(I’m shamelessly stealing this format from the incredible and incomparable Chuck Wendig. Read his books!)
Snake Bite is the story of a female police officer escorting a prisoner to the site of his most recent murder. But when the prisoner’s brother, the leader of a notorious gang, ambushes the cops to free the prisoner, the cop has to fight to survive the day and keep a dangerous murderer from being freed.
So I finally got my feature-length screenplay Snake Bite to a point that I’m okay with other people looking at it and, whoo boy, that was a wild ride. How can a screenplay be simultaneously the easiest and the hardest thing to create?
I decided that completing my fourth feature screenplay would be a good time for some self-reflection, so without further ado…
1) Get bored
So, Snake Bite is what happens when you drive on a very boring road four times a week for two years. You can drive this road, if you want, and it’s a good place to stop on the side of the road for rocket launches. It’s State Road 520, which goes from SR 50 east of Orlando all the way to the ocean where it hits A1A. I only drove the parts between 50 and I-95, though. It’s nothing but cows in fields and gators and swamp.
The burning question that was the initial spark for what was originally titled Once Upon a Time in Florida was this: What would be the most interesting thing I could encounter on this lifeless road?
Probably a gun fight. A big-ass gunfight right in the middle of the road. With everything on fire.
So what would have to happen for there to be a big ass gunfight on this road?
2) Y’all better write an outline
I am what is known as a “reformed pantser,” and like many converts I am over-zealous in the faith. One must outline or one shall burn in hellfire for all eternity. True facts. Outline or suffer.
But it’s also a crucial element to how I craft story.
I’m a plot first writer. When I’m writing on spec, I am thinking of situations first, and then developing characters that could realistically be put into that situation. And when you do that, you have to have a very firm grip on the action from beginning to end, or your characters might be out of place.
Developing character for me is a lot of walking in circles around a character-shaped hole in the action going “Well, what are you doing here, young person? Explain yourself. What’s your function?” If I have to drop characters, that usually means a general reshuffling of the plot, and vice versa.
In Snake Bite, the worst offenders were the characters of Chris (the Paragon Knight Cop) and Tom (the Shitbag Lawyer). Both are smaller supporting characters, but they both had significant, load-bearing plot moments that required delicate calibration during the actual writing process. When the characters changed, their reactions changed, and so the plot changed.
As I was studying a particular Tom-shaped hole in the action, for example, I realized that a person like Tom would be more likely to shut down when confronted with a high-stakes situation outside of his control. This meant that over the course of the action he would become less powerful, which is not how I originally planned for his story to go. I originally thought Tom was going to be an extremely active pain in my protagonist’s ass, but it didn’t really fit in with the person who would find themselves in that situation.
So it changed, and that caused… issues….
3) You can totally write a feature length screenplay in a week, but at what cost?
The burnout began at day five and around page seventy. I know now the actual problem was I had no clue where this was going to end. Yes, I did have a very detailed outline, but things change in the course of actually, you know, writing the thing. The picture of the story had drifted just far enough away from the sketch of the outline that the original ending just didn’t work. All of my people were very uncooperative. My protagonist had hardened up and my antagonist had become too much of a psychopath, which made all of this romance I wanted to happen a little uncomfortable for everyone involved.
Romance? Yeah… I wanted it to end on a romantic note. (Narrator’s V.O.: It did not end on a romantic note.)
It’s all gunfights and car chases and weird sexual tension until you have to choreograph the final showdown, and then you’re left with three characters in a room with not much to do.
Did I stop and rethink my plan? Maybe go back to the treatment and figure it out from there? Like fuck, I did. Nope, it was time to make like Hemingway and write drunk. And so went day six.
The end result was… not good. Bad plan, 3/10, would not recommend this tactic. While I was happy with the general story line, the end plopped into existence like something disgusting and then continued to exist on the page, in a very offensive manner. Not my best look.
4) One week writing, three months rewriting
It took me three months and four and a half drafts to get Snake Bite into a condition where I could even think about sharing it with other people. While the core cast of characters remained the same, the world around them shifted into something that was a completely different movie.
I have a binder that contains all of the written notes i have on the drafts, and the scribbles make it look like a script graveyard. But it had to be done, because the movie that was in my head was definitely not on those pages.
All of those flaws and mistakes were things that I would not have noticed immediately. When we are too close to a project, we have a tendency to read what should be on the page instead of what is actually on the page. This is a natural response because we’ve lived with it so intimately.
But when you let a piece sit to the side for a while, then you discover if it’s going to fester or ferment. You can see all of those imperfections and all of those things that stand out because your seeing the whole damn forest when once you were concerning yourself with trees.
And as far as fermenting or festering go? Well, with this one, I’m not going to lie, the first couple of passes had it festering. It wasn’t until I went back and shifted some of the core plot around and allowed my characters to speak more to their natures that things began clicking together like Lego bricks.
But… I still wasn’t done…
5) Do the table read, even if it will kill you
I hate it, you hate it, everybody hates it.
I think everyone knows on some level that while a screenplay might be your baby, 99.9% of the time it’s going to be a really fucking ugly baby. And you do not want to watch the looks on people’s faces the first time they look at your horrible Frankenstein monster of a child.
But ya gotta, honey, you just gotta.
Self-editing is a powerful skill but it’s only going to get you so far. Having to put your work out there and be said, out loud, in another person’s voice, you’ll be able to hear all of those beautifully crafted lines that don’t make any sense at all once you say them out loud. You will notice every typo. You will be hyper-conscious of every lull in the action.
The absolute ideal version of this process is for you to be a bystander and have others do all of the talking, that way you can listen close for problems. But if that isn’t an option, just do the description. You don’t want to space out and leave everyone hanging on a dramatic line because you forgot that you were reading a character.
Just make sure you’re taking notes! You will block all negative parts of this from your memory. But the bad parts are the ones you need to fix, so print out a copy of the script and mark it up as you go.
6) If one person says it, it’s an opinion. If seven people say it, you might want to check again…
Speaking of notes…
I submitted this screenplay to several contests in 2020, and if they didn’t offer readers notes, I forked over the money for it.
Understanding what worked and what didn’t for the people who are judging your script can do a lot. It is highly unlikely, but not impossible, that there is going to be wildly different reasons for liking or not liking a particular screenplay, but these people do have guidelines that they need to be following and if a contest is offering notes then they’ll probably briefly justify their decision.
If this is an option, take it. Because for this one, I noticed that while Snake bite had high scores, it never progressed, and all the notes from the readers were telling me the same thing: while the plot was compelling and written well, the lack of meaningful character development was a problem.
Now, as far as I go, this is a known issue, but having the same feedback come in from all of these different sources means that it is something that I need to focus on in the future.
This sort of criticism isn’t the enemy. It’s actually the greatest tool you can use to hone your skills.