Unblanking the page

Being faced with a blank page is one of the scariest things for a screenwriter. It’s even worse when you think about the other 119 blank pages lurking just around the corner. Here’s a simple thing I do to ensure I never have that problem. It all starts in the planning phase.

When I’m planning a screenplay I spend a lot of time on a beat sheet. I usually use something like a Google spreadsheet (this is so that I can access it it from home and during a lunch break at work.)

I’ll write a couple of lines about the major movie beats. Then I’ll do some more beats for any twists and turns, and gradually fill in more beats between them until I have a few lines for every scene in the movie. I should be able to read all of the lines and picture the entire movie without getting confused. Sometimes I’ll add a few lines of dialog that I feel are pertinent. When I’m satisfied with all of the beats, everything is ordered properly, and I can feel the tempo of the movie, then it’s time to open Final Draft and face that blank page.

That blank page only lasts for a second or two. The first thing I do is paste all of the beats straight into Final Draft. Select-all, cut, paste. Bang. No more blank page. But it’s just a big lump of ugly unformatted text.

So then I’ll add a rough scene heading for each of those beats. Sometimes I will already know exactly what the scene heading should be. If I’m unsure I’ll add a rough heading like “EXT. SOMEPLACE DARK”. It doesn’t really matter. This isn’t even 1st draft yet. I’ll clean it up later.

In a matter of minutes I have gone from a blank page to having 15 to 20 pages. Maybe more.

From that point I can rewrite the beat descriptions as action. The temporary screen headings get changed around. Dialog is added. Things are adjusted and refined. Scene-by-scene the script grows. Yes, you may depart from your intended path a bit, but you should be able to stick roughly to the plan. (If you stray too far from the plan it shows your plan was wrong, or you are making up a new story. Either way, you should go make to the planning phase and beat out the new story to see how it works).

I know some people prefer to start with a clean page so that they don’t pollute their creativity. To me the creative part is in the planning. That’s where you learn what the story is and who the characters are. The actual screenplay is just a way to describe that story to someone else.

It’s a bit like a stone carver. They come up with the idea. Make some sketches of what they want to carve. Then they find the right sized block of stone. They draw the lines of the carving on to the stone. Only when they are happy with that will they begin to chisel the stone.

Pasting the beats into your screenplay is like drawing on the stone. Then you can spend the time chipping away the big edges, shaping it, smoothing it, and breathing life into it.

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