The world of film is extremely competitive. You may have the best movie idea of all time, but if your script isn’t formatted correctly, there’s a high chance it will never even get read.
Actually writing a script is a very intensified process, so we’ve outlined the key steps to maximise your chances of seeing your writing on the big screen.
It all starts with the idea. Take an idea and genre-bend it, that is, make a drama into a comedy, or a thriller into comedy. Consider a wide v ariety of jobs — septic tank disposal guy , guitar builder, driving instruct or — looking for a character or a story to pop to life.
The two most important words in the story concept process are What if? “What if Peter Pan grew up?” That was the genesis of the movie Hook.
The importance of your story concept is not to be underestimated. If you are working with a weak or marginal story concept, chances are that the script is probably not going to sell.
So the first step is a big one: Come up with a great story concept.
Once you find a story concept you think might make a good movie, it’s time to start brainstorming. Allow plots and characters leap into your imagination, key scenes to emerge, characters to morph into being, consider bits of dialogue.
The key to doing it right: no prejudgment. All ideas go into a brainstorming file. Any image, scene, line of dialogue, action, or theme I have as I brainstorm goes into the file.
Spend days, even weeks brainstorming, and, more often than not, the plotline and subplots start to show themselves, too. Get curious about the plot. Get curious about the characters. If you keep asking questions, it helps you go deeper and deeper into your brainstorming process.
This generally goes hand-in-hand with brainstorming as research feeds that process. Go to libraries, hit the Internet, which is absolutely indispensable, join clubs, sign up for relevant newsletters and start talking to actual human beings.
A word of warning: You can get lost doing research. You should need no more than 2–3 months to brainstorm and research and if you can devote full-time to the project, you can likely accomplish what you need in 4–6 weeks.
But if you find yourself using research as an excuse to keep from typing those first words ‘FADE IN’, it’s time to stop hitting the books and start hitting your keyboard!
At some point, you will have accumulated enough story ‘stuff’ that key characters will spring to life. Then, it’s time to dig into them. Create individual files (in your computer) for the primary characters. Spend time with each of them, ‘sitting’ with them, and let the stuff flow. This allows the characters to be free to evolve into what they are going to become. Be curious about them. Ask them questions. Interview them. Talk with them.
Apply seven questions to each character to try to see what narrative functions each might play in the story by asking:
- Who is my Protagonist?
- What do they want(External Goal)?
- What do they need (Internal Goal)?
- Who is keeping them from it? (Nemesis)
- Who is connected to the Protagonist’s emotional growth? (Attractor)
- Who is connected to the P’s intellectual growth (Mentor)?
- Who tests the P by switching allegiances from ally to enemy (Trickster)?
These five narrative functions represented by this group of primary archetypes — Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster — occur in most every movie.
A stack of 3×5 cards can be an invaluable part of the plotting process. Go to all the scenes and moments which arose during the earlier processes and write down the interesting beats, scenes or dynamics — one per card.
After writing all the beats, scenes, and dynamics onto individual cards, divide them into three stacks: Act I, Act II, and Act III. Find four major plot points. What’s the beginning? What’s the end of Act One? What’s the end of Act Two? And what’s the ending?
Then sort and re-sorting the cards. Tack the cards up on a wall, to see the plot unfolding left to right.
Apart from locking down the story’s structure, I also think about every scene, asking a series of questions:
- What is the point of the scene?
- What is the scene’s Beginning, Middle, and Ending?
- What characters should be in the scene and why?
- What is the conflict in the scene?
- How do I enter / exit the scene?
Okay, now take a deep breath and realize something: All that — story concept, brainstorming, research, character development, plotting, and outline — you still haven’t written one word of the actual script.
An average scene is one-and-a-half to two-pages in length, so it would seem that at a minimum you would try to write one scene / two pages in a day’s writing session. Aim for 5–7 pages per day, which means it’s possible to complete a first draft in a month, assuming you write everyday.
But what if you have a ‘real’ job and you can only write in your off-hours? Even if you can only manage 1 page per day, that means you’ll finish your first draft in 4 months.
Once you finish your first draft, set aside the script for at least 2 weeks. Part of the reason is you’ve exerted a lot of energy; it’s time to recharge your creative batteries. The re-write is where you want to fix the script’s problems and you can’t do that if you’re not willing to admit the script has problems.
- Story structure: Perhaps the first act is 45 pages long. Two big plot points in Act II feel too close together.
- Logic problems: Events happen or characters do things which don’t make sense.
- Lack of focus: This pertains to the plotline, subplots, character functions, themes and transformation arcs.
- Episodic: There will be sections or scenes within the script that feel episodic; this almost always is the result of that scenes not having a strong, direct link to the Plotline or an accompanying subplot.
- Emotion: Is the emotional experience of the storyline working? Do I feel anything? Do I feel the right things?
It may take as much as 2–3 weeks to break down the first draft. This can require more brainstorming, character work, plotting and the rest.
Start the actual page-writing part of the rewrite; it typically takes around 3–4 weeks to get to FADE OUT.
Review. Assess. Rewrite. However many drafts it takes. Remember: “The only way out is through!”
This is the most fun part of the process. Sit down you’re your printed script, pen in hand, and mark that draft up but good.
Run lines over the page, make notes in the margins, be picky. Highlight each verb and come up with better, more active verbs.
It’s time to print out every side of dialogue for each character, and then read them back-to-back to make sure you’re nailing their voice.