Firstly, pat yourself on the back. After getting your screenplay sold, a writing assignment is every screenwriter’s dream.
You’ve achieved great things already by convincing someone that you’re the best person for the writing job. They’ve read your writing samples, met you and now they’ve hired you to write a screenplay based on their property; be it an early draft, a treatment, a novel or something else. Woo Hoo!
Now it’s time to decide how do you tackle the writing beast. Here are a few things to consider:
How much time have they given you? For a TV script it can as little as one or two weeks and as much as six to eight weeks for a feature film. Create a schedule and stick to it. However you divide your time, ensure that the physical writing takes up as little time as possible. Planning is paramount. Outline heavily. Use all the time available and include a few days downtime before your final polish is turned in.
Also, if you come up with additional story ideas not in your initial brief, make sure you clear it with your employers. NEVER turn in a screenplay they didn’t ask for. Touch base with them even if it’s a change in tone, an omission or a plot point.
Decide when you will commence and end your story. Will your story be told linearly or non-linearly? Will it take place over an extended or condensed time period? What will be the focus? What story elements will make to your movie script?
Then you need to decide how to execute your story. How will it differ from the source material? Will all the characters be included? Will there be new ones? This was a major issue for Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana who co-wrote “Brokeback Mountain” based on a short story by Annie Proux.
Will it be a feature film for the screen or a MOW (movie of the week)? Web series or TV show? It it’s a TV show how long will each episode be? In TV streaming, lengths often deviate from the traditional 30 or 60 minute time slots. Do you know where the commercial breaks/ act breaks are?
Will it be a webisode, game, download or interactive story? Have you discovered new media such as VR or interactive shows?
A writing assignment suggests you are adapting from another literary work, even if it’s somebody else’s original idea.
Is it an earlier draft, a novel, a newspaper article, a prequel or even producer’s notes? Decide on the tone early on. Is it earnest, light, dark, snarky, cool, slick, sexy, high octane, broad, manga animated, Disney animated, metaphorical, allegorical, biting satire, moralistic or informative?
Part of tone relates to the genre. You’d be hard pressed to find a serial killer comedy. Admittedly, I wrote one many years ago. It was called niche cinema.
Film conventions divide movies into stories much like departments in a supermarket. Genres exist to satisfy to audience expectations about a movie. A comedy, by definition, must make you laugh, just as much as a horror film should be scary. That isn’t to say there can’t be a scary moment in a comedy. Know your genre well before you start to write. Understand the audience exception and how or if you will subvert a genre.
After your initial meetings, you will receive a ton of notes telling you the type of finished script a producer expects. By this stage you will be able to decide a balance between join the dots and creative writing. Keep within your designated constraints or you’ll be rewritten.
This also relates to genre. Is it a date movie or a four quadrant family movie? What about gender? Films such as “Hot Tub Time Machine” tracked well with males under 25, while “The Bounty Hunter” tracked better with females in the same age group.
Be aware of the franchise potential of movies. Are you writing “Harry Potter 8” with all it’s accompanying product tie ups and merchandise? Do you need to consider product placement such as Omega watches and BMWs in the Bond films? Have you noticed the preponderance of Macbooks in films recently? These have become an important source of funding for producers and targeted advertising for marketers. A good story is extremely robust and the drama can be repurposed for the medium.
Ask what the budget is? Who the actors are? Where it is being shot? The answers will provide clues to how the script should evolve. It also demonstrates a vested interest in the project beyond writing a screenplay.
Be aware that most producers interview several writers for a writing assignment to gauge the various takes on a project. Make sure you have one.
Answering these questions will help avoid many painful rewrites.
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