A screenplay or script is the written description of a film. It is created months or years before the film appears on screen and is used by all of the film’s crew as a blueprint for the finished film.
The screenplay is the responsibility of the film’s writer and contains all of the information required to release the film—everything from characters, their dialogue and actions to locations and props.
Rarely will the writer create the entire screenplay alone. The screenplay will be the culmination of countless meetings between the writer, the film’s producer, director, and sometimes lead actors and occasionally other key personnel.
The script is written and rewritten many times—each version being called a draft—as different ideas develop; bad scenes may be dropped, new characters introduced, rough dialogue improved. It can take any number of rewrites before a script is deemed ready for filming and, even then, it is not finished. During shooting, the writer will often be called upon to rewrite sections of the script due to artistic second thoughts or technical impossibilities.
Creating Your Own Story
Like any other piece of creative writing, you are going to have to work on your script for a long time so it is really important that you choose a story that is interesting to you.
There are endless possibilities for stories. What interests you? Is it the future, football, love stories, leaving home or finding a dead body? If you are searching for inspiration, try looking in the newspaper for an interesting story or listen to people talking on the bus. One way to generate ideas is to start with a “what if” premise. Think about the time before you left home this morning: what if….
• You received a letter informing you that you had won a competition?
• Your brother/mother announced they were leaving?
• You found something strange in the cereal?
• You realized you were the only person left in the world?
• You knew something that no one else knew?
Any one of these would be the beginning of your basic plot. Whatever you choose, you should try to write about what you know and use people you know as the basis for your inspiration for the characters, even if you set your story in a totally different time and place.
Character Driven or Plot Driven?
If you are interested in love, for example, your story could be about finding someone and how that affects your life or about losing someone and how that affects your life. Or it may be about investigating a murder, and you uncover clues and piece them together to find an answer.
The love story is character driven, which means it is about people and how the events in their lives affect them. The murder story is plot driven, which means its focus is on the events. Obviously, there are characters and events in every screenplay, but it is the characters or the plot which are most important to your story.
If a young woman wants a boyfriend but is not allowed to have one because of cultural or parental issues, then you are able to set up a situation where there is conflict and your story follows the conflicts being resolved. Nor is it interesting to have a murder if the murderer confesses in the next scene. Plots require conflict. For example, someone who wants to get away with the crime and someone who want justice done.
Conflicts can be internal (in the character’s head) or external (culture, parents, friends, or the law).
Think of three films you know well. What are the conflicts in each story? Are they internal or external? What conflicts will your characters face?
While you are narrowing conflict down, you are beginning to get a sense of your main character: what his/her goal is and what the obstacles are to achieving that goal. In the murder story, your main character can be the murderer or the detective who wants to see justice done. Each character has a distinct goal and obstacles to overcome. How the story ends depends on you.
Next, you give your main character a name, a shape, and background. Decide what motivates him/her or makes him/her angry, happy or hurt. Then follow the pattern of the hero’s journey.
The more dynamic the story or the bigger the change in character, the more exciting the story will be.
Outline details of your main character and his/her journey.
Filling Out Your Story
The Cinema screen is big and needs filling. The characters need to be bigger than life. The story in understood only by what the viewer sees on the screen. You’ve narrowed down the main character. Who else is in the story? What are their goals? What are their backgrounds? How do they change? How do they relate to the main story and the main character?
Bit by bit you can start piecing these things together in the world that you have chosen.
Genre is a type of story. It is not a formula but more of a way of understanding structures of storytelling that have a profound and subconscious appeal to an audience. Genre, when applied to film and to film scripts, implies that the film will follow a set of conventions that govern its structure.
Genre is quite an abstract concept, and it is easier to explain with examples. Some common genres include westerns, detective stories, thrillers, film noir, horror, love stories, comedies, biopics, rites of passage, science fiction, war films, etc. You will be able to identify many others, and in each one you can pick out key characteristics.
For example, westerns will invariably feature a lone figure, an outsider who comes into an environment and shakes it up. The loner will have a moral code and will be doing battle with a frontier. He will be skilled in fighting, horseback riding, etc. He will have an impact on the lives of those who live in the town or village and will usually leave alone.
In the horror genre, the central character is usually a victim. Religion and belief are significant, and conflict is often between good and evil. Children are usually significant and have special powers or insight. The location is usually very important (perhaps a sacred site).
The comedy genre will almost always focus on either ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances or extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.
It can be tempting to think that your story is original, that you have a new way of telling it, and that it has not been seen or done before. Screen stories are not the best place to be experimental at the beginning of your career. Audiences have a set of expectations based on their familiarity with genre. If you do not deliver on these expectations, an audience will not be satisfied. For example, if you go to see a vampire film, you probably expect that the “good guys” will head up to the castle just as the sun is going down over the horizon to do battle with the vampire. Imagine if the good guys said, “Hey, let’s reconvene at 7 a.m. so the vampire will be asleep in his coffin, and it will be easier to kill him”. You would probably want your money back.
Once you have formulated your story, start thinking about which genre it is best suited to. Consider other films you have seen in this genre. Think about how they work.
Some useful questions to consider in relations to genre:
• What is the nature of the protagonist (the main character)? Is he dull at the beginning and then becomes interesting? Is he an adult or a teenager or a crud? Is he clever or a little stupid?
• What is the nature of the antagonist (person that is most pitted against the main character)? Is he cruel or manipulating or is he actually more human than the main character?
• What is the catalytic event that changes everything? In every screen story, something will happen near the beginning of the film that changes everything. For example, someone gets shot, or a body is found, or a father forbids his daughter to see her boyfriend or the son goes away.
• These events in screen stories are called catalytic because they cause the story to move in a new direction, and there will be consequences which need resolving.
• What is the narrative shape of the film? Is this an intense story where the action happens over a short period of time or does it range over several generations?
• What is the dramatic shape of the film? This could be the rise and fall of a gangster, a crime and its solving, or a road movie which is both a completed physical journey and an emotional one? Is the action concentrated at the beginning, through the middle or at the end? Is it consistently action packed? Does it have a less frenzied pace, exploring the changes in the characters?
MAIN STORY ELEMENTS
Character – the actions and reactions of your characters drive the plot forward.
a) Protagonist – lead character and focus of the plot.
b) Antagonist – the character or thing that stands in the way of the protagonist accomplishing his or her goals.
Plot – the series of events that happen in the story to the characters.
Theme – invisible, underlying, universal, contrasting idea, moral message, concept, emotion, issue driving the film.
Conflict – obstacles that stand in the way of the protagonist in achieving his or her goals.
Interaction – characters interacting, connecting and disconnecting from other characters.
It may not seem very obvious, as films usually look so real, but screen stories are not about relating exactly how things happen in real life. As audience members, we would find it very boring to watch each character get up, go to the bathroom, clean their teeth, eat breakfast, etc. For each new day of the story, we know these things happen, but we do not need to see them.
The process of structuring a story for the screen is about making creative choices about which actions, events and characters will be the best one to tell your story. The premise is the actual content of your film, and the structure is the form or the way you tell the story. Broadly speaking, most screen stories can be structured into three distinct “acts” that have the following features:
• Act One – introduces the main characters and sets up the conflict that is the story of the film. The end of Act One is the catalytic moment, something significant that happens, which changes the course of the story.
• Act Two – explores the consequences of the catalytic moment. What happens, what complications arose, how does it affect the characters, and what are the possible outcomes?
• Act Three – resolves the story and tells us the outcome. It must tie up all loose ends and should ensure that we understand what the story is about. While we are watching the film, we are seeing what happens as the story unfolds. By the end of the film, the theme should be clear so that the audience understands that this story is thematically about “love” or “justice”, etc. Sometimes this is clear right from the beginning, but often the real meaning of the story only comes out at the end. For example, The Full Monty starts as a piece of grim realism set in the north of England, turns into a comedy caper, but ends with the audience understanding that this is about pride and self-respect and the idea of achieving your dreams.
Story Structure for Features
Consists of the sum of all events occurring before the beginning of the movie.
Visual event (information that captures the viewer’s attention and curiosity).
An event that compels the character to pursue a specific goal.
Plot Point A
Initial problem. A major event that creates a change of direction in the story/initial problem.
Protagonist’s Plan ( The main character and hero of the story )
Antagonist’s Plan ( Villain )
Mid-plot Point B - Compounding Problem
Clock, protagonist is filled with terror
Limitations to reach final goal. Urgency to solve problem.
Plot Point C – Ultimate Complications
The highest point of crisis or confrontation after which the conflict is over.
Should be a payoff of the initial problem.
Protagonist is at a “now” level place of balance.
How do you start making choices about which events, actions and characters are best to tell your story? Film tells stories in pictures (what we see on screen) and words (dialogue). A film script includes information about what we see and what we hear.
Think about your opening scenes. How are you going to introduce your character(s)? What characteristics are they going to need to show in order for the audience to get to know them? Are you going to show these through what they do or what they say and to whom, or through a combination? How are you going to introduce the “worm” of the film? Think about describing where you are in every scene. At what point are you going to introduce the characters’ goals so that the audience becomes interested in the characters and wants to know whether or not they achieve their goals? Or does something happen so that the characters are given their goals in the opening scenes? Act One should end on a pivotal moment.
Think about how your plot and characters develop. This means considering what happens as well as how the characters need to change to meet the challenges that have come about as a result of this significant pivotal moment. Or they meet the challenge and resolve the problems so that they have changed by the end of the film.
A good way to understand these points is to consider examples of films you have seen. For example, in a film like Speed, there is a long set-up establishing a psychopath (Dennis Hopper) and a couple of cops who manage to defy his attempts to blow up an office block. The cops think the psycho is dead until a city bus is blown up and a call is received to say that another bus has a bomb on board, which will be activated once the speed goes above 50 mph. The pivotal moment is when the bus hits 51 mph. Up to this point, everything could have been resolved. The cop could have stopped the bus, and everyone could have gone home. Once the bus activates the bomb by going over 50 mph, we start Act Two, which explores the consequences of this pivotal moment.
Act Three is the resolution. In the example above, the bomb is defused, the people are saved, and the crook is killed. Finally, the closing scenes show the beginnings of a romance between the Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock characters so that an extra bonus has come out of the action and anxiety.
Map out the structure defining the key scenes which end the first and second “Acts” and start the process of selecting which events and actions will best develop the plot and the characters of your story.
Characters are defined through their:
• Admirable qualities
• Placed in jeopardy
• Familiar setting/situations
• Eye of the audience
• Good sense of humor
• Helps others
• On a mission or has a special calling
• Biggest heartache or disappointment
• Most prized possession
• Secret dreams
• What is missing in the character’s life?
• Family background
• What relationships are most important
• Free time activities
• Life experiences
Creating Character Arcs
STAGES OF CHARACTER GROWTH
1. Show negative condition with character unaware of the problem.
2. Character becomes aware of problem but reluctant to change.
3. Show character committing or trying to change with some successes and failures.
4. Show character making a big change at the height of confronting big obstacle.
5. Show character integrating a new way of being into an old way of doing things with possible backslides into old style occurring less and less.
6. Show character finally mastering the new change.
HOW TO SHOW CHARACTERS CHANGING
1. Changing appearance, clothing, posture, body language, etc.
2. Change in posture/attitude or demeanor.
3. Change in reaction.
4. Change in environments.
5. Change in activities.
6. Change in speech.
7. Change in priorities.
HOW TO DEVELOP PLOT POINTS
• Start at the end of your film and move backwards.
• Add surprise plot twists.
• Use character goals to craft ending.
• Create high stakes for not attaining goal.
• False ending.
Writing a Synopsis
Now you have been through the creative process of collecting your ideas. The next step is to prepare a synopsis of your film. The synopsis should be about 200 words and should give an outline of the plot, introducing the major characters and making mention of subplots. You should aim to be clear and concise. Try to keep your sentences short.
A brief synopsis of a film will often be read in the context of publicity material: the function of this type of synopsis is to tease an audience into wanting to see the whole film, and it will set the scene and introduce major characters but will not reveal later plot developments, the climax or the ending. In contrast, the purpose of your synopsis is to interest potential producers in your film and, as such, should give details of all the film action.
You should aim to adopt an upbeat tone but do not be tempted to fill your synopsis with adjectives like “exciting” and “sensational” as if it were a review. The story and characters are what will interest a future producer, not your opinion on the film.
Your synopsis should give an indication of what genre your film is in order that a producer can assess its market value in the current cinema climate. It sometimes helps when trying to get your ideas across to compare your ideas to another film, whether in the same genre or not, or following the format but transferred to another genre.
Your main task as a screenwriter is to create a script that captivates and hooks a reader at the very beginning. Make sure it is enjoyable and easy to read.
Here are some points that may help:
• The person we know best is ourselves. Each of us is a huge resource of experience that can be turned into material to use in a story. However, this is not the same as telling our own story. Brutal though it may sound, our lives are interesting to ourselves, our friends and our family but are probably boring to anyone who does not know us. If you want to draw on a personal experience for a story, ensure that it is a story with a beginning, has a catalytic moment, a middle and an end. Identify the theme of your story and the genre best suited to the story. Use your own experience to build a creative story but do not write a film about what has happened to you.
• Screenplays are dramatic. They show things happening which excite or interest the audience. The best way to create drama is to have conflict and to ensure that you have enough conflict in your story. Problems that are easy to overcome do not excite us. We like to see challenge and ingenuity. We like to see integrity being tested. We like to see despair and hopelessness overcome, and we like to be entertained.
• Make sure your story is well structured. For this, you need a clear “journey” for your main character. Avoid lots of episodes that loosely fit together. The main story must start at the beginning of the script and finish at the end of the script. Also, ask yourself if the story is complex enough. Are there some subplots, which are also set up, explored and resolved in the course of the story.
• You should aim to know everything about your characters, including all of the background information which may or may not be written into the story, as well as what happens to them after your script ends.
• Avoid giving lengthy descriptions of how the sunset or the city street looks. This is boring and distracting to read. Also, avoid trying to do the job of the actors by giving too much indication of emotion or position. Let the story generate the emotion so that the words and scenes speak for themselves.
• Dialogue must sound natural. Read it out loud as you go along to see if your character sounds natural speaking the words you have written. Check to see if your characters are telling each other information that they should already know in order to inform the audience. For example, if a husband says to his wife, “You know when you had that accident which gave you nightmares”…it is much better to say something like, “Are you having nightmares again?” And build the dialogue to reveal the information in a natural way.
Consider what aspects of each film would sound attractive to a producer looking to buy and develop your synopsis, i.e., does the story outline make you want to know more about how the narrative develops? Is it a genre which will sell? Does it offer something new or has it been done many times before?
The Hero’s Journey – A Strategic Story Structure
Heroes are introduced in the Ordinary World where they receive the “call to adventure”. They are reluctant at first or they refuse the call. But they are encouraged by a mentor to “cross the first threshold” and enter the Special World where they encounter tests, allies and enemies.
They approach the inmost cave, “crossing a second threshold” where they endure the ordeal. They take possession of their reward and are pursued on the road back to the Ordinary World. They “cross the third threshold”, experience a resurrection and are transformed by the experience. They return with the Elixir, a boon or treasure, to benefit the Ordinary World.
Stages of the Hero’s Journey
• Call to Adventure
• Refusal of the Call
• Meeting with the Mentor
• Crossing the first Threshold
• Tests, Allies and Enemies
• Approach the Inmost Cave
• Reward (Seizing the Sword)
• The Road Back
• Return with the Elixir
The Hero must have/use/show:
• High audience identification • Sacrifice
• Action • Dealing with Death
• Flows that humanize his/her being
The Varieties of Heroes
The willing hero is active, gung-ho, committed to the adventure, without doubts, always bravely going ahead and self-motivated. Indiana Jones is an example (the active gunfight).
Unwilling heroes are full of doubts, hesitant, passive, and needing to be motivated or pushed into the adventure by outside forces. A hero who is passive throughout may make for an un-involving dramatic experience. It’s usually best for an unwilling hero to change at some point into being committed to the adventure after some necessary motivation has been supplied. Kevin Costner as Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams is an example.
An anti-hero is not the opposite of a hero but a specialized kind of hero, who may be an outlaw or a villain from the point of view of society, but with whom the audience is basically in sympathy. We identify with these outsiders because we have all felt like outsiders at one time or another.
Anti-heroes may behave like conventional heroes but are given a strong touch of cynicism or have a wounded quality like Bogart’s characters in The Big Sleep and Casablanca. An anti-hero may also be a tragic, central figure who may not be likeable or admirable with actions we may even deplore. Macbeth, Scarface, or Joan Crawford’s character in Mommie Dearest are examples.
This hero is group oriented. An example is the movie, Poseidon Adventure.
Clint Eastwood in the Spaghetti Westerns or John Wayne in the movie, Searchers are good examples.
A catalyst hero is a central figure who may act heroically but who does not change much himself because his main function is to bring about transformation in others. This hero brings about a change in a system without being changed.
A good example is Eddie Murphy’s character, Axel Foley, from the movie, Beverly Hills Cop. His personality is already fully formed and distinctive at the story’s beginning. He doesn’t have much of a character arc because he has nowhere to go. He doesn’t learn or change much in the course of the story, but he does bring about change in his Beverly Hills cop buddies.
Taggart and Rosewood, by comparison, have relatively strong character arcs, from being uptight and “by the book” to being hip and streetwise, thanks to Axel’s influence. Although Axel is the central figure, the villains’ main opponent and the character with the best lines and the most screen time, it could be argued that he is not the true hero but the “mentor” of the piece. Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) is the actual hero because he learns the most.
Catalyst heroes are especially useful in continuing stories, such as TV shows and sequels. Like the Lone Ranger and Superman, the heroes undergo few internal changes but primarily act to help others or guide them in their growth. However, it’s a good idea to give these characters some moments of growth and change to keep them fresh and believable.
Archetypes are the facets in the hero’s (or writer’s) personality. Usually these are seen through other characters that represent possibilities for the hero for good or for ill.
A hero may proceed through the story gathering and incorporating the energy and traits of the “other” characters.
• Higher Self
• Shape Shifter
• Threshold Guardian
They usually learn from other characters, fusing them into a complete human being who shows the fruit of the learning from everyone he/she meets along the way. Dorothy in the movie, Wizard of Oz, is an example.
Mentors teach, give gifts, serve as a hero’s conscience and act as motivators.
• Wise Old Men (“May the Force be with you.” Yoda)
• Wise Old Women
• Dark Mentor
• Fallen Mentor (Tom Hanks, the coach in the movie, A League of Their Own)
• Ongoing Mentor (Q in the James Bond Films / Alfred in the Batman films)
• Minor Villains
• Announcers (“If you build it, he will come.” Field of Dreams)
• They bring doubt into the story.
• They bring suspense into the story.
• They are usually the femme fatale.
• The Villain
• Sometimes masked (Beast)
• Dark characters (Captain Hook and Cruella D’Ville)
• They usually challenge the hero.
• Serves as comic relief (Eddie Murphy in the movie, Beverly Hills Cop)
• Often a catalyst character
• Makes you cry a lot and laugh a little.
VOGLER’S STORY STRUCTURE
12 STEPS TO STORY STRUCTURE
1. The Ordinary World
The audience meets the hero, discovers his or her ambitions and limitations, and forms a bond of identification and recognition.
2. The Call to Adventure
The hero is challenged to undertake a quest or solve some problem.
3. Refusal of the Call
The hero hesitates or expresses fear.
4. Meeting with the Mentor
The hero contacts some source of reassurance, experience, or wisdom.
5. Crossing the Threshold
The hero commits to the adventure and enters the Special World.
6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies
Situations and people help the hero discover what is special about the Special World.
7. The Approach
The hero prepares for a central battle of confrontation with the forces of failure.
8. The Ordeal
The central crisis of the story in which the hero faces his or her greatest fear and tastes death.
9. The Reward
The moment in which the hero is reborn in some sense and enjoys the benefits of the Special World.
10. The Road Back
The hero commits to finishing the adventure and leaves or is chased out of the Special World.
11. The Resurrection
A climactic test that purifies, redeems, and transforms the hero on the threshold of home.
12. Return with the Elixir
The hero comes home and shares what has been gained on the quest, which benefits friends, family, community and the world.