Just because you were good at Drama in school and earned some good grades in English, doesn’t mean you can knock up a screenplay because you’ve come up with a good idea. Movies are made in the industry because of the story and how well it has been told, not because of the idea, concept or premise. Good story is about principles, not rules. The concept and premise will help the commercial value of the script, but you have to master the craft of telling a good story first. This comes in two parts, the form of story and the form of the screenplay. Good stories are also told in novels, but in a totally different way. I’ve read a dozen screenplays that read like a novel. It’s going to take more than a copy and paste job to get your material noticed. Around 10,000 screenplay’s hit the competitions every year, sometimes close to 15,000. Out of those you’re probably looking at only 1000 that are worth a read.
If spec screenplay is 110 pages that doesn’t mean it hasn’t taken the same amount of time to write as a 500 page novel. In fact Pro’s work feature scripts of 120 pages could may well have more story than a 500 page novel. As a screenwriter you have to learn how to say a lot with the conservation of words, in a single sentence. This takes time to master. I’ve been working on a script for five years and it takes time for something of excellence to be ready.
We are obessed with either listening to or watching stories, from the childhood bedtime stories, to the gossip we text on our phones, it’s all story and humans have been telling them since the beginning of mankind. Like the famous words of Jean Anouilh “Fiction gives life its form”. This artform however is devolving, and with enough education in the last several years, we’ve seen an improvement in many indie films that have hit the film festivals. That’s because truth is common and all writers worth their salt are saying the same thing, “we need better material”.
Screenplay writing and story is about brevity and thoroughness, and in turn a respect for the audience. Film writers must cut and keep cutting. Excellence means perseverance and it comes with time. When an experienced writer writes well, it’s usually because they want to tell the world an idea, something that is important. What is the motivation for you writing your story? This makes all the difference. The style of the writing must be the same as the voice and vision of the story. Your themes and ideas must ring through every page and exchange of dialogue. This is how genre is mastered. Are you choosing the correct genre for your story? We’ll study all of this in the coming articles. The story design must be charged with meaning and it must be a map to the idea that you’re trying to convey.
Hollywood cannot find better material than what we see on the screen today. There’s hope for us writers yet. Yes, there is, but you must learn the craft! Technique is key, language writing ability, ideas and a wealth of watching movies are not enough to write a compelling screenplay. We must look at story from the inside, not from the outside. It must be carefully planned and crafted from the inner of character motivations.
A writer shapes a story around the perception of what’s worth living for, dying for, what’s love, truth, justice. These are important and basic things. And with what we see now on screen, all of these things are formed into a single confusion. This erosion of values has in turn caused an erosion of story. A good story is something the world wants to see and hear and you as a writer have a responsibility to tell this story well. That’s your duty!
Unconscious Art Form
An artist is never at the mercy at the whims of impulse. Even art form takes discipline. Good story is a playful dance of the subconscious and conscious. A story is about truth, the thing that either holds reality together or tears it apart. Truth cannot be conveyed in exposition dialogue…or in a moment of realization. These are the bad scripts, and there’s many of them out there. The more subtle truth it is the sum of events, the structure and choices the character(s) make, the arc of the character and arc of the story. It is the discovery the audience makes in the final stages and scenes of the story. This is known as the cognitive effect. What do you think and feel at the end of a film. A lot of talented writers have that one thing in mind, and it fuels them to write an entire film, just because of the desired end effect. Writing a story from the last act, to the front is like reverse engineering. I think Christopher Nolan must have decided to just show ‘Momento‘ in the order that it was written, and its become an iconic film. That doesn’t mean it’s a great film.
Real entertainment is found flowing within the charge of human truth, something that’s deep within, and it’s the audiences job to uncover it. Like a surgeon or engineer, who sees things deep within the physical levels, we must craft a story from the inside out. When something comes to form in the physical world, it happens from the inside out, on a molecular level. This is also how a great story must be crafted.
A story well crafted is the balance between reality/truth and imagination. A play or battle between creativity and logic. The left brain and the right brain. There are two talents, literally talent and story talent. In literally talent, you must take language to a higher level and be able to show your world and characters as the scenes unfold. With story talent you must clarify life, your not only an artist but a poet and it’s your job to explain and show why things happen (in your perception) the way they do.
If we look at ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’, a man who didn’t really have a father figure in his own childhood (inner wound) has vowed that he’s going to stick by his son and be there for him (his goal). Little does he know that they’ll end up sleeping the night in a public toilet. This man’s weakness is his circumstances as he fights to make a life for himself and his son.
The words on the pages of that screenplay don’t dictate the story, but the unfolding of the character arc, and the character plot. If we think about the structure for a moment, and we’ll get into this on a much deeper level, the plot should not be something that happens to the character. The events must be meshed to the character decisions and actions as though they are the same thing. Because in life, they are. Let’s not make the plot such an external force, much of it is internal to the character and that’s the story you should show and tell.
Beat by Beat a scene is like a story in itself, a scene can by like a movie and a scene should be like a story itself. If you think of screenplay as broken down into stages or acts, then a scene is the smallest form and smaller than this is a beat. It’s an event when something changes. The average scene duration is 2-3 minutes and you need to focus on the first 3 pages, first 10 pages, the final acts etc first, before filling 100 pages or so. If you’re not good at writing the first 3 page scene, or 10 pages, then how are you going to be good at writing a 110 page movie?
I’ve written an 18 page scene in one of my movies, but it’s a little artsy and the film and genre require this as that scene sets up the tone, the main theme and all of the main characters. I could have broken it up into 3-4 smaller scenes, however I wanted to create an intense and suspenseful drama stage with lots of emotional eye points before the unfolding of the story. From the consultation I’ve had, this draws the reader and audience into the story. There’s nothing wrong with lots of different movements and focus points within this scene.
The formula. It’s old, Aristotle old, think of three act story structure. Certain things need to happen during the flow of the movie, and they DO need to happen at certain points, or you’ll be bored. I watched a movie called ‘A Stranger Outside‘ a few days ago on Netflix. It’s not a brand new movie, so I thought, it may actually be worth a watch- I’ve never been so bored in all my life. This is meant to be a suspense thriller. I think someone died in the movie for the mid-point and the inciting incident was a hint of death or the main female character being watched in her bedroom. A very lame movie. This is why hitting those beat points is very important. Professors in neural science have studied the behavior of the brain in such stories and stimulus and it definitely works if you have structure to your movie.
Make a Start
Why not write a screenplay in 30 days? That’s only 3-4 pages a day. The idea is to put as much material as you can into the first draft so that you can cut and chip that stone away to reveal the great sculpture. It’s best to start with your favourite genre, unless you’re writing a story that is your story. Who’s your main character? What’s their wound? What’s their weakness? How is their end goal, going to solve what needs to change about this character? Will their be a dual protagonist? Will they support this character? Who or what is going to be the antagonist or force of antagonism? Will this journey change the character? Will all conflict heighten and worsen as the story reaches its final climax? Well, it must and the main character must change with it all. There are three pressing questions, What does the character want? Why do they want it or what will happen if they don’t get it? And finally what are their obstacles? The better you can answer these questions in your screenplay, the better the story is going to be. Once this is all done, you’ve written an entry level screenplay, nothing more or less.
It’s All About Rewriting
Re-writing is a fun process, and you should give yourself a break of at least 4 days, then you’re reading the script twice, firstly to enjoy it like an audience watching a movie, and you’re making notes, how does the dialogue sound? Are you reading it out loud? And dialogue by the way, should be one of the final things that you write… What the characters say, shouldn’t always be that important, as their actions and decisions will play out visually. The dialogue will make the movie more entertaining, it shouldn’t govern the story, that’s the mistake a lot of novice screenwriters make. The second read or third read is always the critical one, this is where you cut out anything that’s unnecessary to the story. Any fat or bloat, should be removed, every bit of the story should be moving it forward in some or be relevant to the characters thoughts, desires and actions they are going to take. You have to also make this interesting, give the audience some hints, setups and payoffs. Allow the audience to predict what’s going to happen, then allow it to happen that way, also do the opposite, send them in a totally different direction. There are techniques in the rewriting process. You can get someone to read it out loud to you, you can use software to read the script out aloud and make notes whilst listening. And once all of this is done, there’s always the coverage notes and feedback route, which is good. I can always suggest improvements to the story, dialogue and character journey so use the Contact Me page
Screenplay’s used to be stage-plays 2,500 years ago. It’s still the same today, the story must expand on the feelings and we the audience participate on the journey. There must be enough emotion packed into the story to get the audience coming along for the ride and the audience must care about the main characters. On this website and series of articles, we’re going to delve right in and expand on each point. So let’s get stuck in!