121 Pages of… Something

Finished the first draft of the Bigfoot Comedy this morning.  Took me about five weeks to grind out — two weeks longer than I expected, though I can attribute that to three factors:

1) The Peanut got sick, then I got sick, then the Peanut’s teething kicked into overdrive.  That trifecta of unpleasantness cost me a week (and more than a little sleep for both me and the Missus) right there.

2) The script ran long.  What was supposed to be 95-100 pages ballooned to 121 pages.

3) I had no idea what the hell I was doing in the second half.

Looking over my outline, I have only myself to blame — the beats of the first half are pretty straightforward and competently structured: this happens, which leads to this, which leads to this on page 25, etc.  But the second half of the story is considerably fuzzier, with the beats a little more open to interpretation: e.g., “Bob dupes Ray” instead of “Bob tricks Ray into driving a suitcase full of homegrown marijuana over the Canadian border where he’s arrested by the Mounties, while Bob makes a move on Ray’s hot girlfriend.”  Or whatever. (Not that my story has anything to do with weed smuggling, Canada or Mounties, though maybe it should.)  And the third act, which I envisioned as charmingly eccentric, came off as just weird and completely disconnected from the rest of the story when I actually wrote it.

So what happened?  As far as the vague plotting is concerned, I fooled myself into believing the biggest line of bullshit I can feed myself during the conception stage of a new project:


After ten years of semi-pro level writing, I can safely say that this well-meaning declaration, the creative equivalent of “I promise I’ll pull out,” almost never fails to trip me up.  I’m chugging along on a first draft, pleased as punch with myself and marveling at how easy the words are coming — “This sucker is writing itself!” — and then WHAM!  I hit the wall that I struggled to overcome while outlining, only now I’ve broken the momentum I’ve generated as I charged through my daily quota of pages.  Sure, I know what happens — “Bob dupes Ray,” I mean, come on, piece of cake — but now I have to stop and figure out HOW it happens.  And this can take hours… days… weeks.  On rare occasions it kills a script dead and I have to put the whole damn thing aside out of sheer frustration.

What happens more frequently is that after beating myself up for a few days I finally pull something out of my ass and decide, “Eh, good enough for now”, then curse myself in subsequent drafts when I can’t come up with something better — the place holder I desperately threw in there seems to have become permanent.  And even if I figure it out to my semi-satisfaction the first time through, then I have to build up my momentum again, something that occasionally doesn’t happen, especially if I hit another wall.  Oh, the draft gets finished, but the energy and enthusiasm of the first half is gone — I’m like a runner who starts a marathon at the front  of the pack and ends up crossing the finish line on his hands and knees, dead last.

Some writers thrive in the make-it-up-as-you-go-along scenario.  I am not one of them.  I am a planner by nature.  And even though I know that that plan will be completely smashed in the rewrite when I realize where I went wrong, a new plan will surely take its place.  I would’ve made an excellent architect, if architects were allowed such mistakes as putting the kitchen in the attic, then looking at the finished house and saying, “You know, we should put it on the first floor after all.”

What have we learned, Charlie Brown?  You gotta lock it all down beforehand — know not only what happens, but how it happens.

Will I ever learn?  Frankly, probably not.  Sometimes you’ve been plotting so long, you have to pull the trigger or the whole thing will dissipate entirely — it’s a fine line to walk.  But it’s also a bad habit to mask things with smoke and mirrors when you know you’re gonna break your nose sprinting into that brick wall.  The most I can hope for is that things aren’t busted too badly and I’ll be able to rewrite with relative ease.

As for my gimp ending — I have no excuse for that one.  I just came up with a dopey idea for the climax that didn’t really work out.  But I’m gonna nail it in the next draft.  How, I don’t know.

Maybe I’ll just figure it out when I get there.

There I go again.

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8 Comments on “121 Pages of… Something”

  1. Hilarious. I just did this exact same thing on a script I just started. Couldn’t bear outlining any longer and wrestling with the climax that doesn’t quite work so I took the plunge and figured once I got into pages I’d figure it out. Solidify. Flesh it out. So far so good but kind of hard to type with both sets of fingers crossed. 😉

  2. “YOU’LL FIGURE IT OUT WHEN YOU GET THERE” — wait, isn’t that what you said when we were outlining our collaborative screenplay? As I recall, that was in reference to the ENTIRE THIRD ACT.

    But seriously, I think there’s a happy medium somewhere. You can’t know everything before you start or the script would already be written. But yeah, it helps to know enough to keep that momentum going.

    Eventually you’ll figure out how much to really should know before you start, and how much is okay to leave to figure out later. That is, if you stop lying to yourself….

  3. Je Suis Un Pizza Says:

    I think I’m the exact opposite. I end up filling a couple of notebooks worth of notes, plot points, dialogue, set pieces, characterizations before I even start. I find it helps that I haven’t written earlier scenes when I discover a thematically relevant payoff that I want to include in a later scene. I have no problem making a note to include the setup to that payoff when I start drafting. Once it’s down in writing, however, it’s harder for me to make wholesale changes because I feel I’ve already fit the puzzle all together so to speak.

  4. matt Says:

    I wouldn’t beat yourself up for writing an entire screenplay in 5 weeks and then beating yourself up that the third act didn’t work. I just spent 4 months on my last assignment, and we didn’t lick the third act until last week!

  5. WriterDad Says:

    TWG — Good luck! Hope you have an easier time than I did. 🙂

    Dave — Why yes, that’s exactly what I said. I can’t believe you went along with it. Fool. Yeah, there’s a balance to be found — maybe you were on to something with the whole scriptment tactic…

    JSUP — You know, it’s funny — I usually also write pages and pages and pages of notes, and I STILL get stuck sometimes. As for making changes, I have to say that one of my (few) positive traits as a writer is my ruthlessness; I’m all too happy to junk stuff I’ve put down on the page and make wholesale changes. Maybe this has more to do with my utter inability to make decisions in my personal life!

    Matt — Good point. Considering how quickly — and, needless to say, sloppily — the draft was written and the fact that I basically just cranked it out for my own amusement, I shouldn’t sweat it. A shitty third act is probably the LEAST of my problems with this one…

  6. William Says:

    Sorry to be so late congratulating you on this achievement but well done. Finishing any draft is a mutha but that first one gets the ball rolling. Our baby dramas combined seem to be taking center stage. Just stay on track and you’ll be good.

  7. WriterDad Says:

    William — thanks! No worries on the late congrats. Frankly, yesterday was the first day in weeks that I even checked my blog stats, let alone thought about updating. Teething has complicated our days (and, more significantly, our nights) to a ridiculous degree, but hopefully I’ll find the time to post again soon… maybe… Hope everything’s good with your little one and the domestic situation is stabilizing a bit.

  8. Désirée Says:

    My experience is that I can’t do more than a rough sketch of the second half. I do a detailed beat sheet of the first act and start writing.

    When act one is written I do a more detailed beat sheet of the second act, and then on the third when I get there.

    I have all the major beets done when started, but the scene by scene I do act by act.

    It’s like I cannot see it clearly from the beginning.

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