Writing a Screenplay is Like Cooking a Steak
By Jacob Krueger
As any chef will tell you, there’s a great irony in the cooking of a steak. In order to appreciate the taste of the meat, you’ve got to cook it with all kinds of stuff you’d never want to eat. Gristle. Fat. Bones. They’re all pretty nasty to chew on. But try to cook the finest T-bone without them, and it’s going to taste like an overcooked slab of beef jerky.
As screenwriters, we often forget this simple truth.
Trying to live up to all the concepts we’ve been taught about what a script is supposed to be, we end up cutting out all the gristle, fat, and bones before we ever even put our scripts in the oven. We cook our scripts to death, with revision after revision, before we ever really know where the heart of the story lives, or what those revisions are supposed accomplish. And then we garnish it with all kinds of ridiculous toppings, to hide the fact that the actual story has no flavor.
A great script, like a great steak, has got to simmer for awhile in its own juices before anyone can enjoy it.
That’s why it’s so important to remember that writing and revision happens in phases, not just in one step. And elements that are problematic in one phase can actually be vital to your success in another.
The First Phase: Simmering in the Juices
In this phase, there’s only one question that matters:
Are you writing something that is exciting to you?
Forget about what your audience, producer or even your mother is going to think about your writing. Forget about that giant paycheck you’re hoping for at the end. And don’t worry for a moment about the myriad things that don’t work in your writing.Early drafts of your script are supposed to be full of gristle, fat and bone. They’re supposed to be simmering in the juices of creative exploration, rather than cooking to death in the overheated oven of your judgment. That’s because the goal of the first phase of writing is not to create a perfectly polished final product, but to allow yourself the freedom to tap into the limitless resources of your creative brain, get past your internal censor, and discover a story that pushes the limits of even what you could have imagined when you first sat down to write.
The Second Phase: Trimming The Fat
In the first phase of writing, you discover the true essence of your story, the heart of the themes you are exploring, and the meat of every scene in your film.
Now, it’s time to apply the tools of craft, so your audience can appreciate just how fine a meal you’re serving them. That begins with identifying what really constitutes the “meat” of each scene for you, and carefully cutting away all the gristle, fat and bone that could distract an audience from appreciating its full value. The goal is to bring order to the chaos of your raw creativity, so both you and your audience can see the essence of your story, and your character’s journey, clearly.
Now, as a writer, you can identify the holes in that story, bring unity to your structure, and address the areas where things need to be taken further, pulled together, or clarified, so your audience can have as profound an experience watching your movie as you had writing it!
The Third Phase: Finding The Filet Mignon
When you’re finished with the second phase of writing, you’ll know you’ll have a perfectly cooked script. But it may not yet be a cut of meat that you can sell. It costs a lot of money to make a movie, and nobody is going to spend a fortune on a good sirloin. They’re all looking for that filet mignon—that choice cut of meat that every foodie covets. Finding the Filet Mignon in your script is about finding the elements that distinguish each scene, each act, each character, and your script as a whole from others in the genre—the things that set it apart and make it just slightly cooler, slightly more exciting, slightly more ironic or slightly more alarming.
The good news is that these elements are already present in your script—because they are the same elements that so inspired your passion during the first phase of writing, and the same elements you used to identify what was truly meat, and what was only fat in the second phase. Now, your job in the third phase is to distill your script down until every line, every image, every scene, and every act is truly the finest cut of meat you can serve. This means identifying the good elements of your script and turning them into great ones, and then finding the great ones and making them even better. This means allowing the best stuff to happen faster and stronger, so your character’s journey can go even further. And this means carefully trimming away any non-essential element, until there’s nothing but Filet Mignon on your plate.
The Fourth Phase: The Presentation
A great chef knows that it’s not enough to cook a perfect meal—you’ve got to serve it in a way that makes it look as delicious as it will taste. In the final phase of writing, you put your focus on the presentation of your script, adding the garnish, the baked potato and the creamed spinach.
This means polishing your formatting to perfection, so your script not only reads fast and easy, but draws your reader into the story, allowing them not just to read, but to actually see your story play in their mind. This means honing and practicing your pitch, so your reader will know that this is one item on the menu that is definitely worth ordering. And this means addressing those final details to make sure your script doesn’t just meet the expectations promised on the menu, but actually exceeds them.
If you’d like to learn more about the four phases of writing, and how to approach them in your own screenplays, I invite you to join one of my upcoming classes, one-on-one mentorship, or international retreats.