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how to write a screenplay

how to write a screenplay

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Published by: singingman on Oct 08, 2008
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02/01/2013

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Here's something people often forget: it takes a person to write movies. Screenwriting involves writing
down ideas so that they'll be easily translated into visual art.
A screenplay, or script, is the backbone of any movie (well, except for Jean-Luc Godard movies). It's the
first step in the moviemaking process.

Almost everybody on the movie set has a copy of the script because it reveals what they should be doing. It
tells the actors how to act and what to say, the production designer how to build the set, and the director
how to shoot the scene.

Of course, a film is a collaborative effort, but it all starts with the screenwriter. A good script has many
facets (fame, fortune, love, marriage, affairs, divorce, despair, and so on); choose the ones you want.
However, screenplays have their own language, their own slang, if you will. What I offer here are the basics
you need to turn your burgeoning idea into a summer blockbuster.

Before You Start

At the outset, you must realize that screenwriting is a competitive sport. The Writers Guild of America
registers over 10,000 scripts a year, and less than 1% of them are made into motion pictures. Everyone in
Los Angeles and every second person elsewhere has a script they're trying to sell, so your chances as a
beginner are slim to none.
Although there have been flukes over the years, like Shane Black hitting the jackpot with movies like
Lethal Weapon ($250,000), The Last Boy Scout ($1.5 million) and The Long Kiss Goodnight, few people
get rich writing movie scripts. In fact, the average working screenwriter earns about $50,000 US a year.

And fame shouldn't be a factor in your decision either. Not only does the public at large never bother to find
out who wrote a film, but the major studios often show the same lack of respect toward screenwriters.

But if you are passionate about writing, about movies, and about making your dreams come true, then you should seriously consider writing for the movies. When you think about it, screenwriting is the toughest job in Hollywood. The screenwriter is the only person on a film crew who starts with absolutely nothing. That said, let's write this baby.

Get a story

First of all, you need to find a story that interests you. Wipe those illusions away, it's all been done before;
the trick is to develop your story in a new and original way.
Start with a concept you can describe in a sentence such as: All the ghosts in America form an alliance to
combat an evil corporation that's determined to eliminate them. Not the greatest story, but you get the idea.

Considering a screenplay is between 90 and 120 pages long (one page averages one minute of screen time),
you must have enough material so your story can be interesting for the duration. You must ask yourself
questions while developing your story. What happens then? Who does it happen to? Why? As you answer
these questions, you will discover new twists to your story and, before long, you'll be ready to write it.

Write an outline

Before you actually start writing the script, you need to know where the story is going. Few writers start
writing unprepared; it's like navigating with a blindfold. It's a risk since you might hit upon a fundamental
story flaw or simply discover there's nowhere for your characters to go.
The solution is to have an outline. Some writers prefer to go scene by scene and include as much detail as
possible, while others choose to reveal only the bare minimum of a sequence so that they won't lose interest
when it's time to write the actual script.

A good method of outlining is to use 3x5 index cards. Write a scene on each card. The beauty of this
technique is that your story is a lot more mobile; you can switch around scenes so that the story will be
more fluid.

Use the right structure

Scripts have their own structure, which is meant to systematize the drama and conflicts in an organized
fashion. There are three acts and each has its purpose. We'll use the example of the Bruce Willis movie Die
Hard to illustrate the concepts. But these elements are not only for action movies; they work for every
genre.

Act 1: (pages 1-30)
This is where you establish your characters and situation. It must begin with a bang to grab the attention of
the readers. Often called the first reel, the first 10 pages are absolutely decisive. There's a mini crisis at
mid-act that leads us to a dilemma.

In Die Hard, John McClane (Bruce Willis) escapes from the terrorists and knows he has to alert the
authorities. By the end of this act, all the pieces are set and the story as you have imagined it begins. Takagi
(James Shigeta) is dead, the terrorists want to open the vault, and McClane is on his own.

Act 2: (pages 30-90)
The second act is where the story develops. For the first half, the hero accumulates exploits, reacting to the
established dilemma, and it seems like nothing can stop him.

McClane successfully alerts the police and kills the first terrorist. Now the bad guys are on to him. What's
more, McClane inadvertently comes into possession of the crucial detonators, which makes him very
valuable for the terrorists.

In the middle of the second act, which is also the midpoint of the movie, the story changes gear. Passive
characters become active.
The police show up, Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) becomes McClane's ally, and McClane
takes it upon himself to save the day.
During the second half of this act, the hero is faced with problem after problem, which reaffirms the
dilemma of Act 1.
McClane is distrusted by the police, the reporters snoop around, the FBI shows up, and Ellis (Hart
Bochner) is killed. He's definitely on his own.

Act 3: (pages 90-120)
The third act is where all the conflicts are resolved and characters are changed forever by the events they
have just been through. Here the stakes are higher and the dilemma is at long last dealt with. The hero must
rise to the occasion when all seems to be lost.

McClane meets head terrorist Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and soon, he's wounded. The bad guys are
about to blow up the roof of the building, the FBI guys are pulling a stunt that endangers the hostages, and
finally, McClane's wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) is kidnapped. In the end, McClane makes up with his
estranged wife and Sgt. Powell regains his nerves by killing a terrorist.

Create your characters

Although entire books have been written about how to build interesting characters, there are certain
fundamental elements you must keep in mind when creating a hero.
First of all, realize that the main character represents the audience. The readers or moviegoers, if it gets to
that, will live the events through the eyes of the hero. So this main character must be empathetic, someone

the audience can relate to.

The character should have an external struggle (what he wants to achieve in the story) and an internal
struggle (what he needs to overcome psychologically in order to achieve his goal). He must have a story
arc, which means he must change through the course of the story.
The best characters have flaws -- they are vulnerable. They may be good at something but these flaws could
be their downfall.

The antagonist, the bad guy, should be the opposite of the hero but at the same time, share some skills or character traits. Make him evil -- the audience must despise him and root for the other guy. But still, make him human and not a caricature; the reason behind his evildoing has to make sense in the end.

To create great characters, prepare biographies on them:
What are their desires or dislikes? Where are they from? What was their childhood like? How well did they
relate to their parents? Are they happy, in general? Any chip on their shoulder? What accent and dialect do
they have?
The more thorough you are, the more interesting the character will be. They will practically write
themselves into the story!

Story Tips
With this knowledge you can now focus on the story's details.

Show, don't tell: Instead of having characters talk about what they do or how something works, show these
events.
Create conflicts: Every scene should have a mini conflict, even if it's just people arguing about what kind of
pizza to order.

Research: Even though people are encouraged to write about what they know, if you choose to explore
something unfamiliar, you should research it thoroughly.

Explanations must be believable: There's nothing more irritating than when a character explains his actions
and the audience realizes it makes absolutely no sense. This is especially true in science-fiction movies. At
the same time, never let the audience get ahead of the story. Your characters must be smarter than the
readers and make the inevitable conclusions before they do.

Avoid on-the-nose dialogue: You want to avoid characters who say things the other characters already know. They should never say what they mean so that there is constant subtext to the dialogue. Finally, questions should never be answered with straight "yes" or "no" answers.

Know the Format

As aforementioned, scripts have a language of their own. There are strict rules and guidelines that must be followed and this is often too harsh for novice screenwriters. Aside from trying to conform to Hollywood standards, the importance of mastering format has to do with readers.

Readers are people paid by production companies to read the screenplays that have been submitted to them.
These people must sort through hundreds of manuscripts and determine which ones are worthy of the
company's attention. When they come upon works whose formatting is deficient, it triggers the amateur
alarm and they'll often dismiss this script for that very reason. So if you can master the format, your script
will at least get read.
There is a variety of expensive software on the market, Final Draft and Movie Magic being the most
popular, that basically do all the formatting for you. But if you're still learning and doing it for fun, your
existing word processor will do just fine. You can even set up macro commands to make things easier.

Script Elements

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