Screenwriting: It’s Complicated

By Michael Schilf · October 4, 2010

If you’re lost in your second act, feeling trapped in a tricky labyrinth of perplexing webs and tortuous dead ends, you might blame it on screenwriting. But the essential rules that dictate the visual aspects of how to write a screenplay are not to blame; they are only a scapegoat. It is by most accounts your failed execution of those rules that is flawed.

Sure, screenwriting is complicated, but not because it’s convoluted, confusing, or complex by design. Nothing could be further from the truth. Screenwriting is complicated because it is very precise and intricate, involving a multitude of interconnecting parts. But therein lies the problem: understanding all the parts and knowing how to connect the dots.

This is especially difficult to accept as a beginning screenwriter. The impulse to start writing the script is so great that many new screenwriting scribes don’t take the necessary time to develop the full story and create complex characters before they write one script word. I understand this impulse; it’s fun to do the writing – make your characters act and speak. The reality, however, is that lack of preparation is a sure fire recipe for bad screenwriting.

Preparation is the key. Any house painter understands the importance of prep work. Sure, we can all slap on some paint, but if we don’t prepare the surface first – scrape, sand, fill, caulk, prime – the finish coat will crack, flake, and peel. Your screenplay works the same way. Your characters and story are the painter’s surface, and perfection of the finished product relies almost solely on proper preparation.

So you must prepare that surface: develop complex characters and outline a detailed story structure. This of course takes time – often many more days or even months than it takes to literally write the script – but if you do all this hard work, the decision-making during the script writing process will be easy. Rarely will you get lost because story kinks have already been worked out, and never should you have to figure out how your characters would act, what they would say, or how they would say it. You know your characters so well that they essentially write themselves.

So if you’ve spent the long and necessary hours devoted to story development and character creation, you already know the plot points, the sequences, and the scenes, so when it comes to writing the screenplay, your prep work is done and yes… you simply connect the dots.