Learning the craft to effective screenwriting is essential. You have to understand the soul of the story but also the blueprint of the screenplay. It’s an encapsulated works of your story and you must treat the story like an organic thing, something that lives and is growing. Mere words on paper are not going to get it noticed. It has to be more than that and it has to convey certain story elements to work. This requires knowledge of the craft. For some, this comes naturally, for the most part, this can be learned. There are techniques used by professional writers, and I am not just talking about story structure. Specifically there are character elements and plot elements that need to be met. Knowledge is power, but Wisdom is better, so let’s delve in.
Some Early Essentials
The Blake Snyder’s 15 Beats Sheet
See the file below and download it for your reference. We’ll get into this much more when we look at structure. Just be conscious that a set tempo and beat rhythm is required between your acts otherwise the story will become flat or boring. Such methods have been tested over hundreds of years from stage plays. In my opinion, the Blake Snyder system is the best of all.
Joseph Campbell’s 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey
Gladiator is one of the great Hero movies, so what more fitting than the attached document. Again, we’ll delve into this in more detail in the Structure article, but this is a craft element. Download and review the document attached.
Keep it short and sweet… “Start Late and Finish Early”.
You as the screenwriter have to plan and decide what your audience is going to see. Masters at this usually write the Thriller genre as knowing or not knowing what’s coming, makes it a thriller. You don’t want to show Harry getting into the car by opening the door, sitting down, putting on his seat belt, looking left, adjusting his mirror, then turning the key etc. etc. Instead, Harry climbs in, SNAPS in his seat belt and smiles wearing his shades as the engine COUGHS up.
Writing must be PUNCHY, short and to the point and you must only show what’s absolutely necessary. An extra three pages of plot that’s absolutely relevant could be the difference of your material being optioned. I’ve read some screenplay’s where the actors would have to be puppets, you need to leave room for the imagination. Some of this is left to the Director and Editor, and there are hundreds of good screenplays where several scenes have been left out, an example is The Da Vinci Code. I’ve attached the file, compare the novel to the movie, or the script to the novel. I like the movie because it’s a Ron Howard movie!
Form Over Function
The beat is the timing of movement in a film or play. It can be a pause but often is used to denote a change in the scene or sequence. It usually alters the way the protagonist pursues the goal. If nothing changes in that moment, then it isn’t a beat. It’s an action of define or disrespecting. A refusal to do something is a beat. If some character tells another to get out of the house and they do it, that’s not a beat. If they stay, and make a coffee, that’s a beat.
Scenes are the building blocks of screenplay. A typical scene lasts 2-3 minutes. Most Pro’s work feature films contain 50-60 scenes in total. The scenes culminate change in the character and story. That’s the whole idea. Story is about change. However there are films where characters do not change. A scene focuses on a single action or event.
If you create strong scenes, you are only creating a strong movie. A longer scene needs a stronger punch, a more powerful climactic twist. This keeps the audience reading, or if a movie, them watching. Visual story telling plays an important role.
This is a set of stringed scenes that tell a story. The car chase for example in the Bourne Identity for example, is four or five scenes sequenced together. The narrative for this sequence is that the protagonist is escaping the force of antagonism. In a sense, the sequence is a mini story or Act within an act. In a feature there will be 8 or 9 of these sequences typically. It usually involves different times and locations, but all part of the same events. A sequence focuses on a group of scenes or events.
This is another structure element, but it’s the shaping of a scene to the element of surprise. This is also known as the turning point and it happens between acts also and usually takes the story and character in a different direction. A typical reversal is In Inception, when Ellen Page’s character Ariadne, along with the audience discovers that Mal is Cobb’s wife and she’s dead. There are typically 3 or 4 reversals to each movie, as there’s usually 3 acts, or as Steven Spielberg put it, “a beginning, middle and end”
Before we move onto the Final Climax, see the below video for some wisdom. No wonder this screenplay took 10 years to write and this is craft mastery at the highest level.
Setups & Payoffs
These are vital, yet nobody talks about them. Setups and Payoffs make effective storytelling, but they have to be well executed. How these are demonstrated in a screenplay is the difference between amateur material and Pro’s work.
Setups and Payoffs have to be written well with enough rewrites and drafts, to form the proper alignment. Something maybe revealed, payed off, but might not have been setup properly and vice versa. Why is this important? Because, the audience will wonder, where did that come from…
Setup – John Conner in Terminator 2, hacks into an ATM in the first Act of the movie.
Payoff – John Conner breaks into Cyberdyne’s security system with the same code generating device so they can get into the Lab.
These can be visual, spoken in dialogue, action, narrative or even a character. In another movie I watched recently, a character asks the protagonist “do you need your inhaler?”. Although this can be exposition, later in the movie, the character almost died without it. This works well in the Thriller genre, because you have to allow the audience to be able to guess what’s going to happen also and create that anticipation. Think of ‘Terminator’, if we didn’t know about it or see it happen, without a mention it would make a confusing movie. This is all about careful planning.
Setups and Payoffs must be charged with meaning, something deeper, even with thematic twists and must pack emotion as the punch. Think of those movies that had a satisfying reveal or payoff, when the protagonist finally succeeds by using something they learned. That vital Character Arc.
“If it bleeds, we can kill it”…the famous lines from ‘Predator‘, becomes a theme for life and death. When Arny covers himself with mud. He becomes invisible, like the predator alien. Mud is natural, so is life and death, so is a hunter or predator. These setups in this movie are all connected for maximum effect, when it’s finally payed off.
This is when we hit a peak of a change in a scene or sequence. If the scene stays at the same level of attention and doesn’t give the audience something new, then it becomes boring and the audience will also lose interest quickly. The best climaxes involve character, a change in story and character. The infamous realization of Dr. Malcolme Crowe discovering he’s dead in ‘The Sixth Sense‘ is known as a reversal or surprise. This is probably the most memorable final climax in cinematic history. It’s also appropriate to call this a resolution and often the 3rd Act is known as this. This movie uses classical 3 Act Story Structure and we’ll analyse this movie in a later article. A the base of a great scene is a well defined structure.
The Nuts & Bolts
Like a Swiss watch that shows the perfect time, the positioning of those nuts and bolts is paramount to the function of the watch and its quality. That’s the same way the substance of your story and script elements must be positioned, if you as the screenwriter want it to show a perfect story. Perfect story not literally, but built and crafted perfectly. Another analogy is the way you combine and mix ingredients to make the perfect recipe. How you prepare those ingredients and combine them will make an entirely different dish.
The Infamous Outline
Since the last few years, I not only create a 30-40 single line scene summary that outlines the main details of the story, I create a detailed outline, a movie map and make cards that represent every scene. I always start a screenplay with pen and paper to get my ideas flowing. You may be able to see from my Second Rounder (top 15%) screenplay for Austin in 2017, the biggest competition on the world, that this follows a 4 ACT Story structure. The first set of cards on the left is just the opening setup.
The 3rd, 4th, 5th row of cards are all Act 2. Massive plot is the secret to a good story and this is something that John Truby talks about all the time. The second Act is critical and it’s here that 90% of all screenplays fail.
The truth is that I only knew around 40% of the craft in 2017. Now, I am close to 90% and I’ll be making my debut in the film world soon.
An effective screenplay is built up with layers and each layer has to be connected to the other. An effective screenplay is 80% thought and planning and only 20% writing in my opinion.
A motif in a movie is to symbolize something. It can be a narrative or visual thing, such as a close up of an emotional face, or an object or physical thing such as a color, character, sound or even word. These are used to dramatically represent the theme of the movie. One of the themes in a movie I’ve written is physical desire of the female, and how the antagonist uses this, so I’ve symbolized this as a breaking ornament of a nude woman, when the character comes into arc to visually plant that into the mind of the audience. Motif’s are used in Pro’s work screenplays and are to be used sparsely unless the film is very artsy.
Overuse would change the tone of the movie, so you have to be clever when you design your thematic layouts of the world and characters.
The Controlling Idea
In the words of Robert McKee, “you as a writer do not give meaning to your story, your story gives meaning to itself”. Even Pro writers struggle with this one. They are compelled to write something, but often can’t find the WHY, that’s probably because the artist within us is more of a sub-conscious thing and the mind will often ignore it completely. The most cerebral of movies are strong on idea’s, truths and messages. Your movie has to be about something compelling, something important, and as Christopher Nolan and my other favorite movie Gods do, it has to be embedded in some truth.
Another term for this in the works of Syd Field is referred to as the Cognitive Effect. The way one feels, essentially at the final stage or Act of the movie.
The most iconic Cognitive Effect that I can recall is after watching one of my favourite movies, The Prestige, again, Christopher Nolan. In the end of that movie there’s a feeling of irony because Alfred Borden’s character played by Christian Bale always had a doppelganger, who he integrated into his life causing certain conflicts and sacrifices. Robert Angier’s character played by Hugh Jackman kills his double every time the teleportation machine transports him. His obsession leads him to his death and this must be a major theme of the film along with sacrifice.
Obstacles & Stakes
As the protagonist ventures through the story, the obstacles in their path must change and renew, or the tension must tighten. Things must progressively worsen forcing the character into essence. We’ll cover this in more detail in the Character section on this website. Why is this necessary? The reason is, without high stakes, the audience doesn’t simply care. Most good stories are based on primal things such as life and death. Almost every screenplay I’ve written, has life or death stakes. Primal things will engage an audience and the reader and this is key.
There’s a movement to this, it’s known as DESIRE – SURRENDER – TRANSFORMATION.
Conflict & Dilemma
Dilemma is about two things, a powerful desire, that may come from weakness or need and a false belief. Transformation will come when the false belief is realized, and that comes from within, not an external thing. It sounds like Buddhism almost doesn’t it… No, but seriously. There are many films when the character feels complete by overcoming these dilemma’s and the arc follows the line of belief. When the characters belief changes, that’s when they come into essence. This is a very important element in the craft and in the movie ‘John Q‘, it’s a primal thing. The life of John Quincy’s son, played by Denzel Washington.
The sum total of all of this is conflict. Almost every single story is about conflict, even romances and comedies.
Emotion is paramount to your screenplay and story. Don’t forget the audience become the protagonist and take on their experiences. In fact the brain mimics all of this. If there’s not enough emotion within the story and it doesn’t penetrate into a fundamental desire, something primal or a truth or situation that we’ve all faced, we’ll be bored after ten minutes. There’s nothing worse than that. The idea’s not just about hooking the reader, it’s keeping them hooked all the way to the end. This isn’t about just the first 10-15 pages. Most screenplays die due to not understanding how to write Act 2 effectively and we’ll get into that in a later article.
Film Courage are one of my favorite resources, see the video below.
There are techniques to keep the narrative in your story compelling. Like Stephen King is renowned for, in Subject Six, I’ve introduced several characters in Act 1. The way I’ve tackled it, is by giving them the same desire line. They all want to discover where they are and why they’re in that situation so each character is a deeper mirror of the other.
All of the characters in Subject Six are all dragged into the same location, so effectively they become one. One experiment you can perform is, remove your main character from your screenplay and replace them with somebody else, if the story still works, you HAVE NOT written an effective story. The character, story and plot must be the same, just layers such as the skeleton, flesh and outer skin. If you can replace your character and the plot still works, you haven’t linked your main character to the main story line effectively.
Have all the characters connected by making them an example of a single theme or subject. For example if you set up a dual protagonist, they could share the same theme of bravery or honor. The main protagonist will have to be the leader however. We’ll examine Character in much more detail in the later articles.