Originally published on Helium.com
A screenplay, or movie script, is not unlike a home-cooked meal. It can be wonderful or it can be terrible. Adding ingredients that don’t belong in it, or too much of anything, and you end up with a mess fit for the trashcan. As with any great dish, each aspect of the screenplay story has to have a reason for being. I’m sure you’ve been in a situation where you suffered through a film that left you feeling hollow, saying to yourself “I can do better than that!” Here, I will show you the basic ingredients that will start you on your way to writing that movie you know you’ve been carrying around inside. Be sure to take this article at your own pace, digesting it at your leisure. Now then, onto the work. Let’s get our utensils in order first.
Workspace: The first thing you should do is either get yourself a macro for Word that automatically formats in screenplay form or scriptwriting software. Doing the formatting yourself is time-consuming and frustrating. I and many others use Movie Magic’s Screenwriter 2000, while many others use Final Draft. Either program serves its purpose: automatically formatting your script in such a way that helps you concentrate on your story and not on which buttons to press. I personally prefer the dedicated software over the macro. Purchase only if you are serious about writing. They are expensive programs and are the best on the market. There are some free ones available, the most popular of which is Celtx.
Every great story starts from a simple idea, a “what if” scenario, or a picture in your mind. Begin by writing down your ideas as they come to you. Ever find yourself thinking “Man, I wish they’d make a movie of that!”? Well there you go. Write it down. Once you settle on what you want your movie to be about, you can then move on to identifying your characters.
There is a reason that critically acclaimed blockbusters such as E.T., Back to the Future, and Raiders of the Lost Ark work so well. Though all had unique stories, several things in common with the characters in each film drive their stories forward to crowd-pleasing success. Let’s take a look at some of the main ingredients.
Main Character (MC): This is the character that goes through the greatest emotional change by the end of the film. It is this character’s misbehavior (talked about in more detail later) or character flaw that brings about the main conflict. There can only be one MC. This character is usually, but not always, different from the Protagonist, or the hero of the story. This has led to much confusion for beginning screenwriters, but I will clear this up right now. Some examples of M.C.’s are Cole Sear in “The Sixth Sense”, Red Redding from “The Shawshank Redemption” and, I kid you not, Darth Vader in “Return of the Jedi.”
If you’ve seen any of these films, you might be wondering “Hey, that doesn’t make any sense. It was Dr. Malcolm Crowe who helped Cole Sear overcome his fears, Andy Dufresne who defeated incredible odds inside that horrible prison, and we’ve been following Luke Skywalker’s heroic adventures since Episode One!”
True, they did some of the most heroic things, and they all went through some kind of change, but not a great emotional one in the films mentioned above. It was Cole Sear who went from being utterly frightened by the ghosts and isolated to courageous and accepted by his peers, while Dr. Crowe remained composed and sympathetic the whole time. It was Red Redding who went from being fearful of hope to embracing it with arms open wide, while Andy Dufresne retained his inspiring integrity and optimism. And it was Darth Vader who, in “Return of the Jedi”, went from being cold and merciless to heroic and protective to save his son, while Luke held on to his moral alignment over The Emperor’s torture. There is a name for these other characters as well. This leads us to the next ingredient.
Dynamic/Catalyst Character (DC): It is this character in the film that inspires the emotional change in the main character, both helping the MC in realizing their misbehavior and spurring them to change. Because of this, the MC is able to do something at the end of the film that he/she was not able to do at the beginning. This character also wants something from the MC. Dr. Crow from The Sixth Sense wanted a kind of redemption through helping Cole Sear identify his flaw and how to take action against it. Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption helps awaken Red to hope but also needs his resourcefulness and friendship to survive prison and the machinations of the corrupt warden. Luke Skywalker pressed his father Vader to realize there was still enough good in him to turn from the Dark Side, but Luke needed his father to save him from certain death at the hands of Emperor Palpatine. That should clear things up for you on that front. Let’s move on to the simplest of the three.
Antagonist: This character is the easiest of the three to recognize, at least most of the time. It is the ultimate opponent; the physical representation of the emotional conflict in the MC. The antagonist wants what the main character wants, but goes about getting it in less that scrupulous means with equally negative intentions. It is the final battle and defeat of this opponent that symbolizes the grand emotional change experienced by the MC. Examples are the ghosts in “The Sixth Sense”, Warden Norton in “The Shawshank Redemption”, and the Emperor in “Return of the Jedi.” The ghosts represent Cole’s loneliness and fear of society, whose antics during the film are cries for help. The tyrannical Warden Norton represents Red’s crushing guilt over his crime that deny him any hope of freedom or redemption. The Emperor represents the power of the Dark Side of the force that Vader comes into contention with throughout the film. When the MC comes to terms with their problem and its solution, these opponents are defeated. This can also be done vice versa, as in the case of “The Shawshank Redemption” where the Warden is defeated before Red is redeemed (hence the title).
Misbehavior: This is a character flaw possessed by the MC that keeps him/her from achieving their goals. It sounds like a contradiction of terms, as we normally associate the main character with heroism or flawlessness. This is not the case here, as a misbehavior can be as simple as not wanting to do chores around the house or as complicated as addiction. Examples of misbehaviors: Neo’s skepticism of his true identity in “The Matrix”, which brings the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar into trouble with Agent Smith; Peter Parker’s greed in “Spider-Man”, which leads to the death of his Uncle Ben; and Michael Corleone’s need for revenge in “The Godfather.”
Basic Story Structure
This is an insanely broad area that has been much debated over the years, dropping way too much unnecessary information upon the novice. We are going to simplify things for you and strip it down to the lowest common denominator. Movies as a rule thumb consist of three sections, or “Acts”. Each act has its own function in telling the story, and has to fulfill certain goals so that the story is propelled in a way the audience will both understand and believe. You can gain a fuller understanding of each act by watching your favorite movie and paying special attention to when the following events occur. For future reference: one page of your screenplay equals roughly one minute of movie time.
ACT I: The first 25-30 minutes of a movie comprise Act I. Here we are introduced to the main character, dynamic character, ultimate opponent, and the main conflict. The first few minutes of a film must also establish the genre and offer up a surprise that hooks the audience. Act I of “The Shawshank Redemption” introduces us to Red (MC), Andy (DC), Warden Norton (UO), and the dangers faced by the characters of Shawshank Penitentiary. The hook is Andy’s conviction of a crime he did not commit, which begs the question “Then what happens!?”
ACT II: The next hour or so makes up the second act, which is split into two parts. It is here that the characters take off on their quest, whether it be trying to find true love or locating lost treasure. In The Goonies, Mikey and his friends begin a last ditch effort to save their homes by searching for a treasure that may or may not exist while running afoul of the Fratelli crime family who also want the treasure. This is the first half of the second act, which shows the characters acting upon their situations in a sort of desperate fashion.
The second part of Act II is what can be seen as a rest period of sorts for the characters on both sides of the moral line. It is the eye of the storm, so to speak. The characters enter a sanctuary for a brief respite from their problems, to regroup and clear their heads. The characters begin to really grasp their role in the big picture, and the significance of their actions. In “The Fellowship of the Ring”, Frodo and company pass through the dead dwarven mines of Moria through scads of peril to enter an elven city where they are allowed to take refuge. This also allows the audience a break for their nerves to recover from the tension and so the conflict does not become tedious to them. Once Frodo and company are sufficiently rested they take off once more to face the final battle of the movie.
ACT III: This is the resolution, the last 30 or so minutes of the film, the culmination of the efforts of all sides of the conflict coming to a head. The main character meets the ultimate opponent in a final battle. It’s really that simple. All the experience gained by the main character will be put to use here against the enemy. The emotional change we talked about earlier will take place in this act, with the final minutes being the demonstration of the change and the positive results gained. In effect, the main character “rides off into the sunset” with his/her new life, or the opposite as is common in noir films.
Note: Do not try to fit your story into these acts while you are doing your early drafts. Doing so will add unneeded stress. This basically takes care of itself throughout the rewriting process. Just concentrate on your story.
Though we’ve only scratched the surface of what goes into writing a winning screenplay, you have been given the necessary tools and a foundation on which to build a script. A few more essential tips on the craft:
Rewriting: There is a saying in the writing field that holds true now, and will do so forever. Writing is re-writing. The first draft of anything is never good, as the greats will readily admit. In his book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”, Stephen King generously lets us look into a first draft of his short story, “1408”. It was trash. There is nothing more inspiring than knowing that even the masters start at ground level just like we do. When you write your first draft, you write it from your heart. Just get it onto the page, and don’t worry if it sounds like B-grade slop. You will do the rewrites with your head, and fix the problems that are inherent with first drafts of all kinds. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.
Setup, Payoff, and Organic scenes: Also known as cause and effect. Every scene and event that happens in a movie must have a reason for being. Every line of dialog, every move made by the characters must support the forward movement of the story to its resolution. If you set something up in one scene, be sure to pay it off in the next or a future scene in a way that builds upon the story. If your character goes in to get a loan without really needing it, and we never find out whether he/she got it, there was no reason to have that scene in the first place. It didn’t come out of the situation faced by the characters, it was merely thrown in thoughtlessly. Don’t get attached to a scene because you think it is funny, scary, dramatic, etc. If its only reason for being is that you thought it would be cool to do, cut it and file it away. Who knows, you just might think of what’s missing and find a place for it after all.
A good thing to remember is this: just as with any fine meal, each chef has a little bit different way of preparing and revising it. Maybe a little more of this spice, a touch less of that herb – you get my drift. There is almost nothing that is considered holy writ concerning any exact structure for cooking, and so it is with your screenplay. There are several strict rules of thumb that you must follow, though, in order to have your story taken seriously. If you have seen and survived “Adaptation.” with Nicolas Cage, you have seen a hilarious breaking of all these rules from the very beginning of the film.
Voice-Over Narration: Rule numero uno is you can never reveal your character’s thoughts through V.O. narration. Movies are a visual medium, unlike a novel where almost anything goes. We need to see a character express his thoughts and feelings through action. Otherwise there is no reason to write a movie. Voice-over narration is effective in certain types of stories like “The Shawshank Redemption”, but would completely halt a movie like The Matrix in its tracks. Dramatic films lend themselves to V.O. Narration at times, as long as the narration itself expresses a thought that where action films do not.
Directing: This is a big problem with many new screenwriters. Stay away from trying to direct with your screenplay, telling us things like how fast a character walks or putting sound effects into the action text or telling actors how to say their lines. Steer away from camera angles. The director decides these things in due time in collaboration with the appropriate parties, for better or for worse. Your script will undergo a thousand different changes during production, and the director will ignore whatever direction you wanted to give. So will the studio heads.
Writer Protagonist: Vanity comes in many forms, and the screenwriter as the protagonist is no exception. All writers put a little (or a lot) of themselves into their characters. It is unavoidable. But to make the protagonist of the film a writer is a major taboo that will almost always get you turned down. There have been many movies with a writer protagonist, true, but it is a known fact that they aren’t very interesting. Unless you can find a novel way of breaking the rule, as Charlie Kaufman did in “Adaptation.”, steer clear.
I hope you have enjoyed this exploration of screenwriting. It is a wonderful craft to learn if you have a desire to write, and offers unique challenges not found in any other kind of writing. Be patient and persistent with yourself and your story, and you just might come out with a blockbuster of your own. Now get to work.