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How to Write a Movie Script - Screenwriting Tips 1

This is Part 1 of the CWN series on how to write a movie script. Here you'll find easy tips on getting started, coming up with your screenplay idea and developing your story. At the bottom of the page, you'll find links to related pages with screenwriting tips and information about free screenplay software.

How to write a movie script - Is screenwriting for you?

Some aspects of screenwriting that are special:

It's visual. Movies, above all, are series of images. Try an experiment: watch a movie on DVD with the sound off. I bet you can follow the whole story. More than theater plays, which tend to use dialogue to move their stories along, movies tell their stories in a visual form.

It follows defined conventions. Novels come in many lengths. But a screenplay for a feature film is about 100-120 pages long. In terms of structure, screenplays also follow a clearer set of rules than novels or short stories.

Of course, as an artist, you are free to break the rules, in the sense that no one will come to your house and arrest you for doing so. But no one's likely to produce your screenplay either.

It's collaborative. Before they're produced, screenplays are generally rewritten many times, by many different people. In fact, the screenwriter whose name appears on the final credits may not be the one who wrote the original screenplay. You can read interesting commentary about this on Alexandra Sokoloff's screenwriting blog.

It's geographically concentrated. You can write novels from Alaska or Tokyo or from your cell in a federal prison and get them published. Your chances of becoming a successful screenwriter, on the other hand, are a lot better if you live in L.A..

How to write a movie script - getting started

If you've decided to write a movie script, here are some questions to ask yourself.

What kind of script will you write?

Think about your favorite movies. Do you love a particular genre: romantic comedies, action films, horror? Your best bet is to write a movie script in the genre you like to watch. It's probably the one that you know the best, and your passion will come through in the writing.

Who will your hero(ine) be?

Maybe you already have a clear idea for a movie and know exactly who it will be about. Otherwise, you can get ideas for characters in a lot of places -- people you know, people you read about in the newspapers or who catch your eye in the supermarket or the bank. Whatever your situation, it can be helpful to fill out a character profile to get to know your character better.

The details you write in the character profile won't all have a place in your film script. But knowing as much as possible about your character will help you think of him or her as a real person. Then, as you're writing the script, you will be able to ask yourself at every moment, "What would he or she do now? What would he or she say? How would he or she respond to that?" This will allow you to make the right decisions for your screenplay. Some writers even report that their characters seem to take over and do the writing for them.

What is your conflict?

Movies are about conflicts, problems. If there's no conflict, if everyone's happy and there's peace and love on Earth, then there's no story. Nothing's happening. An audience has no reason to sit through two hours of nothing happening. They'd rather go back to their own miserable, but varied, lives.

How do you create a conflict? Think of something your hero desperately wants and put roadblocks in his path. Or give your hero a problem he has to solve urgently, and put roadblocks in the way of solving it. The movie will be about your hero's struggle to get past these roadblocks and reach his goal or solve his problem.

This means that the roadblocks have to be big enough to keep him busy. If your hero solves his problem in 5 minutes, you don't have much movie left (all this is assuming you're writing a feature-length film). On the other hand, your hero has to have an extremely good reason to go to all this trouble. If he just gives up and walks away (or if the audience thinks he should), then you don't have much of a movie there either.

What's your inciting incident?

Something happens in a movie that forces the hero act. Something yanks him off of his sofa, pries the beer out of his hand, and gives him no choice except to go after his goal right now. This event called the inciting incident, and it normally occurs between ten and fifteen pages into your screenplay.

Let's say your hero is happily watching a rerun of "Friends," when a spaceship crashes through his roof. Or he gets a phone call informing him his daughter has been kidnaped. Or the phone call is from his boss telling him he's fired. Or his beautiful new neighbor taps on his living room window, and he realizes that he's in love.

Any of these events is definitely going to get your hero off the couch. He can't just ignore the spaceship or the ransom call and go on watching his show to see if Ross and Rachel finally get it together. He has to react.

What's the status quo?

Movies often open with the status quo, business as usual, the hero's daily life before the inciting incident bursts into it like a wrecking ball. Then the spaceship lands in his living room, and there's no way it's going to be business as usual after that. But what is business as usual for your hero? What kind of life does your inciting incident interrupt? Your character profile can help you figure this out.

What is your story climax?

The story climax is the high point of your movie. It's the final showdown. It's when the hero finds his daughter's kidnappers in their hideout. Now it's either him or them. Either he gets his daughter back, or the kidnapers will kill both him and his daughter. Or it's when the hero of a romantic comedy rushes to the church to stop the heroine from marrying the wrong man (how many times have you seen this scene in movies? And as far as I can tell this never happens in real life. Not once have I been invited to a wedding where the bride ended up with someone different from the guy on the invitations).

If your movie is a series of battles between the hero and the roadblocks in his path, the climax is the decisive battle that wins or loses the war.

The climax takes place near the end of the movie. Everything that happens before it is building to that point. Afterward, the dust settles into place, and we see how things have ended up. The hero brings his kidnaped daughter home as the kidnaper is carted off to jail. The hero and heroine ride off together into the sunset.

Screenplay Structure - Screenwriting Tips 2
Here, you'll find a guide to screenplay structure, including advice on how to write a screenplay with the right number of pages, acts, scenes, and so on. This is Part 2 of the CWN series on how to write a movie script. Click here to go to Part 1 of the series. At the bottom of the page, you'll also find links to related pages with screenwriting tips and information about free screenplay software.

The basics of screenplay structure

Screenplays for feature-length movies tend to follow some fairly standard rules. That doesn't mean that you can't be creative. Any set of rules that applies to such wildly different films Shrek, Twilight, Million Dollar Baby, and Little Miss Sunshine probably has room for your creative vision as well.

As I said earlier, if you decide not to break the rules, no one's going to come and drag you off from jail. But no one's likely to produce your film either.

Let's talk numbers

Full-length screenplays are generally 100-120 pages, using formatting that I will discuss in a moment. The inciting incident (aka the event that gets your hero off his couch) normally takes place about ten or fifteen pages in.

The bulk of the screenplay shows the hero struggling against difficulties in order to reach a final goal. This struggle builds to the story climax, which takes place near the screenplay's end.

Different screenwriters and screenwriting teachers analyze the rest of the structure in different ways. Most agree that screenplays typically have three acts, or parts, basically a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Act 1 is about 30 pages and introduces the story. This is when we get to know the hero and when the inciting incident gets him out of his sofa and into battle mode. Act 2, about 60 pages, is the main part of the story. This is where your poor hero gets knocked around and the stakes get raised. His problems just get worse and worse, and the need to solve them seems more and more urgent. Act 3 is often a bit shorter than Act 1, maybe 20-30 pages. This is where you have the story climax, the final, last-ditch battle that determines the end of the movie. Then the dust clears and the hero rides off into the sunset (or gets trampled to death by his horse).

You can find a detailed analysis of the 3-act screenplay structure on Alexandra Sokoloff's wonderful writing blog.

In addition to three acts, Alexandra Sokoloff also proposes that screenplays can generally be broken down to eight fifteen-minute segments. Writer/Director Nathan Marshall, on the other hand, breaks the three acts into five key moments, including a point at about page 17, or 17-minutes into the screenplay, when the main conflict is laid out.

The structure of scenes

A feature-length screenplay is made of about 50-70 scenes. These scenes are the bricks in the wall, the beads in the necklace, the vertebrae in the spine, or whatever metaphor you want to insert here. Each scene has a setting (where it happens), a time, and something that is shown or happens. Each scene in your screenplay should have a purpose. It should either move your character closer or farther from his goal or should deepen the audience's understanding of the character or the situation.

In his book How to Write a Selling Screenplay, Christopher Keane suggests thinking of every scene as a tiny screenplay with its own beginning, middle, and end (it's often best to have an open ending, though, that leaves the audience wondering what will happen next). Christopher Keane refers to some advice on writing scenes from screenwriter William Goldman: decide what the central point of your scene is, then back up just a little and start your scene there.

Analyze screenplays

The best way to learn about screenplay structure is to read lot of screenplays and study how they're put together. You can find lots of screenplays on websites such as www.script-o-rama.com.

How to Write Screenplays - Screenwriting Tips 3

This is Part 3 of the CWN series on how to write screenplays. Click here to go to Part 1 of the series. At the bottom of the page, you'll also find links to related pages on how to write a movie script and information about free screenplay software.

How to write screenplays - Developing your script

Once you know what you're screenplay's going to be about and what's going to happen, how do you turn all that into an actual script?

In a 1990 New York Times interview, film maker David Lynch talks about regular visits to Bob's Big Boy, where he would drink chocolate shakes and coffee with lots of sugar, and then on his sugar high, he would write his movie ideas on paper napkins. In the same interview, David Lynch recommended the use of index cards as a screenwriting tool, a technique he learned when he studied with the Czech film maker Frank Daniel. "If you want to make a feature film, you get ideas for 70 scenes. Put them on 3-by-5 cards," Lynch explained. "As soon as you have 70, you have a feature film."

In the book How to Write a Selling Screenplay, Christopher Keane recommends going through two steps, The Mini Treatment and The Scene Breakdown, at least twice during the screenplay-writing process. The Mini Treatment involves quickly writing out the movie's story in 3-5 pages, divided into three acts. The Mini Treatment does not go into detail -- it is just a "this happens, and then this happens" summary. Then Christopher Keane gets out the old 3-by-5 index cards to break the story into scenes. Like David Lynch, he uses one card for each scene, and he jots down the main points of the scene in just a few sentences.

Before you start to suspect that I have just invested my life savings in the 3-by-5 index card industry, I will mention that there are a number of writing softwares which reproduce the notecard thing in a virtual form, with added bells and whistles besides. Scrivener and Writer's Blocks are two such softwares which currently both offer free trials so you can have a look and see if they're for you.

How to write screenplays - Script format

It is important to use standard formatting for your screenplay to show that you're a professional. There are a number of free tools available that can help you do it. Click here to read about different types of free screenwriting software.

www.screenwriting.info, www.visualwriter.com/HowTo/Format.htm,
www.guardian.co.uk › Culture › Film

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