It’s simple. Writing a screenplay, or screenwriting, is telling exciting stories about exciting people in an exciting form. And the essential elements of a good story well told are:
1. The story is about somebody with whom we have some empathy.
2. This somebody wants something very badly.
3. This goal is difficult, but possible to do, get, or achieve.
4. The story accomplishes maximum emotional impact and audience connection.
5. And the story comes to a satisfactory ending, not necessarily a happy one.
(Character + Want) x Obstacles = Story
The root of writing a great story or screenwriting a film.
In this section, not only will you become proficient in developing stories about interesting characters who are struggling to achieve unequivocal goals through the practical application of story scenarios and story questionnaires, but you will also explore the three major areas of story: location, population, and situation. You will learn to create original, believable worlds with a clearly defined populace and a well developed, plausible situation.
To regret one's own experiences is to arrest one's own development. - Oscar Wilde
There are stories in all of us, and the old adage "write what you know" is always a good place to begin and keep coming back to. It only makes sense to steal and/or elaborate from your own experiences. Getting these stories out and onto paper is the root of screenwriting and writing.
Before I had children of my own, I avoided writing screenplay with kids as main characters. I didn't understand the complexities of the parent/child relationship, at least not from the parent's point of view. Now, however, children are an intricate part of my everyday life, so writing about them is much easier. I simply write what I know.
This isn't to say that you as you explore your screenwriting journey and grow as a screenwriter should never explore material that you don't know intimately, but again use logic as your guide. If you never watch rom-coms, why are you going to write one? If you're not into sci-fi, why are you going to set your world on another planet? But remember that knowledge is also your experience. You may never have been in the military or stepped foot in Iraq, but if you do the research - interview people who have and read everything you can get your hands on - your knowledge is the learning experience that is necessary to begin writing the screenplay.
One way I like to think about story development is by illustrating personal growth through an individual's box of knowledge. Everyone has one. Your box is simply what you know. And if you ask ten questions, you're bound to find some answers. Say you find three. Well now, your box has expanded. You know more, but you feel like you know less because you still have seven questions unanswered, and the three answers you discovered opened the door to ten more questions each. Therefore, even though you clearly have more knowledge (and a bigger box), you also have 37 more questions, and not knowing those answers is frustrating.
Story development functions precisely the same way. The root of writing a good story comes down to asking questions and fighting through the frustrations as you do the hard work to discover the answers.
The basic spine of any successful screenplay is character, objective, obstacles, and theme. A good story is about an interesting protagonist (character), who wants something badly (objective) and is having trouble achieving it (obstacles), and the story is worth writing because it illustrates some kind of universal message (theme).
But in order for successful development to occur, use a story questionnaire, explore story scenarios, and literally ask your way to uncover the answers that will guide you through your story. These questions and answers will guide you through your screenwriting and writing journey.
I try not to force the characters into some setting or event to accommodate what I want, but rather let them be real enough to dictate to me what setting they want to be in. - Bill Wittliff
It was Alfred Hitchcock who famously said that the three most vital elements of a film are “the script, the script, the script.” But when it comes to buying real estate, the three most important ingredients are location, location, location. And since location is a major part of any screenplay, it must be pretty damn significant.
In 2005, I had completed a high-concept commercial romantic comedy spec screenplay, which got rave reviews, until Will Smith and Kevin James hit the big screen in the successful rom-com Hitch.
My screenplay, unfortunately, was not too dissimilar. I was devastated. Countless drafts and the better part of a year, I thought, down the tubes. But my manager made a suggestion: keep the story; change the world, a world that no one had scene before, something really different. So my corporate metropolis became a Podunk Renaissance Faire. Sure, there were a ton of changes, but I solved my Hitch problem and the screenplay just kept getting better. My manager was right: same story; new location.
As screenwriters, we're often telling the same story again and again: Romeo and Juliet in World War II Sicily; Romeo and Juliet at Band Camp; Romeo and Juliet on a Mission to Mars. Same story, new character details, but often, it's the location alone that makes the movie.
Screenwriting is a visual journey. The location is integral to experience, don't under estimate it's importance.
When a drastic change occurs, it occurs in a relatively small and isolated population.
- Ernst Mayr
I was born in Evanston, IL: population 75,543. Grew up in Kenosha, WI: population 96,240. Went to school in Milwaukee: population 573,358. And now I'm a husband and father of three, living and working in Los Angeles: population 3,849,378. According to the most recent estimates from the United States Census Bureau, I went from small to bigger to the second largest city in the country. But those are just numbers. When it comes to screenplay story, population stems from your main protagonist and the characters involved in his or her specific world.
As an infant in Evanston, my population was pretty simple: mom, dad, and me. But mom and dad divorced, and mom and I had moved to Kenosha before my third birthday. I lived there for 15 more years, and as a kid in a relatively Norman Rockwell community, the population of my life changed depending upon which story I was in at the time.
Wisconsin summers filled with dirt bikes, basketball, and kick-the-can were pages right out of Rob Reiner's Stand by Me. There was four of us: Bart, Brian, Clint, and myself. We were inseparable, a cohesive team, battling our adversaries: the old witch in the corner house who'd call the police every time we'd climb her evergreen, the bully who'd chase us out of Newman Park with a seven-iron and an endless supply of golf balls, and the entire staff at The Brompton School after we accidentally set their parking lot on fire. Our population was small: four 12-year-old boys. And we were, as Shakespeare said, truly a "band of brothers." But that's just one story - one population.
There are dozens of different populations in everyone's lives: coworkers, classmates, the yoga group at the YMCA. But you can't determine what the specific population of your screenplay is - and it must be specific - until you decide whose story it is first. Start by creating a complex and flawed protagonist who has a clear objective. Make sure this protagonist will learn, grow, or change in some way after the experience; this helps build a powerful character arc. Do your best to provide polarity in order to maximize the opportunity for conflict. But most importantly, keep things small.
In screenwriting, less really is more. There is a reason only six college friends go off to the cabin in the Horror film. The elite commando unit, regardless of genre, is always small and well contained: Aliens, The Seven Samurai, Predator, Saving Private Ryan. Every rom-com has best friends for each male and female counterpart.
I may have grown up in a city with 96,240 people, but the population of my many worlds was always small, always specific. Even today, living in Los Angeles, a city that's sure to break four million once all the census forms are tallied, the central population of my most important world is only five: my wife and kids.
So don't reinvent the wheel. Fill the population of your screenplay with interesting characters and use polarity to create opportunities for conflict, but always limit your population. It's a small world after all. So keep it that way.
An artist is a man of action, whether he creates a personality, invents an expedient, or finds the issue of a complicated situation. - Joseph Conrad
The 2006 comedic screenplay Little Miss Sunshine, penned by Academy Award Winner Michael Arndt, isn't funny because it is full of funny characters. Ardnt doesn't put characters in a room and force them to make us laugh. Not at all. In fact, the entire family is a tragic mess: Grandpa is a foul-mouthed horny heroin addict, Frank is a gay intellectual with an inferiority complex and a recent survivor of a suicide attempt, Dwayne is an apathetic teen trying to evade family reality through a Nietzschean vow of silence, Richard is a self-involved father pushing his quixotic nine step system on "How to be a Winner" onto everyone - including his family, and Sheryl is a pissed-off enabling wife about a stones throw away from filing divorce papers. The only seemingly "normal" one of the bunch is Olive, the seven-year-old daughter who dreams of someday transforming herself into a child-sized Aphrodite and winning The Little Miss Sunshine Beauty Pageant.
Screenwriting thrives on conflict and turmoil!
Addiction. Suicide. Denial. Selfishness. Divorce. Idolization. These subjects don't necessarily seem like ideal themes to explore in a comedy. However, the best comedies really come from tragedies. But the funny stuff in Little Miss Sunshine is never "funny" characters trying to be funny. Quite the opposite. These are real people just trying to live their lives and get through another hard day. What's funny is the situation: a dysfunctional family takes a cross-country trip in their VW bus to get their seven-year-old daughter to the finals of a beauty pageant.
Imagine your own family stuck in a beat up old VW bus for two days and 800 miles. Then add in conflicts and obstacles: no air conditioning, news that your father's nine step system is a failure, your brother discovering he's color blind and can't pursue his dream of becoming a Air Force pilot, the horn of the VW inadvertently honking mile after mile, being pulled over by the fuzz, and even Grandpa dying of an overdose. Grandpa dies... and we laugh, because of the situation.
There are a number of situations in your screenplay. The first is in the beginning - the status quo - and illustrated through Act One of the script. The second situation begins when your main character is lock-in to the second act tension. This dramatic situation builds with rising action as internal/external conflicts and obstacles arise while the protagonist struggles to achieve the main objective. And a final situation begins with Act Three, once the protagonist has reached the objective and is propelled into yet a new situation with a new goal.
However, no situation will work if it is not plausible. We must believe (with genre variance) that the situations the characters find themselves in are not only plausible, but inevitable.