I wrote a feature length script in four months and it was terrifying …but I loved it.
I’ve put off writing my first feature for a long time. So much that I was worried I would stop growing as a writer if I didn’t do it soon. Five years of writing scripts that are fifteen pages or less gave me a lot of experience in the fundamentals, but little in way of setting up a larger story. I knew that this had to change.
So, I signed up for a class centered around writing a feature script in a single semester. It was a small class, less than ten of us after some people dropped. When the professor began the first day, he started by telling us two things:
- This will be your most time-consuming class of the semester by a longshot
- Don’t expect to finish this class with a perfect script that’s ready to be sold and/or shot.
In hindsight this was the best possible introduction we could have had for what was to come.
The first three weeks of class were dedicated to preparation. When you’re aiming to write 120 pages in such a short amount of time, your story structure needs to be solid. Mine wasn’t. I wasn’t used to doing weeks of prep before opening final draft. We focused on character driven stories as well which, again, I wasn’t the strongest with.
But a larger problem than both of these things was filling out the details of the story. I had a good idea of what my first act would look like. I knew how I wanted to end the script as well. But going in I had no idea what I would put in the sixty-page gap between the two. I wrote treatments of varying lengths to help with this, and the prof handed out stacks of papers weekly with tips and methods of improving our writing. Those handouts quickly became my new bible, but I wasn’t a quick study. My treatments were shorter than I’d like, and I spent an incalculable amount of time pacing back and forth in my apartment hoping that new pieces of the script puzzle I was assembling would fall into place inside my head. They didn’t always, but between my treatments and constant reading of handouts I figured I was ready for the actual writing to begin.
I wasn’t ready. But I didn’t know that until week two of writing. You see, with five weeks of time, we would have to write one quarter of our script a week, and take an additional week to make revisions based on instructor feedback. So thirty script pages a week. It ended up being less than that for me: the first week I only wrote twenty pages before I was satisfied with my first act. Then in week two, I discovered that my second act was only about thirty pages long in its entirety. I panicked, restructured, and wrote more filler than I’d like to admit to hit my needed page count.
By week three I was a pro. I knew where the story needed to go, and (sort of) how to get it there. It wasn’t fun, but I got it done. Week four had a new problem, however. With all of the changes I’d made up to this point in the story, my ending no longer matched the rest of my script. To fix this problem I spent all of my pocket change on energy drinks and worked for almost thirty-six hours straight to re-structure my treatment, revise the pacing, and make the third act work. I walked away from the caffeine-fueled experience with a abysmal finale, but it was still better than my original version.
Compared to writing the first draft, revisions were a breeze. My prof pointed out some glaring flaws in my first act, and gave me some advice about the story overall. I knocked out all of the changes I needed in another caffeine adventure, but this one only lasted 20 hours.
At the end of the day, I’m not proud of this script. Yet. I’m proud of the work I’ve put into it and how much it’s improved, but it’s not ready for the rest of the world. You might have noticed that I’ve wrote this entire article without mentioning any plot points or character details. That’s by design. From this class I know my script’s flaws. I know what needs to be expanded on, and what needs to be simplified. I like the concept, but I know it has a long way to go before it’s presentable to the public. So, for now it’ll remain a secret to the slicer community, save for some friends who I might ask for feedback down the line. I hope to use some of my free time this summer to write another draft of this feature. And then maybe another after that. Who knows, I might make it into a blockbuster feature someday.
But I’m rambling a bit now, so let me wrap this up with the big lessons I learned from this experience.
- Your first draft is always terrible, but that’s okay. My Professor told me something that will stick with me for the rest of my life. He said “All writing is rewriting”. Having words on the page doesn’t make them set in stone. So own that it’ll be bad, and use that knowledge to improve the next draft.
- Page count deadlines don’t make you a better writer, but they do make you write. If I was pursuing this script on my own, I probably would have taken a couple of years to write it. Sure in the future I’ll have much more time to work on features, but I found that the deadline made me more focused and efficient. That might not be the case for others, though.
- Share your work with someone. Find a trusted friend or colleague to read through your script. Heck, have your parents read it if you have to. More eyes mean more opinions, and a clearer story overall. This entire semester I tried to keep my script under wraps, not wanting anyone outside of my class to see it until it was ‘perfect’. This was a stupid decision. I would have been a lot less stressed out if I had gotten feedback throughout the writing process.
- Criticism isn’t meant to hurt your feelings, it’s meant to improve your writing. This is something I already knew, but is something I had to learn all over again in this class. If someone is intentionally being mean that’s different; don’t show them your work. And even if you don’t agree with the criticism, at least respect the input. Someone took the time to read your script and tell you what they thought. Respect that.