Screenplay Stages

MCMFriday, October 27, 2017

Here’s something I didn’t know when I was starting out: the logic and etiquette of screenplay stages. Now, granted, this may be different in primetime (and is definitely different in features), but I figure the contours are probably similar.Every story goes through a few stages. The exact nature of those stages will vary depending on the producer and/or story editor, but here’s the gist:

Springboards are super-short descriptions of the story you want to tell. Maybe 3-4 sentences, max, and as punchy as you can make it. Key characters, the basic conflict, and some fun story beats. For this, you get paid nothing. Springboards are you attempt to win an episode at a very basic level. A lot of shows don’t even want springboards (usually when they give you a set-up themselves), but by and large, the springboards are for the sake of the story editor, to help them steer you in a direction that won’t suck.

Premises are longer, but not by much. You’ll have to write more of a conventional story structure here (beginning, middle, and trout, obvs) and make the theme super-apparent. Also, be sure to include some especially cool details, because those will be the first things that are killed. Yes, premises aren’t always necessary, but when they are, you can bet it’s because they want to beat the everliving crap out of your idea before they pay you for it. Because, yup, premises are unpaid work, too. Now, just because they’re beating the crap out of your idea doesn’t mean the idea is bad, or that they’re bad, or you’re being taken advantage of. This is the story editor/producer saving you from an outright rejection, because if you submit a flaky outline, you’re toast. Outlines come with contracts, and the stakes are so much higher.

Beat Sheets are even longer than premises, in that you basically write a line or two per “beat” of the story. Two characters argue about mackerel, and that’s a beat. One character goes to get his fishing rod but can’t find it, that’s another beat. Etc etc. Its primary purpose is to articulate how the story will flow, and to make it easier to surgically remove things that don’t work, before you really put much effort into wordsmithing. You also don’t get paid or them, unless they’re treated as outline alternatives, which sometimes happens, but not often.

Outlines are basically scripts without dialogue (or, well, very minimal dialogue). You have scene headings, all the beats laid out very carefully, story progression, themes, emotional arcs, jokes and joke callbacks… all that stuff. Depending on the show you’re writing, outlines are usually roughly 1/3 the length of the final script. You don’t get to even try writing your outline unless the story editor likes your story, because once you submit it, you “own” that episode, and will get money.

From outlines on, any time you email your work to the story editor, you can (and generally should) get your agent to invoice for that stage. It’s not like in other lines of work, where they have to review and approve it first… you send it, they pay for it.*

After the outline, things get hairy:

1st Drafts (D1) are you taking the outline, expanding all the dialogue to be actual dialogue, and then realizing the story you imagined is either too long or too short, and having to drastically revamp things without it looking like you screwed up. It’s also where you discover the story doesn’t hold together as much as you imagined, or the characters don’t have compelling arcs, or it’s full of logic holes… and you fix those, desperately, while trying to stay within the page limit — page counts vary from show to show, but in my experience you take the number of minutes (7, 11, 22 etc) and multiply by 1.5, and it works out fine. Once you’re done your D1, you send it off and pray they like it, because…

Yes, they pay for it, but you’re also on the hook to do whatever they want. They like the outline, but have a few small world-changing notes that will completely up-end everything you hoped to achieve, to be integrated as you do your D1? Suuuuure, no problem. Every time you send in another draft, you are agreeing to make sense of whatever gets sent back your way. I like to say they let you invoice early so you can afford to buy the booze required to handle the notes.

2nd Drafts (D2) are usually fairly hefty edits, because everyone else on the team is reading your script and thinking: “Jesus Christ, why did I think this should go to outline?” They’ll take what you did while trying to make sense of your own mess, and they’ll have their own ideas. Usually, their ideas are better, because they’re seeing the whole series and have not spent the last 38 hours drinking their outline fee. But either way, you will be expected to largely rewrite your script, without breaking the bits that worked. It’s the hardest thing to do, because you LIKED what you did before, and don’t WANNA undo all those brilliant bits! But hey, once you’re done, you can submit it and invoice! Woo!

Polishes are actually D3s, but we call them polishes because there is a contractural cap on the number of drafts you’re allowed to write. This is the story editor’s last chance to fix your script, so they’ll either throw every last note they can at you, or they’ll just give you a pass and fix it themselves (but you still get paid). Polish passes are supposed to be quick and painless (“polish”, not “re-engineer”), but more often than not, heavy surgery is required. I’ve done polishes where the entire point of the story changed, because the old one just wasn’t working. Submit and invoice, and you’re done.

But not necessarily. Because honestly, you’re trying to make a great show, not assemble a widget, and sometimes that polish isn’t as good as it needs to be. And sure, you can saddle the story editor with the task of fixing it, but that’s just mean. They’re already overworked and sniffing glue to make sense of your writing. So a lot of times, you’ll keep working with the story editor, off the clock, until everyone’s happy. Which is the other trade-off to getting to invoice immediately. A kind of moral obligation to get it right.

On the other hand, a lot of polishes are really just tiny tweaks. Those are the best.

After that, your story is likely reworked by the story editor another 2,000 times, sent off to storyboarding, and comes out the other end of the machine in a year or two looking like a million bucks… by which point you no longer remember you even participated in that series, and are surprised when people mention it to you.

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