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The Mechanics of Screenwriting

By Michael Schilf · July 1, 2010

The impulse to be free as a screenwriter is one of the most self-destructive notions you can have.

Screenwriting is a specialized trade that follows very specific rules, and the unwillingness to accept the fundamental principles of screenplay structure is like playing Russian roulette – only there’s a round in every chamber. You do have artistic freedom in many areas of screenwriting – voice, originality, characters – but when it comes to story and structure, you must master the mechanics of the screenplay machine. And it is a machine.

The practicalities of writing a script include a multitude of working parts that fit together in a specific way in order for the screenplay apparatus to operate properly. You can’t write a successful screenplay if you ignore three-act structure, plot points, and sequences. Scenes must be concise and move the story forward. The presentation of the pagescript economy, describing the shot, and the art of the white space – are all part of the package.

There are many tools used to create audience connection: planting and payoff, preparation and aftermath, delay and reversal, to name a few. Even page count itself has a system: a rom-com is about 90 pages, each major sequence averaging about 12 pages, the character locked in at the end of Act One on or around page 24. Every genre has slightly different working parts, but the mechanics of writing a sellable screenplay are essentially the same.

So take a look at ‘The Formula’ – it’s a great resource to help build your script.