At Vimeo Video School, we’ve explored the nuts and bolts of formatting your screenplay, but as screenwriters know, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot to figure out before you even begin. What’s the premise? How do you want to tell the story? What’s are central themes? What do your characters want — and who or what is stopping them from achieving it?
Writing a screenplay (or any lengthy work of fiction) is a tough slog, and while you might have a great idea or characters you love, if you don’t have a framework in mind for how you’re going to execute it, then you can make an already difficult process even harder.
However, as the legendary Academy Award®-winning screenwriter and novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala said, “One doesn’t choose to become a writer. One is just born that way.” So if you’re realizing you were one born with the writer’s vocation (plus the filmmaking bug), here are some tips on how to approach the screenplay.
First things first
Before you buy Final Draft and sequester yourself away in a Hollywood hills cabana to write your own Citizen Kane, you need an idea. This is the mystical and mysterious moment that writers love to wax lyrical about.
To start, be mindful of the inspiration all around you: Jane Campion said that a quiet moment with a horse was what inspired her Keats biopic Bright Star, and Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation came about from her desire to shoot her friend Fumihiro Hayashi singing “God Save the Queen” at a Tokyo karaoke bar.
However the idea for your screenplay comes to you, many writers find it helpful to develop a controlling idea — or the central, overarching theme — before they begin to write. Once you have that controlling idea in place, you can then go about outlining your screenplay acts.
While some screenwriters choose to avoid thinking about this before diving into the writing process (for fear it will stifle the creative flow), if you’re new to the world of screenwriting, then having a blueprint of the theme and narrative arch of your story can be incredibly helpful. But how do you arrive at your controlling idea — and move forward from there? Fab question. Read on.
Step 1: the controlling idea
You can think about the controlling idea either thematically or narratively; it’s totally up to you. It’s advisable to steer clear of lofty concepts though. A thematic controlling idea can be very simple, while also allowing for a lot of emotional and narrative scope. An example of this may be “learning to accept change leads to fulfillment” or “friendship is as valuable as romantic love”.
A narrative controlling idea is more specific and intends to boil your narrative into one simple concept. These are also known as loglines (although that terminology is more relevant when pitching a completed screenplay). An example of a narrative controlling idea may be something like, “a widow tried to find a new husband, but learns that independence is more rewarding than romance” or “a mouse escapes a laboratory and discovers the real world can be just as scary.”
Step 2: the characters
Once you have your premise or controlling idea, you’re going to need to figure out who populates your story and what they want. A good writer knows their characters backwards. They know what they ate for breakfast, what their favorite subjects in school were, and most importantly, their strengths and weaknesses. Nobody is flawless except Beyonce, and this needs to be reflected in your characters. A character will almost always evolve during the writing process, and it’s not uncommon for new characters to appear, or your existing characters to completely change during the writing and rewriting process.
Some writers will dive right into their screenplay without much more than an idea of their protagonist’s age and name, allowing the character to develop on the page or building in detail in later drafts. However, when starting out on a first screenplay, creating character profiles can make the process of writing scenes and dialogue much easier.
An example of a simple character outline may look like this:
Controlling idea (thematic): It’s more fulfilling to live in the moment than to plan for the future.
Controlling idea (narrative): A straight-laced elderly florist starts growing and selling marijuana to pay for a dying friend’s medical expenses, in turn learning to live life to the fullest.
Name: Ethyl Swab
Lives: Berkeley, CA.
Studied: Horticulture at Mills College
Job: Florist. Has a small flower stand outside at the local market.
Family: Never married and no children. A fiance died in WWII and she considers her friends her family.
Attributes: Patient, kind, loyal, smart, creative, a good listener, generous.
Flaws: Timid, nervous, anxious, controlling, needy, insecure.
Thinks she wants: To keep her friend Oona, who has stage III cancer, alive and well at all costs.
Really wants: Not to be alone.
Name: Hortense Fungleman
Relationship to protagonist: Runs a competing business.
Lives: Berkeley, CA.
Studied: N/A, married young.
Job: Florist. Recently bought an enormous store near Ethyl’s smaller flower stand.
Family: Married a rich man at age 18, who recently died. Has a spoiled son and bratty grandkids she almost never sees.
Attributes: Driven, stylish, sophisticated, smart, confident.
Flaws: Competitive, envious, impatient, unfulfilled, cruel.
Thinks she wants: To be the best, most successful florist in Berkley
Really wants: To have friends, the way Ethyl does.
Name: Oona Nesbit
Relationship to protagonist: Best friend
Lives: Berkeley, CA
Studied: Got into Smith but instead joined a cult in the Berkshires
Job: Self-taught doula, poet, and discredited pet therapist
Family: One daughter who lives in Shanghai and doesn’t speak to her
Attributes: Funny, fun-loving, confident, free-spirited, loyal
Flaws: Self-involved, reckless, elusive, forgetful, lazy
Thinks she wants: To survive cancer and stay alive for Ethyl
Really wants: To enjoy the time she has left
Step 3: the acts
At this point you know what your movie is about and who your characters are. Now it’s time to map out your story.
For most dramatic writing, the narrative takes place over three acts. Even in a short film, one-act play, or a half-hour sitcom, the writer has likely constructed a three-act structure. In the beginning, you can think about your structure either simplistically or in great detail.
An extremely bare bones version of a three-act structure might be something like, “Protagonist wants X, Antagonist stops Protagonist from getting X, Protagonist doesn’t get X, but gets Y instead, which is much better.”
While this simple structure may appear too lean to be helpful, it’s actually a focused and useful way of reminding you what you want to achieve for each act on a structural level, particularly once you’re lost in the creative throes of the writing process.
Some writers favor a more detailed breakdown of their act structure (especially those writing a more complicated narrative, like Sci-Fi or adventure films). One way to do this is to break your act up into sub-acts or sequences, and then (if you want to be really organized) outline the scenes within that sub-act.
Let’s take our favorite florist Ethyl once more:
ACT 1: A meek, law-abiding woman discovers her friend has cancer and decides to help her pay for experimental treatments by growing and selling pot.
Sequence One: Ethyl is living in a seemingly happy yet uneventful life, though she is a little rattled to discover a competing business opening nearby and her best friend acting strangely.
Scene 1: The city of Berkeley wakes up to another beautiful California morning. Ethyl goes about her morning routine, which she clearly never deviates from: makes tea, lets the cat out, waters the ferns, eats oatmeal, does the crossword puzzle, rides her bike to her flower stand.
Scene 2: Ethyl sells flowers to a modest amount of customers, including a rude woman (Hortense) who asks a suspicious amount of questions about Ethyl’s business. Ethyl comments to a customer that someone has leased the vacant store across the street and the customer informs her they heard it’s also going to be a florist.
Scene 3: Ethyl goes to Oona’s house for their traditional “Wine Wednesday” dinner. They laugh and talk. Oona opens a bottle of still-aging wine worth a lot of money and when Ethyl pushes her as to why she’s opening it now, she brushes it off. Oona gets tired earlier than usual and Ethyl goes home, mildly concerned.
Sequence two: Ethyl discovers Hortence is the owner of the new competing flower shop and Oona reveals she is dying of cancer.
Scene 1: Ethyl visits the new flower shop to be neighborly, however, Hortense…
You get the picture.
This kind of strategizing and planning doesn’t suit all writers, but if you’re nervous about crafting your first screenplay, then this kind of pre-planning can be incredibly helpful.
Additionally, if you’re swept up in a moment of inspiration, it may be far more productive (not to mention fun) to simply sit down and start writing. You can always revise what you have have on the page to fit a three-act structure, iron out story kinks, and refine your characters’ voices after you’ve begun the writing process. The first step is to simply begin, and get those words out there. Happy writing!