It's funny what a person remembers: crying in my cinder block basement after my sixth grade girlfriend dumped me, only to be fully recovered a few hours later while reaching the coveted eighth world of Super Mario Brothers, smugly saluting a local news crew while competing in the 1987 National Lego Competition at FAO Schwarz on 5th Avenue, or leaving my college dorm room in tears and sprinting to the shores of Lake Michigan to literally vomit in grief over the death of my childhood dog, poor old Flash.
You might be wondering what a few personal moments of rejection, hubris, and loss have to do with screenwriting? Well, I'd like to think everything.
We've all been there at one point. You’ve written your screenplay, you think is simply amazing. You proudly show it to someone, only to be told it’s a complete mess: "The structure is all wrong", "There’s no story", "People don't talk like that", "I don’t care about the main character", "The tone is all over the place", or even the ubiquitous "Don't quit your day job."
The truth is that the construction of a good screenplay is something quite complicated and difficult. Atmosphere, tension, characters, conflict, theme, tone, sequences, rhythm, plot, mood, dialogue, form, twists, scenes, style, polarity, culmination, and action all must be materialized into words and sentences that make up a coherent screenplay. Most importantly, that screenplay needs to elicit the same emotional impact that your sixth grade girlfriend did, while you were sobbing on your basement floor.
Ingmar Bergman probably explained screenwriting best: "This is an almost impossible task."
But it is possible. And with a lot of hard work and a little help, anyone can write a screenplay - a great screenplay. It sure as hell ain't easy, but you can do it.
The category sections and articles that follow are all of the tips and tricks of the trade I've learned from my years as a working screenwriter and Cinema Arts professor. So pull up a chair, roll up your sleeves and dive in. If you've written a few scripts, but you're looking for some help on structure, use the menus on the top and left to get right to the meat. If you’re a beginner, start from, well... the beginning.
Good Luck, and start screenwriting!
What is a Screenplay?
Let’s first start by defining what a screenplay is NOT. It is not a play, and it certainly is not a novel. Unlike the novelist, who has complete freedom to explore any point of view, shift between conscious and subconscious mind, explore a character or a story from multiple perspectives, etc., the screenwriter MUST write in present tense and only what the audience can SEE and HEAR.
A screenplay is VISUAL. The playwriter, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry about the visual medium. Often the play is simply a handful of characters - or even only one - standing there on a barren stage. Dialogue, Music, Lighting are all part of the stage. High speed car chases, however, belong in the movies.
So if you’ve written a “Filmed Play”, look for ways to make it visual. Turn it into a movie.
When it comes to screenwriting, you only have so much time, so many pages, so you don’t have the luxury to meander, and this is especially true in your first ten pages. You must maximize script economy and move the story forward immediately because you’ve only got about 10 pages to accomplish five major components:
- Establish the tone/genre (is this a comedy, fantasy, spoof, etc.)
- Introduce your main character: interesting, flawed, and if not likeable, at least empathetic… somebody we can hope and fear for.
- Clarify the world of the story and the status quo.
- Indicate the theme or message (Good vs. Evil, Man vs. Nature, etc.)
- Set up the dramatic situation – that is, what the story is going to be about.
It’s important to note that there is no absolute order in which these five rules are applied. Often a screenplay begins with main character and his/her status quo, but sometimes the dramatic situation comes first, and occasionally all five elements will be covered in one scene alone. As long as these five core elements are executed well and established early on, you’re screenplay is one step closer to achieving success.
Each analysis of selected features takes a detailed look at how each of these five essential elements is established in the first ten pages of the screenplay.
The action world is full of memorable one-liners. Gangster films have sinister mobsters and ruthless hoodlums. Dramas are all about serious realism while screwball comedies can get away with fart jokes. Adventure films have exotic locales, but if you’re writing a western, you better have dusty towns and six-shooters. Science fiction scores with aliens and futuristic technology. And when it comes to slasher films, don’t hold back – the audience is actually rooting for the killer.
Understanding film genres (and sub-genres) is important, because let’s be honest: people rarely go to the movies to be surprised. They know the action hero will survive, that the girl will get the guy, and the villains will get their just deserts. Nobody goes to a rom-com to face reality.
The truth is that love is hell and sometimes the bad guys win, but in the movies, love is a holy elixir and the hero always saves the day. Screenwriting is not about reinventing the wheel. The key to writing a sellable script is to understand the genre and meet the expectations of its audience.
"A movie, I think, is really only four or five moments between two people; the rest of it exists to give those moments their impact and resonance. The script exists for that. Everything does." - Robert Towne
But the number 8 is only part of the equation. If the sequences are what shape a screenplay’s three-act structure, then the five major plot points are the building blocks behind sequence construction: Inciting Incident, Lock In, Midpoint, Main Culmination, and Third Act Twist.
Each analysis of selected features breaks the film down to the essential 5 major plot points, time code of when each plot point occurs included.
A sequence is a self-contained portion of the entire story, usually about 10 to 15 minutes (pages) in length. With a clear beginning, middle, and end, each sequence has its own short-term tension (not the main tension, but related in some way) along with a central conflict that gives shape to the entire 10 -15 minutes.
But the number 8 is only part of the equation. If the sequences are what shape a screenplay’s three-act structure, then the five major plot points are the building blocks behind sequence construction: Inciting Incident, Lock-In, Midpoint, Main Culmination, and Third Act Twist.
Each analysis of selected features will break the film down to the essential parts of each of the 8 separate sequences (9 in specific genres) and 5 major plot points.
All writing is thinking. Regardless of the medium, the writer must inform himself completely. Inadequate thinking equates to bad writing. But asking lots and lots and lots of questions will lead to at least some very solid answers. Simply put, great thinking creates great writing.
But you must also trust in yourself. Often the most difficult thing, especially for the beginning screenwriter, is to trust and to discover that you have stories to tell - lots of them.
From Script to Screen will analyze the iconic and monumental moments in produced screenplays from all across the cinematic landscape and address how filmmakers improved or even hindered the written word by examining these three areas: FROM SCRIPT: How It Reads, THE SCENE: How It Looks, TO SCREEN: How It’s Improved (Or Not).