LESSON I: INCEPTION
“A journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step!”
RULE #1: Keep it Simple Stupid!
Keep in mind financial feasibility in regards to every aspect of the filmmaking process. Money’s money, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid spending! This is particularly true for the screenplay itself as it does serve as the blueprint for the entire film. I know it’s easy to get carried away in the world of our imaginations, especially when writing. So, try and get creative by keeping things simple. Keep your locations minimal and free. I recommend no more then one or two primary locations. Limit your main characters to 2 or 3 actors. Keep your story character driven, don’t try and get all crazy with things you know you can’t afford and won’t be able to pull off, (explosions, car chases, special effects, etc.) instead think outside of the box, this is where some of the best ideas usually come from anyway.
Check out Writing Character For Film and Television – A Film Courage Screenwriting Series for a wonderful breakdown on screenwriting.
“Plot, structure and time!”
Once you have decided what you want to write about, it is now time to decide how you will tell your story. Basic film structure follows the three-act formula. First in act one you have the “setup” where we meet the protagonist in stasis, an “inciting Incident” occurs setting the film and the character into action at plot point #1. Act two leads up into the confrontation or the objective the character is now undertaking, whatever it is it’s either going to go very well or very bad. The “Midpoint’ of act two usually finds the protagonist at his/her lowest point of the film, (when the guy loses the girl, etc) but this could also be a high point if your going for tragedy. Plot point #2 occurs at the end of act two once the confrontation or objective has either been resolved or accomplished leading to the Climax of the film. Act three embodies the “Resolution” or falling action where the world of the protagonist returns to a new stasis.
For a more in depth analysis of structure please see: scribemeetsworld.com – screenplay-writing/how-to-write-a-script-outline-the-8-major-plot-points or screenplayer.org
These rules are of course not set in stone and like all rules are meant to be broken, but it is essential to understand the rules before you can break them appropriately. Pulp Fiction is an excellent example of seemingly breaking the rules of structure while still holding the same basic pattern of the rules.
When structuring it helps to breakdown the entire script into scenes with the “Who, what, where, when, and why” of each scene so you know how each step of the film affects the next. You can then go onto breaking down each scene into it’s own “beats” or moments of escalation. Understanding the rising and falling actions and climax of each scene within itself will make writing each scene and the entire script a lot easier throughout the process.
Before you even begin writing it is a good idea to outline your screenplay scene by scene. I use an ABC system as follows:
A – The Scene Location
B – The Characters in the Scene
C – The Major Point/The Action/What happens in
Do this for the entire screenplay and never have writers block again!
“I am whatever you say I am!”
When thinking about what you want to write about, take great heed from the classic conventions of genre. This can be a great tool in solidifying what type of film you will be making as well as help you structure the ins and outs of the script. For instance if you were going to shoot a movie in one room with two characters the film will be completely different based on the conventions you apply. If it is going to be a horror film you will most likely build suspense through the beats of each scene and have a lot of “shock” moments intended to scare the audience and keep them on edge. Or, if you’re making a drama, you will build up intense moments with close ups and tension, leading the audience along by making them empathetic to the protagonist and his/her situation. However, if you employ conventions of comedy you would want to keep your dialogue light hearted and fun, with long scenes that employ “beats” leading up to major “punch lines,” (actions and/or dialogue) that seals the joke.
Be careful though genre conventions can run a fine line between Archetypical and Cliché so bring a new spin to whatever genre you decide to go with.
Here is a list of major Genre Conventions:
For detailed descriptions of each genre please see Wikipedia’s list of Genre Conventions.
Genre convention may be combined of course and no film usually falls into simply one category so feel free to play around with the notions!
A great example of blending genre conventions is
“Back To The Future III”:
Story and Plot
“Are you a Martian?”
Are you a Martian? If the answer is no! Then don’t write about Martians. Instead, write about something you actually know about… don’t write about stuff that is outside of your own experience unless you’re prepared to do a lot of research.
I will reiterate this statement throughout this guide because it is probably the most important statement you can make when approaching a film, please, for your own sake, “keep it simple stupid!” Write about what you love, what you’re passionate about. Everyone is unique and has special interests that they find pleasure in exploring. Figure out what yours is and see if you can’t find a simple story in there somewhere. Whether it’s a concept, a notion, a character, a love of the pottery, or the ridiculousness of your day job, if you can structure a story around it, with some awesome well-rounded and empathetic characters, you have the makings for a great screenplay.