I’ve mentioned in a previous post that, for example, Ben Stiller finally made Tropic Thunder twenty years after he thought of the premise. Whereas writer Martin McDonagh claims to have written his recent hit movie In Bruges in just a few weeks.
The truth is, unless you’ve been hired to (re)write a screenplay and have a signed agreement stipulating when you have to deliver the draft, there’s no standard duration for writing a screenplay.
Just consider a few of the variables in a situation in which you might be writing a screenplay on spec:
- Does the story require a lot of research? Do you need to read up on a particular historical period, conduct interviews, spend a year undercover as a nun? The more research you need to do, the longer your writing time will be.
- Are you writing alone or with a writing partner? Writing together with someone else can speed up the process because it’s as if you write and rewrite at the same time. It can also improve the quality of the writing because you can’t ignore your blind spots. But it can also slow things down if you’re not both equally committed in terms of time.
- Is it a complex plot? Keeping track of numerous storylines or intricate set-ups and pay-offs can be very time-consuming, and not something you can afford to economize on.
- Are you working on (m)any other projects at the same time? How much time, literally, can you invest on a regular basis in the script? This depends on whether you have other scripts to write at the same time, but also on whether you’re holding down a day job, whether you’ve got kids to take care of, and so on.
- How many hours a day can you normally write? Most screenwriters don’t claim to be able to do more than four or five hours of real creative work at a stretch. And even then, much of that might consist of staring out of the window while the subconscious (whatever that is) churns its magic in silence.
- How many screenplays have you already written? The more experienced you are, the more productive you can be, simply because you get to know yourself better as a writer the more you write. You know when you write best, what your strong and weak points are, when you should stop writing and go for a walk, etc.
- What are you planning to do with the screenplay? In theory you never want to release a screenplay into the wild until you’re sure you can’t improve it any further. But it does make a difference whether it’s a lo-budget, indie type movie, for which their could be potentially hundreds of takers, or whether it’s a big-budget, hi-concept Hollywood script that you want Spielberg to read.
And those are just a few off the top of my head! These and other factors will determine what’s reasonable given your situation and the nature of the screenplay. In the end, of course, the only thing that truly matters is the quality of the end result.
The main reason the original question is misleading, though, is because writing a screenplay consists mostly of other activities than typing the first draft into your formatting software. For most screenwriters, the “writing” consists mainly of preparing to write a first draft and then rewriting (editing) it, over and over.
In fact, an idea for a screenplay might float around a screenwriter’s mind for years before they even start exploring it in earnest. So when do you count from, anyway?
Some screenwriters like to get to a first draft quickly and then concentrate on rewriting. Others prefer to spend more time preparing (research, outlines, treatments) and less time rewriting. There are also screenwriters who do most of the work in their head and only start writing once they have a clear mental picture of what the story is. Or precisely the opposite, they don’t want to know exactly what they’re going to write beforehand.
I've commented before that some screenwriters like self-imposed deadlines. Let’s just say that if it works, you end up with something on paper within a limited period of time. The disadvantage is that you inevitably end up settling for second-best to some extent, which means more rewriting.
But whatever your style and preferences, I believe you can’t dictate the terms to a story. It’s the other way around. Every story has its own requirements. Which is why, in my opinion, many films don’t achieve their full potential, because economic considerations dictate the speed of writing and production, rather than creative choices.
I guess there are circumstances in which getting something produced, whatever it is, is better than not getting anything produced. But when it comes to writing spec scripts, it’s important to show that you’re a professional, not a dabbler.
So the amount of time it takes to write a spec screenplay, is … however long it takes to work out every last detail of your screenplay, to go beyond the obvious and do whatever you have to, to create something intriguing and special.
P.S. As promised, I did attempt a self-imposed deadline, “straight-to-script” approach on a story idea I had recently. What I ended up with was a bunch of intriguing but meandering scenes, and a half-baked outline. It’s not a screenplay yet by any means, and I won’t be using that method again any time soon. But I did have a lot of fun, and the screenplay has definitely become an ongoing work in progress!