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The Basics of Screenwriting

Fathom

Topic

The Premise Character Development Screenplay Structure and Visual Storytelling Setting the Scene Formatting Your Masterpiece

Seminar Introduction From such famous literary figures as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Anita Loos churning out screenplays during Hollywood's Golden Age to today's scribes creating multi-million dollar blockbusters such as Gladiator and Titanic, screenwriters have developed the characters, dialogue and stories that continue to make such indelible impressions on movie audiences. Whether you're creating the script for the next mega-budget Hollywood movie or even a short digital film to stream on the Web, an understanding of the basics of screenwriting can help you develop a script that will effectively translate your ideas to the screen. In this seminar from the American Film Institute, Amy Dunkleberger guides both novice and professional writers through the creation of an engaging screenplay. The seminar clearly and concisely leads you through the creation of an effective premise, compelling characters and a structure for your work. Throughout the sessions, writing techniques, presentation do's and don'ts, screenplay terminology and film clips juxtaposed with their shooting scripts help you develop your initial whim into your final screenplay.

Learning Objectives Create effective premises that engage readers in your screenplay. Identify techniques for creating compelling characters. Develop efficient structures for your stories by applying such screenplay devices as buttons, visual storytelling, and set-ups and payoffs. Define such terms as back story, dramatic through-line and the three-act structure. Practice techniques to help you in the craft of creating screenplays--from techniques helping you learn when to write, to tips on what script readers don't want to read. Use templates, examples from familiar movies and formatting tips for your computer to learn how to turn your ideas into a finished product.

Credits This seminar was written by Amy Dunkleberger in April 2002. Copyright American Film Institute.

The Premise Screenplays have been the key element of filmmaking since the earliest days of motion pictures. Although movies are a visual medium, they typically begin with words on a page, a literary blueprint. Before the first onscreen kiss, before the first onscreen duel and even before the first cream pie was thrown into someone's face, screenwriters were diligently working at their craft. Although it may look simple at first glance, screenwriting is a challenging art. In addition to expressing visual ideas on paper, the writer must create engaging characters and an airtight structure. There is little room for error. As legendary filmmaker Frank Capra (right) once said, "Scriptwriting is the toughest part of the whole racketthe least understood and the least noticed." This seminar focuses on the nuts and bolts of screenwriting, from creating a compelling premise to formatting the final copy. Aided by excerpts from wellAmerican Film Institute known screenplays, students learn how to think visually, create memorable characters, write engaging dialogue Filmmaker Frank Capra received the American Film Institute's Life and build effective scene structures to enhance their Achievement Award in 1982. stories. Screenwriting terminology and writing strategies-along with sample pages and templates--will help guide you through the screenwriting process from the initial inspiration to the finished script.
Creating a premise for your screenplay

When I was a first year fellow at the American Film Institute's Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies, the question I dreaded hearing the most from Center director Toni Vellani was, "What is the premise of your story?" To be asked that question meant that on some fundamental level my film had failed. It failed because, in Mr. Vellani's opinion, I hadn't conveyed to the audience what was driving my story, or why the audience should care. Although coming up with a story premise seems like a simple enough task, I can safely say that 90 percent of the films made during my first year at the American Film Institute (AFI) failed Vellani's premise test. Often times, what makes a story move isn't what inspires us to sit down and attempt to write a screenplay. The source of inspiration may be a great idea for an opening, a setting, a character or a plot twist. While there's nothing wrong with starting with whatever stirs our imaginations and passions, at some point you should ask, "What is my story about?"

In his book The Art of Dramatic Writing (1977), teacher and playwright Lajos Egri discusses at length how premises work. Egri states: Everything has a purpose, or premise. Every second of our life has its own premise, whether or not we are conscious of it at the time. That premise may be as simple as breathing or as complex as a vital emotional decision, but it is always thereEvery good play must have a well-formulated premiseNo idea, and no situation, was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise.

Discussion
What are the premises of some of your favorite films? Maybe you have a few ideas for a story, but haven't narrowed your premise down yet. Maybe a simple premise could provide you the starting point for your first screenplay. {Dis: Discuss with others your idea for a good premise.}

The premise should be the driving force behind every event in your screenplay. A good premise is derived from emotions--love, hate, fear, jealousy, desire, etc.--and revolves around a character, a conflict and a conclusion. For example, the premise of William Shakespeare's Othello is that unchecked jealousy leads to death. Othello is the character, his jealousy of Desdemona is the conflict and death (of both) is the conclusion. In James Cameron's film Titanic (1997), the premise is that love conquers death, physically and spiritually. Rose is the character, the sinking ship and Rose's forced engagement are the conflict and the conclusion is that Jack's love helps her beat death and free herself from her fianc. In Jonathan Demme's film The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the premise is that courage destroys evil. FBI agent Clarice Starling is the character, the conflict is her fear of the serial killer Buffalo Bill and the conclusion is that she overcomes her fears in order to defeat her opponent. As noted by Egri, "A good premise is a thumbnail synopsis of your play." Starting to write
What inspires screenwriters? Everything. Real-life experiences, dreams, songs, paintings, magazine articles, history books, fiction--all can be sources of inspiration. No two writers work in the same way. Some need the discipline of routine--one hour every weekday evening, or all day Sunday, for example. Other writers prefer a more spontaneous approach. Once you've figured out what works best for you, be consistent. Good work habits help keep you focused. Schedule regular breaks during your writing hours. If you get stuck, lie down. Great ideas are more likely to come to you when you're relaxed.

If your story does not have a clear premise, it will lack focus and drive. For example, if a story is more "illustrative" than dramatic, presenting ideas rather than conflict, it may not maintain an audience's interest.If a story has more than one premise, or if the premise changes along the way, it will confuse and bore the audience. Either way, the script won't work. However, some screenplays, like Steven Gaghan's script for Traffic (2000) and Alan Ball's script for American Beauty (1999), are able to succeed with multiple story lines and points of view. This is because while these movies may seem at first to be without a premise, in fact, each separate storyline has its own clear premise.

Character Development As noted in the previous session, emotions are at the heart of every good film. Whatever emotional struggle you are attempting to dramatize--whatever your premise--your story must bleed out of your characters' psyches. The most successful screenplays are characterdriven, even those with complex plots. In solid, character-driven scripts, all action, or plot, is organic; that is, it flows logically from the characters' needs and desires. Every good script starts with a protagonist, or pivotal character. According to Egri, the protagonist "is the one who creates conflict and makes the play move forwardA pivotal character must not merely desire something. He must want it so badly that he will destroy or be destroyed in the effort to attain his goal." For example, in Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000), Maximus is driven to exact revenge on the ruler Commodus for the death of his family. Although he is captured and enslaved, he never loses sight of his goal, pursuing it with measured determination until the end. Willfulness, the ability to make decisions and American Film Institute take actions, is a necessary attribute of the Paul Schrader's screenplay for Taxi Driver focuses on the protagonist. Without it, the protagonist will be lonely existence of Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). weak, his or her actions will seem inconsequential and the audience will lose interest in both the character and your story. As Egri notes, the antagonist is the one against whom the protagonist "exerts all his strength, all his cunning, all the resources of his inventive power." A good antagonist must be as strong and willful as the protagonist. Machines, animals and monsters can be effective antagonists only if they are capable of independent thought or emotion. The creature in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), for example, is especially terrifying because it is intelligent and can anticipate the space crew's behavior. In Stanley Kubrick's 1968 classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the computer HAL becomes a full-blown antagonist once it begins to think and feel for itself. Without emotion and thought, the computer is merely an obstacle, not an antagonist. In other words, the audience must find the antagonist a worthy opponent for the protagonist. In most cases, the antagonist is easily identifiable as "the bad guy." His morals and motivations are clearly corrupt, his goals destructive--Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, for example. In other stories, the antagonist's objectives may be less sinister but still pose the major obstacle for the protagonist. In the classic romance Casablanca (1942), for example, the antagonist is Ilsa's husband Victor, the war hero. Although the Nazis threaten Ilsa and Rick, it is Victor and all that he represents who ultimately stands between them. He, too, is fighting for Ilsa's love.

Rarely does a movie succeed without an antagonist. Even disaster and man-against-nature stories need a human opponent. If the sinking ocean liner were the only problem in Titanic, for example, the film would be thrilling but not moving.
Creating compelling characters

Every character in your script--the doorman, the murderer, the little girl next-door--should be special in some way. Your characters don't have to be eccentric to be engaging, but should have qualities or quirks that set them apart, and make them memorable. Characters define themselves through large and small actions, through their words and their deeds. As in real life, movie characters have both a private and public side, the face they see in the mirror and the one they present to the world. They might say one thing and do another. Their needs might be contradictory. Villains might be likable and heroes difficult. The behavior of fictional characters should be based on your knowledge of human psychology and your own experiences. Every character you create will be a reflection of some aspect of yourself, even those aspects you keep hidden or don't completely understand. If you try to make your characters act like characters from other movies, a common beginner mistake, they will seem flat and predictable. At the same time, characters inspired by you or the people you know should have their own identities because you and the people you know don't live in the world of your script. You should develop as much biographical information and background details about your characters as possible before creating your screenplay. You can make a list of attributes for each character or write a brief biographical profile. Important attributes to list about your characters before writing your screenplay are the characters' physiology (sex, age, overall appearance and any outstanding physical traits), social and economic background (place of birth, occupation, education, race, religion, hobbies, etc.) and psychology (temperament, abilities, taste, ambitions, moral standards, etc.). Not all of these qualities will show up in your screenplay, but the more you know about your characters, the easier it will be to make them behave in a logical, consistent and intriguing manner. Creating compelling characters begins with your biographies. If you've thought about where your characters come from, where they went to school, where they work, what they like and don't like, you've already invested them with unique qualities. Their backgrounds and personalities should be consistent with the roles you want them to play. Passive, reactive heroes will annoy your audience; inept antagonists will bore them. Once you begin to write and set your characters in motion, your premise and the psychology you've invented for your characters will determine their behavior and actions. Acting in character doesn't mean behaving in the same manner throughout the screenplay. People often act in contradictory ways, one minute helping their cause, the next hurting it. But, as Shakespeare once said, there should be some method, or sense, to their madness.

Getting to know your characters

While your characters should be active, they shouldn't be in perpetual motion. Pivotal characters should be allowed to reflect on their behavior from time to time, and audiences should be allowed into their thoughts. Voice-over narration is one way to give audiences insight into your character's head. American Beauty, Taxi Driver and Sunset Boulevard are all movies that use voice-overs effectively. Creating scenes featuring your character alone is a better way to allow your audience to explore the character's conflicts. The most memorable scene in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) is the one in which Travis, wielding his spring-loaded pistol, pretends to confront his imaginary enemies while studying himself in a mirror. His evolution from misfit to killer is dramatized most effectively while he is alone, showing us his anguish through solitary but powerful actions.
Paul Schrader is able to create a compelling story even while the central character is alone on the screen.

American Film Institute

For minor characters, distinguishing qualities can be rendered in simple, visual bits. In Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959), for example, the ruthless gangster "Spats" is known by his immaculate spats shoes, while his doomed rival, "Toothpick Charlie," is always seen with a toothpick in his mouth. Physical mannerisms and habits, such as a nervous stutter or chain smoking, can also be used in your screenplay to quickly differentiate your characters for the audience, while introducing them to important attributes of the character's background.

The character's progress

Implicit in the premise of a story is character development. In order for the conflict to climax and resolve, the protagonist must go through change. His understanding of the world must deepen in some way. In Taxi Driver, as Travis Bickle's personality becomes more tortured and fractured, he becomes more violent toward the society around him. In Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), George's goals in life--travel, college, business--are consistently derailed, leading him to contemplate suicide. The learning process Travis and George go through alters their attitudes and behavior. The changes manifest themselves in their appearance and how they interact with others.

American Film Institute The development of the character of George Bailey (James Stewart, shown opposite Donna Reed) in It's a Wonderful Life seems set on a downward spiral, until his moment of decision suddenly arrives with the assistance of a guardian angel.

In every good screenplay, the protagonist reaches a final moment of decision, the point at which he or she must choose a course of action that will lead either to success or destruction. Moments of decision can be scripted subtly, through one reflective act or through a series of acts. In It's a Wonderful Life, George's moment of decision happens while he is on the bridge, teetering between life and death. The moment of decision is drawn out as his guardian angel, Clarence, gives him the opportunity to see how things might have turned out if he had not been born. Clarence's actions have the desired effect, and George declares he wants to live.
Dialogue: Hearing voices

It is probably true that some writers have a natural ear for dialogue, while others have to work at it. Good dialogue is a cross between poetry and everyday conversation. If you've ever read a transcript of a trial or interrogation, or any taped conversation, you're probably aware of how disjointed and awkward most speech is: cut-off sentences, repeated words and phrases, bad syntax, ramblings, interruptions and pauses. You do not want to completely mimic natural conversation in your script, but you do want it to sound natural.

In the 1962 classic To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, the young Southern girl Scout always calls her father by his first name, Atticus, and utters grown-up expressions like, "What in the Sam Hill." Atticus, a lawyer, is better educated than most of the townspeople, and his speech reflects his relative refinement. Strong regional accents are heard in some of the supporting characters, the "poor folk." The African American characters have yet another way of speaking. The blending of all these voices lends the drama texture and authenticity.

Discussion
What does it mean for a character to be "compelling"? Think of some characters from recent films that have flopped, or those that have flourished, in the minds of moviegoers. {Dis: Discuss with others your ideas for a good character.}

It is vital to create a voice, a way of speaking, for each character. The best dialogue starts with everyday speech and strains out the redundancies and incoherencies. Listening to and then thinking about how different people speak is a great exercise for all writers. You will notice that everyone has at least one speaking quirk. They have favorite phrases, speak in half-sentences, use big words or slang, turn statements into questions, etc. You can use conversational peculiarities like these to enrich your dialogue and differentiate your characters.
Creating tension through dialogue

Every scene has its own rhythm or tempo, and dialogue is often its drumbeat. Scenes with long stretches of dialogue, or monologues, are necessarily slower paced. Tension can be heightened by quickening the tempo of an exchange with shortened responses or regular interruptions.

Creating Tension
Read an excerpt from Robert Towne's screenplay for the 1973 film Chinatown. Why do you think this is

Many exchanges of dialogue are like an interrogation, considered a classic example of dialogue pacing and tensionwith one character trying to extract information or building? concessions out of another. Questions tend to create more tension than statements, because by posing them, a character can force an issue, demanding an answer from the other party. How the other party responds might surprise the character and lead to more questions and conflict. Sometimes what is left unsaid in a conversation becomes the most potent part. Screenwriters use dialogue subtext, or what is "under the text," to hint at a conflict without actually identifying it. Your characters might be having an innocuous conversation about a football game, but what they are really expressing are their feelings about the previous night's date. Conversations littered with subtext have more substance, and therefore, are more satisfying to the reader.

The following excerpt from the screenplay for It's a Wonderful Life, written by Francis Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Frank Capra, provides a good demonstration of subtext. Mary Hatch has just returned to Bedford Falls after four years at college, when high school sweetheart George Bailey drops by to see her:
MARY Would you like some tea and cake? GEORGE No thanks. A long pause. MARY Got my letters? GEORGE Yep, yep. Get mine? MARY Yep, yep. Both of them. GEORGE How's your brother, Marty? MARY Oh, he joined a big law firm in Washington. Gets married next month. GEORGE That's fine. MARY (starts to sing) And dance by the light. GEORGE What's the matter?

(gets it) Oh.


MARY Nice about your brother Harry and Ruth, isn't it? GEORGE Huh? Yeah - fine.

On one, superficial level, George and Mary are discussing their families--George's brother, Harry, and Mary's brother, Marty. Obviously, both Mary and George are nervous about reacquainting themselves, though each desperately wants to. At one point, Mary begins singing 'By the Light of the Silvery Moon,' a song associated with their high school romance. George can't quite deal with it, however, and flatly says, 'Oh.' Adding to the comic tension are the lines about Marty and Harry, both of whom are about to get married.

Screenplay Structure and Visual Storytelling Because most movies have time constraints and unfold continuously, efficient structuring is essential. Unlike a novel, a screenplay cannot ramble and digress. The viewer cannot stop and start, or go back and contemplate what came before. The screenwriter, therefore, must pack as much information and texture into each scene as possible, while keeping the tempo of the piece brisk enough to retain the audience's interest. Whether you're writing a 30-minute short or a miniseries, you have to consider each scene carefully and ask yourself, "Do I need it?" and "Is it effective?"

American Film Institute Violence is visited upon protagonist Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in the memorable nose-cutting scene of Chinatown.

The dramatic through-line of a script encompasses the premise and all the obstacles the protagonist will face. A screenplay is like a train on a cross-country trip, with scheduled stops and an estimated arrival time. You don't want to get lost or be late. Every scene should service the journey, and the journey, or through-line, comes out of your premise. In the course of developing your story, you will probably consider different paths for your characters, backtracking and changing directions as needed. When you near the end, however, you should feel that the conclusion you have reached is the only reasonable conclusion possible.
Putting in the stops

After you've settled on the basic story you want to tell, with a main character, a conflict and a resolution, think about the "stops" or obstacles you want your protagonist to face on the path from the conflict to the resolution. At this point, it's not necessary to figure out every detail of the plot, only the larger movements of the character's struggle. For example, if the premise of your romantic comedy is "love conquers fear," think about how you want your lovers to meet, what attracts them to each other, what events cause them to break up and how they will be restored to each other. In other words, what events will help you dramatize the conflict? How does the protagonist's fear manifest itself in actions? Dumping at the altar? Promiscuity? Obsessive, obnoxious behavior? And what characters oppose the protagonist? A rival lover? A possessive father? Are the lovers separated by geography, religion or class? What are the stops along the path of your narrative that your protagonist must overcome to resolve the conflict?

The three-act structure

Although there are plenty of fine exceptions, most screenplays employ a three-act structure. Originating in ancient Greek drama, the three-act structure became standard in American theater in the early twentieth century and soon after was adapted for film. Cinematic threeact structure is more fluid than its theatrical cousin, but it still provides the screenwriter with a solid frame on which to build a tight story. In Act One, characters and conflict are introduced. The conflict deepens in Act Two until it reaches a climax or breaking point. In Act Three, the conflict resolves and leads to a denouement, or conclusion. As a general rule, Act Two is the longest and Act Three the shortest. For example, applying the three-act structure to a two-hour, or 120-page script (one script page is roughly equal to one screen minute), Act One will run about 40 pages; Act Two, 50-60 pages; Act Three, 20-30 pages. Analyzing a screenplay of any length in terms of a three-act structure can be extremely useful. In many romantic comedies, the three-act structure could be stated simply as "Boy meets girl, boy gets girl (Act One), boy loses girl (Act Two), boy gets girl back (Act Three)." Even though the protagonist wins the girl in Act One, his potential for failure should be evident throughout the act. The perfect love affair will start to unravel in Act Two, as the protagonist's fears and the machinations of the antagonist build. The romance then falls apart, with the antagonist apparently victorious. By the end of Act Two, however, the hero will resolve to win the girl back and defeat his foe. In Act Three, the boy executes his plan and succeeds in restoring the romance. Making an outline
To clarify your structure in your head, you should note plot points, with act breaks, in an outline. The outline can serve as the skeleton upon which you can build all the details of your story. However, as you start writing dialogue for your characters, the story may deviate from what you envisioned in your outline. Such evolution is desirable. You shouldn't feel locked into telling a story devised hypothetically. While it's important to have some idea of where you're going at the start, a script written from an outline alone will likely turn out dry and formulaic.

The story of Gladiator can also be broken down in terms of the three-act structure. Act One introduces Maximus and his conflict--the betrayal by Commodus, his rival for the throne and the man behind the brutal murder of Maximus' family. In Act Two, Maximus is taken into slavery and trains as a gladiator, while quietly planning his revenge. Tension rises as Maximus' slave troupe ends up in Rome, and Maximus becomes involved in a plot to overthrow Commodus. In front of Commodus at the Coliseum, Maximus defeats his opponent, winning the hearts of the Roman people. Commodus, who is about to battle Maximus in the ring, wounds his opponent with a cowardly knife attack. Act Three begins with the to-the-death confrontation. Maximus' moment of decision arrives when he has Commodus at sword-point and chooses to exact his revenge. In the denouement, Maximus dies from his wound, but his family's land is restored.

Sub-plots

Sub-plots contain all the same elements as the main plot--character, conflict and resolution. Although it used to be common to see sub-plots functioning only as comic relief, with little connection to the rest of the story, they now are expected to parallel and advance the main plot. Sub-plots involve secondary characters interacting with the protagonist or the antagonist. One of the sub-plots of Gladiator, for example, is the love story between Maximus and Commodus' sister, Lucilla. The romance has a beginning, middle and end just like the main story, but takes up very little screen time. Because Lucilla becomes involved in Maximus' attempts to overthrow her brother, the love story has a direct effect on the main plot. However, it does not overwhelm it.
Visual storytelling

The adage "actions speak louder than words" applies to all creative writing, but is especially true of screenwriting. While the novelist can convey what the characters are thinking and feeling through an interior monologue, as a screenwriter you must use external visible behavior. External behavior can be expressed through dialogue or physical actions. Plays rely heavily on dialogue because of the limitations of the stage itself, but movies have no such restrictions. The camera can go anywhere the imagination leads it, and moviegoers expect to be visually engaged.

American Film Institute Sometimes a great deal of information can be conveyed

Although it's tempting to tell the audience visually, as in the simple but effective scene in Chinatown, where the freshly-wounded Gittes (Jack Nicholson) appears what's happening through dialogue, with a large bandage across his nose. showing them through action can have greater rewards. If, for instance, you want to convey that Jackie is upset at Marge for rustling her candy wrapper during a touching moment at the opera, you could have Jackie hiss, "Marge, be quiet!" Certainly that line would get the idea across that Jackie was annoyed, but it would be boring. A more effective way would be to have Jackie snatch the candy out of Marge's hand and toss it over the balcony. As with the behavior of characters, the time, place and mood of a scene are most effectively conveyed through visuals and described in the script's stage directions (which are always written in present tense, with action verbs). Much like the novelist, the screenwriter situates the characters in a specific environment at the start of each scene.

The screenwriter's goal with descriptive passages is not only to indicate where the scene is taking place, but to focus attention on key details that, when translated into the visual elements of a film, will provide viewers with information crucial to the premise. Sometimes these details underscore what is being said by the characters. Other times, they give the reader information about the characters that would otherwise go unexpressed. An excerpt from It's a Wonderful Life exemplifies this notion:
Living Room. George enters. The house is carpetless, empty-the rain and wind cause funny noises upstairs. A huge fire is burning in the fireplace. Near the fireplace a collection of packing boxes are heaped together in the shape of a small table and covered with a checkered oil cloth. It is set for two. A bucket with ice and a champagne bottle sit on the table as well as a bowl of caviar. A phonograph is playing on the box. It is playing "The Wedding March." In front of phonograph is a sign reading, "Guy Lombardo." Mary is standing near the fireplace looking as pretty as any bride ever looked. She is smiling at George, who has been slowly taking in the whole set-up. Through a door he sees the end of a cheap bed, over the back of which is a pair of pajamas and a nightie.

Even without the words "as pretty as any bride," the reader knows what is going on in this scene. The makeshift table set for two, "The Wedding March" and the pajamas and nightie on the bed tell us George and Mary are newlyweds. Additionally, the spare living room with packing boxes tells us that George and Mary have just moved in and don't own much. Mary's smile and George's appraisal of the set-up suggest happiness. The above passage takes up only a few seconds of screen time, but with essential visual cues the scene conveys a heap of information without dialogue. When describing a new location, it is not necessary, or desirable, to overload your stage directions with extraneous details. Don't add camera angles. Directors, cinematographers, art directors and set designers are expected to fill out the physical world of the characters for the viewer. In the above example, the screenwriters don't mention what color the wall is, what Mary is wearing, or what brand of champagne the couple is drinking. In another scene, these details might be significant, but not in this one. Discussion
Do you have a premise and characters, but no structure for your story? {Dis: Discuss with others a way to formulate your story with an effective structure.}

Screenwriters should also resist the temptation to over-describe the personalities or backgrounds of their characters in the stage directions. Whenever possible, stick to details that have visual equivalents. For example, the description "a finely dressed man, with facial tics and a pronounced Boston accent" conveys more to the reader than "a nervous millionaire from Boston."

Setting the Scene As any screenwriter will tell you, the first few pages of a screenplay are the most important--for both your audience and the people responsible for producing your film. Script readers are an impatient lot, and if you don't engage them right away, they will drop your script and move on to the next. The opening pages should actively introduce your audience to the protagonist and provide them with a hint at the main conflict. The setting should be vividly evoked. Consider the first moments of Paul Schrader's screenplay for Taxi Driver:
Manhattan cab garage. Weather-beaten sign above driveway reads, 'Taxi Enter Here.' Yellow cabs scuttle in and out. It is winter, snow is piled on the kerbs, the wind is howling. Inside garage are parked row upon row of multi-coloured taxis. Echoing sounds of cabs idling, cabbies talking. Steamy breath and exhaust fill the air. Corridor of cab company offices. Lettering on ajar door reads: Personnel Office Mavis Cab Company Blue and White Cab Co. Acme Taxi Dependable Taxi Services JRB Cab Company Speedo Taxi Service Sounds of office busy at work: shuffling, typing, arguing. Personnel office is a cluttered disarray. Sheets with headings...are tacked to crumbling plaster wall...Desk is cluttered with forms, reports and an old upright Royal typewriter. Disheveled middle-aged New Yorker looks up from the desk. We cut in to ongoing conversation between the middle-aged PERSONNEL OFFICER and a young man standing in front of his desk. The young man is TRAVIS BICKLE. He wears his jeans, boots and Army jacket. He takes a drag of his unfiltered cigarette. The Personnel Officer is exhausted: he arrives at work exhausted. Travis is something else again. His intense steely gaze is enough to jar even the Personnel Officer out of his workaday boredom.

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) makes an immediate impression within the first few moments of the film Taxi Driver.

American Film Institute

In less than a page, Schrader has given us enough information to set the stage and pique our interest. Immediately we get the milieu, or world, of the story, a busy urban taxi company housing many fleets. We meet Travis Bickle. At this point, we don't know if Travis is the protagonist or antagonist, but based on his clothes and "steely gaze," we sense that he is a force to be reckoned with.
Scene structure

Just as the screenplay as a whole has structure, so should individual scenes. Although a screenwriting rule of thumb stipulates that scenes should not run much more than two minutes (two full script pages), you should still regard them as mini-dramas. Some short scenes, called transitional scenes, merely connect one place or time to another like a bridge and don't require special treatment. Each character in a scene should have an objective, or need, and the tension created by these needs should rise throughout the scene. Where you begin a given scene is called the "point of attack." In general, it's best to start in midstream. In the above Taxi Driver scene, for example, we meet Travis in mid-interview, having skipped his entrance and introduction to the personnel officer. The scene ends abruptly, with Travis admitting that he doesn't own a telephone. Unless an entrance or exit reveals something meaningful about a character or situation, it should be excluded.

Back story

In the next page of the Taxi Driver script, while being interviewed by the personnel officer for a job, Travis reveals his military background and the fact that he has no criminal record. These facts, which later become important, are called "back story" or exposition. They are elements of the character's biography that the screenwriter has deemed crucial to the storytelling. Every screenplay contains back story because every character brings a certain amount of baggage to a drama.

Some facts about a person can be revealed through props, costumes, makeup and behavior. For example, if Travis had spoken with a heavy Southern accent, we would assume he was not a native New Yorker. If he had deep scars on his face, we might assume he had suffered war wounds. If he touched the scars repeatedly, we might assume the wounds were recent.

Discussion
What individual scenes from movies stick out as memorable in your mind? What are some effective ways of weaving different scenes and storylines together?

Most back story, however, is conveyed through {Dis: Discuss with others dialogue. Good exposition doesn't stick out and is scene structure.} presented in a believable context. Introducing Travis in the context of an interview provides the screenwriter with an easy, natural way to get out back story. The personnel officer needs to know about Travis's background, as does the audience. Meeting or "getting to know you" scenes work well for exposition, as long as they're not overloaded with too much information. For obvious reasons, most back story tends to be revealed early in the script, but certain facts may be withheld for dramatic effect. Secrets are the most powerful form of back story, and whole dramas can revolve around them. Knowing how and when to expose details about a character's past is a trial-and-error process and may require several rewrites to nail.
Set-ups and pay-offs

Set-ups and pay-offs are narrative devices commonly used in screenplays. As the word suggests, a set-up introduces a bit of action or gag that will become significant later on and lead to a payoff. Set-ups, which usually are found in the first half of a script, should appear tacked-on or inconsequential. In Robert Zemeckis's 2000 thriller What Lies Beneath, for example, it is established early on that the couple's cell phones won't work until they have driven a certain distance from their home, half way across a bridge. The first time this fact is mentioned, the situation is benign. Later, however, with her life in jeopardy, the wife desperately tries to use the cell phone but can't get a connection. This moment is the pay-off. Because the audience already knows that she won't be able to get through on the phone, tension has been greatly heightened.

Ending on a button

Ideally, scenes should end with "buttons." Buttons are like little denouements; they seal off a scene with a punch. Like set-ups and pay-offs, buttons are small but effective narrative tools that will make your screenplay stand out.
After witnessing the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Jerry (Jack Lemmon) and Joe (Tony Curtis) hide out in an all-girl band led by Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe).

American Film Institute

A terrific example of a button can be found in the final scene of Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), when Jerry finally reveals to Osgood that their romance has been based on a lie:
JERRY Look, Osgood--I'm going to level with you. We can't get married at all. OSGOOD Why not? JERRY Well, to begin with, I'm not a natural blonde. OSGOOD

(tolerantly) It doesn't matter. JERRY And I smoke. I smoke all the time. OSGOOD I don't care. JERRY And I have a terrible past. For three years now, I've been living with a saxophone player. OSGOOD I forgive you. JERRY (with growing desperation) And I can never have children. OSGOOD We'll adopt some. JERRY But you don't understand! (he rips off his wig; in a male voice) I'm a man! OSGOOD (oblivious) Well--nobody's perfect.

Formatting Your Masterpiece With the foundation of your story laid, you're ready to start writing your first scene. Because screenplays not only tell a story but also provide basic production information, correct formatting and presentation are important. Before heading to your computer, study some professional screenplays to get an idea of how they look.
The rules of formatting screenplays

The following are a few general guidelines for script formatting (the formatting suggestions listed below are based on US letter-sized 8.5 x 11 inch paper):

To allow for three-hole punching, set left margin at 1.5 inches; right at 1 inch. Place page numbers in the upper right hand corner, 1 inch from right, inch from top. Capitalize sluglines, scene setting indicators. "Interior" and "Exterior" are abbreviated INT. and EXT. Example INT. LIVING ROOM--DAY (note punctuation and spacing). Descriptive text is 60 characters, or six inches wide, flush left and single-spaced. Capitalize and center character names for dialogue. Place parentheticals, or "wrylies," one or two tabs to the left of the character name. (Parentheticals give extra information about how a line is to be delivered. Use sparingly.) Dialogue is indented and 35 characters, or 3.5 inches, wide. If descriptive text interrupts a character's dialogue, insert (cont'd) or (cont) to the right of the character's name, the second time the name appears. If a character is speaking off-screen, insert (O.S.) to the right of the character's name. If you want to indicate a voice-over, insert (V.O.) to the right of the name. Double-space between dialogue blocks and blocks of descriptive text. For the title page, center the title and your name in the middle of the page. Don't use quotation marks. Type your name and address in the lower right-hand corner. Copy your script on three-hole paper and bind with metal fasteners.

Setting up your own computer

Using the above margins and tabs, any word processing program can be set up to format a screenplay. Consult your software manual on how to create style sheets. You can also purchase screenwriting software that automatically formats as you type. Final Draft 6.0, Hollywood Screenwriter, Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000 and Scriptware are popular screenplay formatting programs.
Learning from others

Screenplays have become widely available and can be found in public and school libraries, bookstores and on the Internet. Many recent releases, as well as classic older films, have published versions of their screenplays. Sometimes a found script will be a continuity of a finished film, a last draft of a pre-production script or a shooting script. Each type of script is different. "Shooting scripts" will have production information intended for the director and other crew members. Continuities reproduce what actually ended up on the screen, in script format. Early drafts of a script are the most useful for study purposes because they best reflect the writer's intentions. They tend to be fuller and richer than later scripts. Watching favorite movies with an eye to the story is also a good way to learn about screenwriting. Be a tough critic when you turn on the TV or go to the theater. Analyze why you liked or didn't like a movie or show. Were the characters unbelievable? Was the dialogue dumb? Was it too slow or predictable? What would you have done differently? Asking questions like these will help you to begin thinking critically and write better stories.
The finished product

Once you have your first draft screenplay in hand, share it with others. Take a writing class or join a writing group. If possible, recruit actors or friends to read your script out loud. Hearing your dialogue, even when uttered by amateurs, is an excellent way to identify strengths and weaknesses in your script.

Discussion
Does your dialogue sound realistic? Does your opening capture readers? Will your idea translate to the screen?

In order to rewrite effectively, you must be open to {Dis: Use the help of other criticism and suggestions. The most useful members of this seminar to help you finish your comments are those that echo feelings you already screenplay.} have about your story. Look for a consensus of opinion. Before rewriting, go back to your outline and remind yourself why you began writing in the first place. Trust your instincts, but be prepared to do several more drafts before typing your last 'The End.'

The Basics of Screenwriting


Fathom Amy Dunkleberger Amy Dunkleberger is an alumnus of the Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies at the American Film Institute and the author of many screenplays, including Other Mothers, a television special for which she won an Emmy Award in 1994. In addition to her screenwriting, Dunkleberger was for many years a staff editor and writer for the multi-volume publication The American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films. Fathom Fathom is an international consortium of leading universities, cultural institutions, and disseminators of research, which oversees Fathom's development, policies, and educational objectives.