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By Derek Ruth · April 20, 2013
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 this 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 Script Lab's 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 Script Lab's 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
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.
Additional Information on Character
When the begin the screenwriting process, always ask yourself the why: Why does the character ask to be in a story? What is it I feel about him or about her? Because then you begin to find out why you want to write the whole story, and what the passion of that character is, and why he wants what he wants.
Eventually you reach the moment where you can dream for your character, where you can remember for him or her everything that happened in his or her past. When that happens, then you are safe because the character (not the screenwriter) will find his/her way towards the resolutions of the story.
At this point, the problem is how to hit that character in his most vulnerable spot. How to put him in the worst predicament imaginable. How to strengthen that predicament, and how to increase, at the same time, his desire to achieve his objective.
Once you get that, you’ve got a story growing, and there is no problem what to do next. You just use the rational approach and start asking yourself: What are the sequences in which this character tries to get himself out of the predicament? That's screenwriting!
And you put him in that predicament. Then you have the steps from the set up of the dramatic situation to the culmination. When you can see the sequences and you start asking what event you can put in the center of each sequence, the story begins to unravel and then you have a chance to feel quite safe. You begin to have an outline, and after that, you can begin to write your screenplay.
Hierarchy works well in a stable environment. – Mary Douglas
The events that take place in your screenplay may not be stable, but the organization of your story and the creation of characters within it must be. You plan it before you build it. And understanding character hierarchy is part of that plan. Whether your screenwriting, or writing a novel, this heireachy is key.
But when I talk about hierarchy, I’m not referring to any system in which one character has authority over other characters within the world of the story. The condescending boss, for example, might be a minor character in the script, but clearly ranks higher on the corporate ladder than the shipping clerk protagonist.
Take Oliver Stone’s Platoon: the protagonist Chris follows orders from supporting characters Sgt. Elias and Sgt. Barnes, yet Lt. Wolfe, a minor character, is in charge of them all. But if we take Lt. Wolfe out of the mix, the story still works; we lose Chris, however, it’s a completely different film.
So character hierarchy, in contrast, refers to how characters rank above other characters as far as their importance within the screenplay. Clearly, the most important character is your protagonist. It is her story. We hope and fear for her. She is the one who wants something badly and is having trouble getting it. Your protagonist is at the top of the hierarchical system – hands down. Without her, there is no story.
But what about everyone else: villains, mentors, friends, rivals? What if it’s a buddy picture or an ensemble piece? What about other main characters, supporting roles, subplot characters, even one-string parts?
It all depends upon the specific variables within each story. Sometimes the villain ranks a close second behind the hero. It’s hard not to rank Hannibal Lector any lower than second place in Silence of the Lambs. And sometimes the villain actually is the protagonist, therefore becoming an anti-hero. Alex in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is a prime example.
In a buddy picture, both protagonists share the top rung, with one always reaching a little higher than the other. In Lethal Weapon, Riggs and Murtaugh are partners, and even though both men have clear character arcs, it’s obvious we’re following Rigg’s story. In a disaster film, the antagonist is The Perfect Storm, a Twister, or The Towering Inferno, so then mentors, friends, and rivals rank close behind the hero. In slasher films, hierarchical placement depends mostly upon length of survival. The longer a character stays alive, the higher on the ladder they stand.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but for the most part, character hierarchy in screenwriting and writing can be broken up into four main classes: main characters, supporting characters, subplot characters, and one-string characters.
What is your character’s role? Answering this question is the key to creating a successful character – a screenwriting necessity. You must know why a particular character is in your story and what role you intend him or her to play. Is he the hero? She the villain? And if he is the hero, what face does he wear: the savior, the recluse, the warrior, or the fool? And what of our villain? Is she the femme fatale, the narcissist, the psychotic, the traitor?
Understanding character roles is never limited to the protagonist and antagonist. A screenplay needs supporting players as well: friends and rivals. There are symbolic characters, mythic characters, fantasy characters, even nonhuman characters. Sometimes a group all share the same role, and characters often play more than one role at a time. Some are one-string characters, appearing in only a few scenes, and others are intricate to the sub-plot, having their own line of action connected to the main conflict.
Character roles have infinite possibilities, and they can be defined in different ways, but when it comes to designing those roles, there is one absolute: every character has a role to play.
An archetype is more than a stereotype or a generic version of a personality, and for the screenwriter, understanding fundamental character archetypes is an essential tool for understanding the purpose or function of characters in a story.
Archetypes can be found in nearly all forms of literature including screenplays, with their motifs being predominantly rooted in folklore, but it wasn’t until Swiss psychologist Carl Jung coined the term archetypes when describing common character types, symbols, and relationships. In Jung’s view, archetypes were patterns of personality that are the shared heritage of the human race. Screenwriting and writing is no different.
Jung proposed there is a collective unconscious shared by all, and when we enter the world of fairy tales and myths, these stories begin to reflect all times and cultures. And it is from this collective unconscious where the same character types seem to occur: questing heroes, heralds to call them to adventure, mentors to guide them, guardians to block their path, shape shifting companions full of surprises, and shadowy villains hell-bent on destroying them, and mischievous tricksters to provide comic relief. These archetypes can add so much densitiy to your screenwriting and writing.
Although the number of archetypes is limitless, some characters may switch from one archetype to another, and a character may even display the qualities of more than one archetype, it is useful to examine with the most significant, recurring archetypal images: The Hero, The Child, The Mother, The Sage, The Guardian, The Messenger, The Shapeshifter, The Fox, and The Shadow.
Anyone can write what we call dialogue, but writing good dialogue is no easy task. It takes time and practice to develop a quality ear. But it sits at the heart of screenwriting.
In a screenplay, dialogue is conversation, but conversation in everyday life is definitely not dialogue. Real talk is boring. If you read a transcription of a real conversation – even if the subject matter is controversial and full of passionate opinions – it’s completely absurd. This real talk is disjointed, long winded, redundant, unfocused, and often just too much information.
Alfred Hitchcock put is this way when explaining a good story was “life, with the dull parts taken out.” Dialogue is no different.
So in writing good dialogue, it’s never about capturing truth or reality: how we really talk. Realistic dialogue only gives a flavor of reality. It is artful deception. That isn’t to say that the screenwriter doesn’t write dialogue that reads like real speech. Not at all. It must feel and sound believable, but the irony is that believable dialogue doesn’t exist in real talk.
Good screenplay dialogue has a rhythm, and therefore is easily spoken. It’s compressed and moves rapidly, like a ball in a ping-pong match. The verbal exchanges move back and forth between characters, shifting power from one side to the other, until somebody scores the point. Screenplay dialogue must be full of conflict, lots of it. And rarely do characters say exactly what they mean: dialogue is all about subtext.
Done properly, good dialogue will move your story forward and flesh out your characters, and in this section, you will learn to use some simple rules and tips as well as avoid common pitfalls to give a believable and distinct voice to your great characters.
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.
Additional Information on Story
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.
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.
Additional Information on Structure
Give a carpenter a truckload of tools and a bunch of wood; he'll build something. But hand him structural blueprints as well, and the end result will be amazing. Screenwriters work the same way, and the outline is your screenplay's skeleton.
Screenwriting is a unique version of writing, and this outline can be crucial to keeping you on track.
“Leaves of three, let them be.” A helpful little phrase when it comes to avoiding poison oak in the woods, but when it comes to your screenplay, three absolutely is company. This is the core of screenwriting.
Three Act Structure is your framework and the almighty epoxy of the screenplay. These three parts, often literally taking place in different worlds – physically and/or figuratively – can work independently of each other, yet when connected, they build a solid whole.
“Sit, Sequence. Sit. Good dog.” Woof! Okay, so sequences might not be not be our favorite four-legged friends, but they sure are killer gifts to the screenwriter.
In screewriting, a sequence is a self-contained unit of action in your screenplay, usually between 10 to 15 pages, that has its own specific tension and an event around or towards which it is focused.
"The structural unity of the parts is such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference is not an organic part of the whole." – Aristotle
A SCENE is a unit of action that takes place in one location at one time. And in a screenplay, a scene must push the story forward and/or reveal character. If it does neither, kill it!
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.
Additional Information on Voice
Insist upon yourself. Be original. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
When it comes to screenwriting, you don’t necessarily need an original idea to be successful. How many times have we seen Romeo and Juliet? Hundreds? Thousands? It’s a simple story really. Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. They come from opposite sides of the tracks. Families hate each other. But despite everything, they fall in love. Now Shakespeare takes them to a tragic end. But there’s no rule that you have to. And if you’re writing a romantic comedy, you sure as hell better end with something happy. The audience demands it. We know exactly how a rom-com is going to end before we sit down. The journey to get us there is the fun part.
It’s wonderful if you do have an original idea, a plot we’ve never seen before – hold onto it like a Wonka’s golden ticket – but if you want to be a working screenwriter, don’t feel as if you must reinvent the wheel. It’s okay to rip-off a plot we’ve seen before, but the way you disguise it from it’s forefather is key. Avatar was Dances with Wolves in Space, and Dances with Wolves was Pocahontas on the Western Frontier… and so it goes.
The trick is to change the world while incorporating remarkable and unforgettable characters: Romeo and Juliet as divorced ex-starship trooper marines working for competing deep sea oil companies on a new mineral rich planet, living within an underwater city at the bottom of the deepest ocean in the known universe. Same story… different everything else. Your originality comes in the everything else. To say James Cameron is not original is laughable, but to say Avatar was an original story is arguable.
When it comes to three act structure, sequences, and major plot points – all key ingredients to a successful script – again, originality is not a primary concern. If fact, it is quite the opposite. Almost every drama is about two hours: 30 pages for Act I, the next 60 for Act II, and the last 30 for Act III. Most comedies are about 90 minutes: 24 pages for Act I, the next 48 for Act II, and the final 24 for Act III. There is nothing original about that. Can you image every novel locking it’s protagonist into a predicament between pages 24 and 30? The novelist has freedom to go anywhere, do anything, at anytime. The screenwriter, conversely, has an expected structure with sequences and plot points: inciting incident, lock-in, mid-point, main culmination, third act twist… and so on. There is not much originality when it comes to the rough carpentry of building a screenplay.
But despite all this, originality within the screenwriter’s voice is paramount. If you’ve done your homework, you know your characters so deeply that they’ll begin to write themselves. You just put them in the right situations so that they can interact, but the way you describe the action within each scene becomes your personal canvas. And you must paint – being clear, concise, and creative – with an original stroke. Word choice, rhythm, the stylized use of fragments, sounds, and sentence flow – that’s all part of it.
Two or more writers could be given the exact same non-dialogue scene assignment with detailed direction as to what must occur, but the voice of each writer should ring different. Same story; different execution. Remember, you’re no robot, so don’t write like one. It’s your voice. Your stamp. Your brand. Make it original.
A hidden connection is stronger than an obvious one. – Heraclitus of Ephesus
Connecting with the audience. This is paramount. If the audience isn’t invested with the story, if it doesn’t care about the characters, if it’s not intimately involved, anticipating, reaching conclusions, and adding it up… well, then you’re in trouble, riding a sinking ship.
Understanding your audience is essential. All good writers (reporters, cartoonists, novelists, and the like) craft their work with the audience in mind. Even Shakespeare wrote to an audience – from the poor, illiterate goundlings to the privileged lords and gentlemen of high society – and he used an array of devices to connect and involve that wide audience with his plays.
This is your job as well: to learn and master specific tools of the trade that help to create connections with your audience and make them active participants, not simply static observers. The audience is your customer, and you must write to that customer – Always!
And why? Because even though a screenwriter may not be rewarded with Pulitzers, he can earn comfortable sums of money. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get paid. But the screenwriter who ignores the audience will struggle to find sellable success. We don’t make movies for one person. We make them for the masses, the many, the mob – sometimes the general universal audience and sometimes a specific one – but in the end, without the audience, there is nothing: no film, no script, no screenwriter.
It's helpful to think of screenwriting as a triangle: the writer, the subject, and the audience. No one goes to see a rom-com to be surprised. The audience has an firm expectation that everything works out in the end. The fun is in the journey to that end. Imagine Shrek or Toy Story without the writers considering both kids and their parents – not the same films. When you write with the audience in mind, you'll find it easier to determine how and when to reveal things, when to cut scenes, where to start a scene and how to get out early.
Remember, making movies is a business and screenwriting is a key part of that business. As a screenwriter, you are selling a story to an audience. They are your everything. You write for them – so they can laugh, cry, hope, and fear. But don’t force-feed; your audience is smart. Never just tell the story. You must show, so your audience gets connected and involved. Let them add up two plus two, because when you do, they love you for it.
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.
Additional Information on Form
In screenwriting the screenplay is a unique yet very precise form, which uses a simple framework, but to erect it well is quite difficult. The screenwriter doesn’t have the luxury to write without limits. Readers are always looking for any excuse not to read your script, so never give the reader a reason to toss your script in the recycling pile because you haven’t written it in proper form. The screenwriter’s job is to tell an engaging story that keeps the reader turning pages.
Not only do you attack each scene as late as is
possible, you attack the entire story the same way.
– William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade
Goldman is absolutely right. Start late. Get out early. Every scene. Every sequence. Waste no time. Use the least amount of words possible while still applying the Three C’s: Clear, Concise, and Creative. Make sure every word you write is necessary. Look to maximize white space and avoid common pitfalls such as ‘I’ pages, block pages, and writing camera instructions – this is screenwriting!
Of course, the writer needs an original voice to tell a memorable story with interesting characters in a believable plot, but if it’s not in the right form, it might as well be written in Sanskrit. Simply put, if you’re going to do it, do it right.
In screenwriting as in life, communicating means being understood. And your goal with the script is to communicate – so make yourself understood. Be clear in your thoughts and what the audiences sees, and it will be clear on the page. This is your job as a writer and screenwriter.
TSL's Feature Format Template is an great tool to help you see how the script page should look as well as how to effectively communicate slug lines, title cards, scene descriptions, and dialogue, etc.