Screenwriting - Contents

 

Screenwriting COM_SECTIONEX_RSS

How to Write a Screenplay: Introduction to Screenwriting

Just like every car has four wheels and two axles, each screenplay has the same basic structural parts - the nuts and bolts - to make it work. However, there is a huge difference between a two passenger Smart Car and a ‘64 Cobra 289. Both will get you to your final destination, but the ride will be a completely different experience. 

Screenwriting is like car building. It’s a trade. It uses a very specific format, follows a universal structure, and must meet audience expectations. To do otherwise, is suicide. 

Imagine the automobile industry installing wheels on the roof of cars. Nobody wants to drive upside down. Screenwriting works the same way. There is a blueprint - structured through acts, sequences, and plot points - that almost every movie follows. This is the science of the screenplay, the dramaturgy, but science is only a part of cinematic story telling.

Of course every great screenplay must have a solid structural foundation, but it is also essential to write with an original voice and have a powerful, and hopefully topical, concept with incredibly interesting, flawed, and empathetic characters - and all of this must be in proper screenplay form. 

To think of The Formula as a recipe to write your great Hollywood script using structure alone would be shortsighted. Structure without character, character without story, story without voice, and voice without form... it simply doesn’t work. The Formula is only as strong as it’s weakest link, so in order for you to be a successful screenwriter, you must achieve all five parts: CHARACTER, STORY, STRUCTURE, VOICE, and FORM.

The Formula: Introduction to Screenwriting provides the essential pieces you need to construct a sellable script, regardless of genre. But it is essential to understand that The Formula is never about being formulaic. There is nothing conventional about creating interesting, believable, and unique characters, nor is there any paint-by-number directions to germinate and develop an original story, and even though three act structure has rules to guide you, it’s all very flexible. Nothing is set in stone. 

So whether this is your first screenplay or you’ve been writing for years, you’ve come the right place. This online version of The Formula: Introduction to Screenwriting, was built as completely searchable resource to guide you through journey of building a screenplay from the beginning, or answer specific questions that might pop up during the development process. 

Enjoy, Good Luck, and Get Started

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Character COM_SECTIONEX_RSS

For a truly effective screenplay, you must know your characters backwards and forward. In screenwriting, the moment you begin to imagine character relationships - how your character deals with his parents, his siblings, his coworkers, and all that - you start to explore the world of your story, and suddenly scenes begin to emerge. 

As you research your character (context, culture, occupation), creating details (attitudes, values, emotions), developing backstory (physiology, sociology, psychology), and establishing personality and behavior, you start putting the character in different situations in your mind, and you begin to imagine him or her in the most mundane and most exciting moments of his life. 

The courage to deal with the trivial and banalities is something you should develop. Because often the best stories in screenwriting, are made from the most commonplace material, and if you don’t know how your character cooks dinner, does laundry, brushes his teeth, or what his little vexations are, his petty likes and dislikes, a dynamic, a full story will never happen. 

Frank Daniel, the former chair of the Film Division at Columbia University and past dean of the School of Cinema-Television at USC, echos the point in five simple words: “A story starts with character.”

So if character is the key, and stories are only as good as the characters within them, you better create some damn, fine, outstanding characters. 

The screenwriter should never decide where a character will go next or how a character would react or what a character would say in a given situation. And if you’ve done your homework, really enveloped yourself within the character iceberg, and you know your characters intimately, the rest is easy. The character tells you. All you have to do is listen. 

In this section, not only will you learn how to create memorable characters through research, development, and psychological methodologies, but you will also begin to understand the character hierarchy, the application of major character roles in film, the importance of the most common archetypes that are used, and you learn how to write much better dialogue: show don’t tell. 

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Story COM_SECTIONEX_RSS

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.

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Structure COM_SECTIONEX_RSS

Screenwriting can be divided into two basic parts: the actual writing and the dramaturgy. 

The writing itself is for the artist to do; there are no rules, no magic recipes to apply, no golden ticket. The way one screenwriter might execute a particular piece of action or dialogue subtext can be vastly different from another screenwriter. 

But what is the second part of screenwriting: the dramaturgy? It’s the theoretical, cerebral, rational, and scientific part. The screenwriter uses practical strategies and time-tested models to help develop and design a solid blueprint for the composition of the screenplay.  

“In the first act, it’s who are the people and what is the situation of this whole story. The second act is the progression of that situation to a high point of conflict and great problems. And the third act is how the conflicts and problems are resolved." - Ernest Lehman

Lehman is quite succinct in his broad stroke framework of the whole structured screenplay. There is, of course, much more to the final structural design, and in this section, you’ll learn the necessary tools to flesh out your acts and sequences and pin point your major plot points: the inciting incident, the lock-in, the first culmination, the resolution, etc. Understanding these elements are a great help in outlining a solid story foundation to build a great screenplay upon. 

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Voice COM_SECTIONEX_RSS

The screenwriting and writing itself is for the artist to do; there are no rules, no magic recipes to apply, no golden ticket. But all good screenwriting and writing has a distinct voice. Why read one columnist over another in the Sunday Times? It almost always comes down to that writer’s original voice. The way two or more writers would describe the same element in a script might be quite different, yet they all could accomplish the writing objective with equal quality. 

“Words are the voice of the heart.” - Confucious

There is no better way to put it. Your voice, simply put, is you: it’s your scent, your soul, the abstract elixir of your core. As a screenwriter, it’s the way you describe the action, it’s your style and word choice, it’s the pulse of the page, it’s rhythm, and just as important, it’s also the decisions you make to grab the reader’s attention and connect with the audience. It’s the execution of the well rehearsed yet original dance you have with the audience as you lead them to become active participants in the story

Your voice is all of this, but the one thing it’s not is dialogue. Your characters own that. Each character must have his or her own distinct way of speaking - cadence, dialect, accent, vocabulary, etc. - and although each character’s dialogue is created and developed by you, it manifests from a very different place, and, if done properly, it comes from a separate person entirely - the character him/herself. 

In this section, you will learn tricks of the trade to help establish and maintain a strong audience connection. You will learn how to sell the future of the story through the use of advertising, you will be able to apply multiple plants and payoff to your script, you will learn to use scenes of preparation and aftermath to maximize audience involvement, you’ll begin to see how tension, mystery, and suspense can all dictate a reader to hope and fear and reach conclusions (right or wrong), you’ll digest how delaying information or using a reversal can affect your reader, and you’ll learn techniques that can help in developing atmosphere, style, and rhythm in your screenwriting. 

But your voice itself, the writer’s voice, cannot be taught; it can’t be forced. It develops over time, and like anything, if you want to do it well, it demands practice... so do it. Just write.

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Form COM_SECTIONEX_RSS

Just creating amazing characters in a memorable world who are struggling to obtain a goal(s) and writing the story with an original voice still isn’t enough to start a screenplay. A novel, maybe, but not a script. The prose writer has freedom to use anything, go anywhere, use any tense, and explore any point of view. The screenwriter, however, is bound by form - not formula. 

Screenplays have a very specific form, and if you ignore that form, it will not serve you, your story, or your audience, and it will definitely not help your screenplay. In fact, disregarding form will inevitably snuff out your script. And it will be a slow, painful death, essentially guiding the reader not to read. 

So what’s the lesson learned? If you’re going to do something, do it right. Screenplay form is distinct and precise, and a script lacking this form almost always finds a home... right in the trash. 

Screenwriting is essentially filmmaking on paper. It is a visual storytelling after all, and the screenwriter must write in PRESENT TENSE - only what the audience can SEE and HEAR. The screenwriter must always use the Three C's: being CLEAR and CONCISE, yet still CREATIVE. Both in description and dialogue, creative brevity is the screenwriter’s steadfast ally and most powerful weapon. 

The screenwriter does not have time to explore the story through long-winded, soul searching monologues, and the script can’t be bogged down with the subtle intricacies of every little detail. There is no time for that, and the screenwriter must be concerned with time - Always! When writing a script, you only have between 90 and 120 minutes to tell your story. That’s not a lot of time, so script economy becomes something the screenwriter must strive for. If it does not illustrate character or moving the story forward, kill it. 

In this section, you will learn how to be more economical with your scenes as well as to avoid common pitfalls such as directing on the page. You will see the importance of the white space, learning to steer away from “I” pages and block pages. And detailed templates for film features, TV dramas, and sitcoms are provided to help you demonstrate the practical use of the many different elements of proper screenplay form.

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Script Tips COM_SECTIONEX_RSS