I recently finished my first professional screenwriting assignment, so let me answer the big question…
How Was the Assignment?
Truthfully it was all the things I had hoped: challenging, fun, lots of typing, exciting, hard work, tough decisions, and at the end–a paycheck! It’s surprising how motivations change when other people are asking you to write and paying you to do it. Writing speculatively for so many years, I am simply used to setting my own deadlines and expectations. While under a contract, those personal goals drop away. The number one thing about being on assignment–somebody else is in charge.
That’s a good but also somewhat difficult situation. As I said, the motivation to complete the work is heightened. The motivation to write at your best is also heightened. I gave them my best, and hopefully they liked the product. The difficulties arrive in another form: writing under a contract means you are no longer writing solely for yourself.
Writing for others is an interesting experience. On this particular assignment, I was writing in someone else’s creation. It was their characters and their voice–I was asked to play in their sandbox, which meant their rules. This was such a strange shift from years spent trying to uncover and develop my own writing. I had to set myself, my way of writing, aside and attempt to tell a story in a different way. Sometimes this felt freeing, other times extremely constrictive.
While I was playing in their sandbox, I was still able to offer up my ideas. So while it felt like I wrote something that wasn’t mine, my way of writing still exists in that script. It took writing for someone else to see how much I have been able to develop my own style. As the script moves on, it will be changed, altered, interpreted and edited, but something in the final product will, hopefully, be the ideas I set forth.
That’s pretty amazing.
The other big lesson was more practical: in television, page count is everything. To clarify, in screenwriting the page count directly correlates to the length of the final product, usually it averages out to one script page playing about one minute long on-screen.
Since I spend most of my time writing feature-length movies I hope to one day sell, writing a half-hour of television was a big shift in form. The page count for a half-hour of television is very limited because the final episode can only be a limited length of time. I had to tell the episode’s story in less than a third of the amount of space I’m used to working in.
Fortunately, this assignment’s story was smaller. Unfortunately, my first draft was ten pages too long. It was a huge challenge to cut out ten pages of such a short story. I did not turn in that long first draft, that would have been a disaster. I did cut it down–a lot, all the way to the bones. It hurt, but it was a great reminder to keep my stories lean. There’s no room for fluff in screenwriting.
Overall, this assignment was fantastic. I gave it my best, and I would love to do it again.
And if I’m lucky, maybe I’ll have that chance.