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Writing Your Screenplay: The Zero Draft

By Marilyn Horowitz

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What is a zero draft?

When I first became a screenwriter, I was struggling to adapt a novel into a screenplay for a producer. The novel was about a serial child-killer, his sister, and the FBI agent hunting them down.

By the time the book got optioned, I'd made a short film in college that I sold to a cable network, so I thought I knew something about writing. But I got a rude awakening with my first attempts at the screenplay. I couldn't seem to get hold of it. How was I supposed to squeeze this much story into a single script?

These were the days before I had developed The Horowitz System and I was trying to learn from anyone who had written or spoken on the subject of how to write a screenplay. I had the file cards; I had the board; I had 120 blank pages bound to look like a screenplay; I knew my inciting incident-yet, I hadn't managed to eke out a single word, and my deadline was fast approaching.

My Aunt Judy was a longtime mentor, a person I always turned to when I was stuck. Judy was an amazing person, a woman who had had many careers-general counsel at a major movie studio, a judge on the Board of Ethics of New York City, and a psychotherapist who counseled teenage girls with drug problems. She was a confirmed bachelorette who lived in a fashionable area of Greenwich Village, loved movies, and collected jewelry. I adored her.

Aunt Judy and I got together for our regular dinner, and after sending out for Chinese food, she asked me why I looked "like death." The story spilled out, and I paced dramatically in a state of high anxiety. At the crucial moment, as I was about to admit defeat, the doorbell rang and the food arrived.

As we dug in, Aunt Judy looked at me thoughtfully and said, "Have you done a zero draft?" I was thunderstruck.

"A what?" I asked, taking a bite of a moo-shoo-vegetable pancake.

"You know, the draft you do before the first draft, the one you are allowed to throw away, the one you are allowed to write any old way."

I was excited but suspicious. "It sounds too easy-permission to sketch before you sketch? There must be a catch."

She nodded and finished her pancake. "Yes, you have to go all the way from beginning to end, no matter how bad or good you think it is."

"Does it have to be in screenplay format?"

"No, but you need to feel it's real, so the formatting can help."

"What do you mean 'beginning'? That's my biggest problem: the novel I'm adapting has three openings, one for each of the main characters?"

"It doesn't matter. Socrates said there were two reasons things don't get written: one, because they're never started-your problem-and second, because they don't get finished. Not your problem, since you have nothing to finish."

"Okay, so where do I start?"

She laughed. "That is the big question, isn't it? Where did you begin the book?"

"Oh, I just wrote, 'Once upon a time,'" I said sarcastically, and then stopped in mid-lip curl. She had put her finger squarely on the problem.

When telling the story as a fiction writer, I hadn't been worried. I'd begun each character's story at a moment of crisis, a natural choice that I had somehow forgotten to make when I turned to the screenplay form.

I went home and began my zero draft with vigor because I had reconnected to my natural storytelling self that was confident and knew where to start. The zero draft I wrote was a mixture of different things: there were third-person past-tense sections and scenes I felt sure about written in screenplay form. Other parts I summarized with sentences like "fight scene goes here-the hero wins, but the partner dies." My zero draft came in at 139 pages, and had a beginning, middle, and an end.

By the time I was done with the script, I'd kept about 60 percent-a lot considering I had expected to throw out the whole stinking mess, lock, stock, and barrel. It wasn't terrific, but I had achieved the most important thing-I had written a first draft.

Since then I have used this technique combined with The Horowitz System often. It was how I came up with a personal mantra that I use myself and which I also teach my students: "Don't get it right, get it written."

So, if you get stuck, using the Zero Draft technique will get you back on track fast. Just pick a place, anyplace, to start and keep writing until the end.

About Marilyn Horowitz

Marilyn Horowitz is an award-winning New York University professor, author, producer, and Manhattan-based writing consultant, who works with successful novelists, produced screenwriters, and award-winning filmmakers. She has a passion for helping novices get started. Since 1998 she has taught thousands of aspiring screenwriters to complete a feature length screenplay using her method. She is also a judge for the Fulbright Scholarship Program for film and media students. In 2004 she received the coveted New York University Award for Teaching Excellence.

Professor Horowitz has created a revolutionary system that yields a new, more effective way of writing. She is the author of six books that help the writer learn her trademarked writing system, including editions for college, high school, and middle school. The college version is a required text at New York University and the University of California, Long Beach.

Professor Horowitz has written several feature-length screenplays. Her production credits include the feature films And Then Came Love (2007). Her new novel, The Book of Zev is available on Amazon.

Screenwriting Article by Marilyn Horowitz

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