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  • Writer's pictureKel Kitagawa

My honest process of writing the first draft of my first feature screenplay

Movies, it turns out, are long! And I wanted to write one! And then I did. When I was starting it felt like a mysterious and arduous process. I was looking for an article that explained someone's process in detail. I didn't really find one. So here's what my timeline and process looked like. There was a lot of trial and error, because I'd never done this before. And the whole thing took about a year and a half, but after this learning process, I think I could have a complete draft in 6 months. Knock on wood though.

Also I am not a professional! This is still very new to me, and I don't know if I'm a good writer, but I do know that I really like the process. Here's my process, less about making a good script and more about getting a script draft done.

My timeline

September 2022: I had an idea and concept I was excited about and I wrote the first 10 pages, based on something that was interesting to me. What arose in that process was a conflict that I was currently experiencing. It felt too close to write about it then, so the story got put on hold.

February 2023: I wrote another 5 pages, and a critical monologue for the end of the film. I shared these two scenes with close confidants, and got feedback that the dialogue hit right, made them emotional etc. This was critical in understanding I’d hit an emotional conflict that was clear, relatable and expressed in a new or unique way.

March - July 2023: I thought about world building and characters and what were the critical scenes I wanted to include, but did not write at all.

August 2023: I wrote and rewrote logline and pitch concept. This helped me understand what the story was about, what I wanted to convey. Getting feedback from this stage was helpful in understanding what sparked people’s interest, and what made the story stand out.

I met someone around this time that had written a few features and was really grounded in their process. This made me feel like I could actually do the thing.

September 2023: Worked on character building and plot points that would put the characters in the places I wanted them. Googled a lot about what are physical manifestations of a lost sense of self. Read a lot of self help articles. Listened to Aaron Sorkin’s masterclass talk. Found that his advice on “The first 15 pages are the hardest” was encouraging and that the “Gun on the table in the first act, but you need to use it in the third act” was also helpful to understanding how everything has to be written with intent, and everything needs to be connected.

October 2023: Started the LIFT Screenwriting course. Again, rewrote the pitch and logline, received feedback and questions about the opening scene. This was helpful to figure out what was landing and what wasn’t. Tried to write beats/outline but wasn’t successful, and I found that really frustrating. Watched Celine Siamma’s lecture about “weaving an architecture of desire” as to explain the relationships between characters. Disagreed that you shouldn’t get attached to your characters. My characters are full people, and when I know them well, they write themselves.

November 2023: I listened to EP 403 of script notes “how to write a movie” and this broke my whole story and concept. It made me breakdown what it was that I was trying to convey with the story and what were my important visuals. The hegelian dialectic (don't be scared of those big words it's actually very simple, just listen to the ep of scriptnotes) was crucial to understand the central conflict of my story, but it took me a while to put my thoughts into that format. Once I did though, I was able to produce the full script outline in an hour and a half. So hegelian dialectic was made, beat sheet was complete, including the outline for the second act that I was struggling with so much.

December 2023: I rewrote the opening scene again. Pushed myself to just keep writing different scenes from my outline. I started with the scenes that were either easy, or I had a good joke to add, or had some previously written dialogue I wanted to include. I would call this stage like “dream writing” because I was cherry picking basically what was coming naturally to me. I kept avoiding the scenes I felt I wasn’t ready to tackle yet or that I was really stuck on.

January 2024: I had a deadline here, where I needed to submit a draft for January 15th for grad school applications. This was a great motivator, and because I had the outline, I knew my foundation was solid, I just had to commit. I will note, I am very privileged to get to focus on this full time at this point, because I am a freelancer and the industry basically goes to sleep in January.

I kept with my “dream writing” process until I got stuck. But then I got really stuck. I was out of things that were coming naturally, or that I had good ideas for. It was helpful to come up with questions like “what does this scene need to do?” “how do I show the character’s process” or “what would put this character in a worse situation?”

I would write between 2-4 pages and get stuck again.

Then I made a scene status map. I wrote out each beat/scene on a card, divided them into which act they were in and then indicated if they were mostly done, started or not started (green, yellow, red). This helped me visualize my progress, and how the scenes connected to one another. I would put scenes that had similar intentions or themes next to one another, and time was displayed through vertical stacking.

Jan 10th: At this point, act 1 was basically done, act 2 was just under half way done and act 3 only had a couple scenes, if that. 40 pages ish. But I was really stuck at the turning point of act 2. I knew my character needed to make a mistake, her friend needed to say something that shook her to her foundation, and it needed to send my already in crisis hero into a deeper crisis. I had 5 days to make my deadline.

But I was so stuck. So I listened to another episode of Scriptnotes, this one with Greta Gerwig explaining her process and how she thinks screenplays need to stand strong on their own if you want to make a good movie. Agreed! So true, Greta. I read the script for Easy A (2010) (a personal favourite), start to finish. I read a bit of Juno (2007), looking specifically at the second act turning point. I revisited my screenwriting instructor’s breakdown of the script for the opening scene of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022).

This helped me keep writing act 3 and I abandoned that scene in act 2 that I was stuck at. But every time I wrote more into act 3, I would freeze up, worrying how I was going to point to this content.

This is when I had to let myself get a bit whack. I did two things kind of naturally, but not necessarily intentionally. I ended up in a kind of uncomfortable situation, and sat there trying to write. This helped me connect to my writing as a way to ground myself. I ended up writing a critical scene from act 2 in this mindset, but not the one I was really stuck on.

The second thing I did was I let myself dilly dally. As I was writing, I kept reconsulting my journals, where there were these poems I had written throughout that I wanted to organize into a chapbook. So that’s what I did. I made a little book, came up with a title, titled all the poems, put them in an order, wrote them out, and bound the chapbook. I wrote a titular poem that connected all these poems together. This was great because it connected me to the feelings I wanted to share but let my brain focus on something that wasn’t the story. Something that had both an emotional connection to my script but also a physical outlet.

Now it’s Jan 12th. I have three days to finish the script. I was sweating.

And that’s when I had a breakthrough. I decided to no pressure take a stab at the turning point of act 2 that I was so stuck on. I started it, and restarted it and restarted it. I read it aloud. I edited it. Once I was happy with that scene, I snapped into a rhythm, and wrote the last 40 pages, jumping in between act 2 and act 3 until I was satisfied. This took about 6 hours. I went to sleep at 2am.

Jan 13th: I had two more scenes to write. I sat down and finished them in an hour. My script was now 97 pages. I read it through once. I printed it out.

I celebrated by going skating, cleaning my disastrous looking room and making a good snack.

Jan 14th: I did a full read through of my script with a red pen, fixing typos, inconsistencies and adding/editing lines that weren’t working. But then I was done. An entire day early. 

I cried.

The Big Lessons

The Hegelian dialectic was so critical to forming my outline and central conflict. Everything else is kind of window dressing. Hegelian dialectic is the simple format of act 1 has a thesis, act 2 has an antithesis and act 3 is the synthesis. Idea, counter idea, how those ideas actually come together. Black, white, grey. Because the world isn’t black and white.

When you’re stuck:

  • Reference work you admire. Read, read, read and read some more.

  • Consult anything about the writing process. Learn about other people’s processes or understandings about writing. Could be writers of the same medium or of other media.

  • Kill your darlings. Let the concept you have of your story be fluid, as long as you keep your goals and motivations on target. Be harsh. Criticise.

  • Let people read your work. Other screenwriters are great but non screenwriters help you express your ideas more clearly because their unfamiliarity with the genre helps reduce writer bias in their feedback.

  • Write something else. Let your brain write the thing it wants to write, and you’ll likely gravitate back to an idea you’re fixating on.

  • Do something else. Clean the house, get physical. Get into your body and out of your head, and again, you get to let your mind wander. You’d be surprised how often you’ll wander back to your story naturally. Throughout this process I tried to learn a song on guitar, so anytime I took a break I was focusing on building a new skill. I still suck at guitar though.

  • Change your environment. Go somewhere else, talk to someone else, do something you haven’t done before. I think this is just humbling, and helps your brain stretch.

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