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Basic Steps to Writing a Screenplay

Writing a screenplay is an extremely rewarding process, but it’s not an easy task. It takes a serious amount of time and dedication to develop a good screenplay, and if your goal is to sell it, completing a first draft is only the beginning. You’ll have to refine the story, often with several more drafts, get an agent, submit your script to studios and producers, and have someone like it enough to risk a substantial amount of money to buy it. Unless, of course, you’re planning to finance and produce it yourself.

Each year, the major Hollywood studios purchase a combined 100-200 original screenplays. When you consider that somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 new screenplays are registered with the WGA every year, it’s easy to see how difficult the task actually is. But, don’t be discouraged. Most people don’t invest enough time learning how to develop a good screenplay; they just try and write one. By dedicating yourself to the craft, your screenplays will start out well ahead of the pack. There are a few steps to follow when developing and writing your screenplay. Remember, though, there are no real rules, so they can happen in any order, or not at all. It’s up to the story, and ultimately you.

A logline is a brief summary of your story, usually no more than a single sentence, that describes the protagonists and their goal, as well as the antagonists and their conflict. The protagonist is the hero/main character of the story, while the antagonist is the villain/bad guy/opposing force. The goal of a logline is to convey both the premise of your story and its emotional undertones. What is the story about? What is the style? How does it feel?

In the old days, the logline was printed on the spine of the screenplay. This allowed producers to get a quick feel for the story, so they could decide whether to invest the time into reading it or not. Today, the logline serves the same purpose, although it’s usually communicated verbally, or included with a treatment.

Break your story down into its narrative-arc components and map out every scene beat by beat. I know a number of writers who use flash cards or notebooks for this. Personally, I use Trello for outlining my screenplays. I create a board for each script, then I make a list for each of the narrative-arc components, with a card for each scene. On each card, I make a checklist of the story beats and write notes about the characters or plot.

Do whatever works for you. The goal is to plot out your story. The more detailed you make your outline, the less time you’ll waste down the road. As you plot, keep in mind that tension drives a story. Building and releasing tension is key to keeping the audience engaged and driving the story forward. When hope is faced with fear, tension is created. This is what forces the hero to change.

Think about the story you want to tell. What’s it about? Do you know the theme yet? Create characters who will contrast the central question, and who will have to undergo a major transformation to answer it. There are plenty of character profile worksheets online that can be helpful in bringing your characters personalities to life. Two that I’ve found to be helpful are here and here.

The most important thing when developing your characters is that you make them empathetic and interesting. Even the bad guy should have a reason he’s bad, although it may be unjustified.

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