"Adventures in the Screen Trade": Speed

July 13th, 2009 by

Recently I got it in my head to re-read some of the screenwriting books I first plowed through years ago. What wisdom might they have that I’ve forgotten or overlooked? And so I started with the first book I ever read about screenwriting: “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” by William Goldman. In fact, I’m not sure I had ever really thought about screenwriting or screenwriters before I read Goldman’s book when it came out in 1983. But I remember it making an impression on me. Perhaps I never would have started writing screenplays in 1986 if it hadn’t been for this book.

I’m only halfway through it, but it looks like I’ve marked something on about every other page. Goldman is so smart and has so much experience — now you can add another 25+ years to his Hollywood education since the original edition of the book was published. So I thought why not periodically excerpt some of Goldman’s wisdom on GITS? Therefore, here is a chapter called “Speed”:

I think screenplays should be written with as much speed as possible–and with even more deliberation.

By “as much speed as possible” I don’t mean to suggest you should throw a bag over its head and do it for Old Glory. But I do believe that you should push yourself hard and continually.

What’s important to decide here is your own specific pace. If, for example, when you’re going well, you do one to two pages a day, when you write a screenplay, I would try and reach the second number. If you do seven to ten pages when you’re rolling, try and get to ten.

The reasoning (if you can call it that) is, I believe somehow, that extra energy translates itself to the page, and from there to the reader.

Maybe it does, anyway. Maybe sometimes.

As an example of the “deliberation” mentioned above, I’d like to talk briefly about the writing of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

I first read about Butch and Sundance in the lat 1950’s, and the story of the two outlaws fascinated me. I began researching them in a haphazard way; there weren’t many books about them then, but there were articles and I would seek them out and read them. The more I read, the deeper my fascination became.

In 1963 I met a movie producer, Lawrence Turman (The Graduate), and talked to him about the material. He was tremendously helpful in trying to figure out a story line.

Because as colorful as the material was, it had inherent problems. It covered a number of years, it moved from continent to continent. Terribly sprawling. Now, if you’re writing an epic you can sprawl to your heart’s content, but this was no epic; rather, I thought it was a personal story of these two unusual outlaws.

Eventually, I’d done all the research I could bear, I hoped I had a story that would prove coherent, so I sat down and wrote the first draft in 1966.

It took four weeks.

When someone asks how long it takes to write a screenplay, I’m never sure what to answer. Because I don’t think four weeks is what it took to do Butch. For me, eight years is closer to the truth.

In any case, before you begin, you must have everything clear in your head and you must be comfortable with the story you’re trying to tell. Once you start writing, go like hell–but don’t fit till you’re ready…

I preach this to my students: The importance of prep-writing, the work you do before you type FADE IN — research, brainstorming, character development, plotting, outline. The interview with screenwriter Simon Kinberg on Saturday emphasized precisely that. But the other point Goldman makes — the need for speed — I don’t think we’ve ever talked about that here.

It’s an interesting idea: The pace at which you write your script, how fast you churn out your pages, that energy will somehow “translate” itself to the story. I know that to be true because I’ve experienced it. I definitely know that feeling in Act Three, where everything is headed toward the Final Struggle, the end is in sight, just charging through the pages. And the many times I’ve gone away for a 48-hour weekend writing retreat, pounding out 30, 40, or 50 pages. There is this synergistic connection between the ‘writing’ and the ‘written’ in those sessions.

Clearly this is a great way to work for an action script, a suspense-thriller, an adventure movie, but perhaps not for a drama. However the larger point Goldman makes still stands, I think: Write fast.

How about you? Do you write fast?

And just how great a book is “Adventures in the Screen Trade”?

5 thoughts on “"Adventures in the Screen Trade": Speed

  1. E.C. Henry says:

    No, I don't write especially fast. I think my record for new, 1st draft pages is like 20.

    So why am I a slow writer? Blame that on past coverages I've gotten. When someone in the industy points out your mistakes it makes you a little gunshy. Leery about making mistakes I go over-and-over my material untill I'm blue in the face. Still, doesn't gaurantee perfection, but the kid from Bonney Lake sure does try…

    The fastest I've ever been able to kick-out a script (concept-completed draft) that I THINK is ready to show to people in the industry is about 5 1/2 weeks; which I just did with a script that I completed last Saturday night.

    But back to William Goldman. Dude knows his shit. AND he's had a career that's lasted DECADES. He deserves lots of street cred. for that. I loved hearing him get interviewed at the Screenwriting Expo a few years ago, though for someone as accomplished as he is, I was supriced how nervous he appeared during the interview.

    Still, I am a HUGE fan of William Goldman. His advice to "enter a scene as late as possible" is some of the best advice I ever got.

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  2. Joshua James says:

    First book on screenwriting I've read, too … awesome book.

    I can write fast, and tend too … I've written whole drafts in a week, and then spent the next few months rewriting them.

    And I can take my time, too. It really depends on if I have my ending or not … sometimes I do, sometimes I don't … and if it's a spec, I don't think there's anything wrong with stepping back to figure it out.

    But generally, when I commit to a full draft, I try to write it as fast as I can. Which irritates me because I want to go back and fix things, but I keep telling myself to get it all out, first, which can take a week or a few months.

  3. kgmadman says:

    The greatest piece of advice I read was in an interview with Alex Garland (SUNSHINE, 28 DAYS LATER)who said that Danny Boyle won't read a script, he'll ask you to read it to him in person. He said to imagine reading your script to Danny Boyle, out loud, where every bad description and awkward piece of dialogue will feel excruciatingly painful: "You have nowhere to hide". I got goosebumps when I read that.

  4. PJ McIlvaine says:

    Fastest I've written a script? Seven days. Was it any good? It was torn apart by a workshop, and I've diddled with it through the years, but now that I'm older and wiser, the white hot draft was better than the subsequent revisions. I should have left it alone.

  5. Ryan Covert says:

    Another great screenwriting book full of solid insight is the more recently published YOUR SCREENPLAY SUCKS by William Akers.

    Great book. Check it out.

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