 100 pages. 20 pages/day x 5 days = 100 pages. Easy right?
And in actuality… It was easy. It was the easiest writing experience I’ve ever had, precisely because I had no time to think or put it off. Writing is kind of like going to the gym. The hardest part is just deciding to go… You procrastinate, put it off, and sometimes might even dread going, but when you get there it’s really not so bad. It might even be fun.
With writing, once you hit your stride, you can fly through 5 or 10 pages in no time. In my case, I averaged about 4 hours of writing per day, which means about 5 pages per hour.
It could have easily taken me 4 hours to write just a page or two, and if I gave myself the time to do that, I would have taken much longer. I could have scrutinized every last detail as I went along, second guessed my choices, or taken breaks whenever I felt like it, and I would have worked at a snail’s pace. But I knew I had to hit 20 pages a day, so I did.
It wasn’t complicated, I just sat down and typed, working off instinct and pulling from the choices that I had already thoroughly thought over in weeks past, and before I knew it the script was done.
Don’t re-read a single word
One of the techniques I used to ensure I would hit my 20 page per day target was to never re-read anything. I’ve heard this advice from other writers who swear by working through their script from start to finish without ever going back to edit anything.
With my script, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t many instances where I was tempted to go back and re-work an earlier scene. I might have snuck a peak at an earlier page (often by accident, or by force of habit) and was tempted to fix a spelling error, or clean up some rough dialogue. But ultimately, I didn’t do it, and this was arguably the #1 reason I was able to write as many pages per day as I did…
And it’s not because I didn’t waste time re-writing pages that were already complete, it’s because I didn’t let myself put on my “editing” hat. Writing and editing are two very different skills and require very different parts of the brain, that in many ways are in a constant battle with each other. Once you open up that pandora’s box, and start seeing your work through the critical eye of an editor, forget writing 20 pages a day. Forget writing even 2 if you have a really bad day. That voice in the back of your head that tells you to go back and fix something, or to re-write a line because it’s not good enough, that is the voice of writer’s block…. At least that’s how I see it.
There is a time and place to edit your work. And surely, none of us expect to have an incredible first draft of anything. But, we can be far better writers when we are solely focused on writing, and far better editors when we are simply editing. So let’s hold off on being analytical until we have something to analyze.
Pretend it’s someone else writing the script
This is another great piece of advice I’ve heard many times from other writers, and it very much relates to my previous point. When we are overly critical of our own work, we tend to get stuck… But if we can get out of our own heads, and try to see our writing through a truly objective, nonjudgmental lens, we will generate far stronger work.
This is why many writers imagine they are someone else while they write. They may give themselves a pen name, or simply try to channel inspiration from another writer while they type. Whatever the method may be, the goal is the same – to avoid falling into the trap of becoming the “editor” when they’re supposed to be the writer.
Personally, I found this tactic worked brilliantly. The script I wrote was in a genre that I don’t often work in, so it was easy for my to psychologically separate myself from the project. It was if someone else was writing it, so all my guards were down… Not to mention, I didn’t write this film with the intention of directing it, which took a lot of the pressure off too. For the first time, the screenplay itself was the end goal, and that changed the whole dynamic for me.
Write every idea, no matter how ridiculous
When working at this rapid of a pace, there are always going to be big decisions that need to be made very quickly. We might know we need to get the narrative from A to C, but what happens during B is anyone’s guess. When writing at a more “normal” pace, sometimes these decisions can take hours if not days to make. I can recall countless moments of frustration when I’ve been stuck on a single plot point for what feels like forever. The worst part is in most of those cases, once I did work through it for a first pass, I would end up re-working it significantly on a future draft anyway.
With a 5 day schedule, I knew I would have no time to waste so I told myself early on it was okay to write anything. If I had a ridiculous scene idea, no problem. A line of dialogue that was a bit of a stretch, that was okay too… I would fix it all on the re-write. I knew it was far more important to keep the momentum going at all times than to grind the entire process to a halt for one specific hang up.
It’s easy to re-write a single scene, or clean up some dialogue that’s not working later on. But it’s much harder to get through scene after scene of writing, when you just struggled for hours over one small moment that may or may not ever make the final draft. Writing is all about rhythm. It’s about getting into a groove, and staying there as long as you can, keeping that momentum going until you hit THE END.
Everything I outlined above was essentially planned from the get-go. I knew I would be taking a vastly different approach to writing this script than anything I’d written before, but I had no idea how it would turn out.
In the end though, I was extremely surprised… And very happy with the results.
In many ways, the first draft was as strong (or stronger) than those of scripts I’ve spent months toiling over. That’s not to say it was perfect, not in the slightest. There is a lot of story I would like to clean up, some scenes to swap or eliminate, and dialogue to refine. But that’s true of all first drafts, and this one was as good as any other I had written, maybe better.
Not only that, but the process itself was far more enjoyable. Setting that 20 page per day target meant I couldn’t procrastinate. I didn’t need to give myself a writing schedule, because I simply had to write whenever I had a free minute, and not stop until I hit my target. I was in the script so much and for so long, than when I would pick up the next day, it was like I never stopped. What I thought would be a burden, was actually quite liberating.
Add to that the fact I didn’t limit myself by re-reading or being over judgmental of anything I wrote, and I was flying. It’s amazing what happens when you give yourself permission to fail. All the barriers go down, and you give yourself the greatest potential to succeed.
All that said, would I write every screenplay like this? Definitely not. It was an experiment, and taught me some valuable lessons – namely the importance of momentum, and how to avoid being overly analytical while writing… Both of which I know will serve me well on all future screenplays.
How about you? What’s the fastest you’ve ever written a feature? Let me know in the comments below!