Fundamentals of Beginning Screenwriting

Screenwriting can seem like an intimidating process. The format seems too technical, even the font is odd. Of course, the format and the font are functional, allowing a known pace relationship between screen and script. In general, one page of a screenplay will equal one minute of screen time.

I’m not going to spend a bunch of time on the format of the screenplay. There are a lot of books out there, and quite frankly, you can get free software from Celtx that will basically format the thing for you. What I want to do is lay out the process I use for screenwriting.

This process was taught to me by Ron Peterson, a screenwriter and story editor, in his bootcamp. It was the first writing workshop I ever attended, and I learned a lot about screenplay structure from his class. All credit goes to him for this process. Since then, though, I have read a lot of screenwriting books, and most processes are similar.

Ron has what he calls a five step process. It is as follows:

1)      Determine your plot points.

2)      Write character biographies.

3)      Write an outline.

4)      Sequence the script.

5)      Write the screenplay.

Your plot points are basically act breaks.  When I am writing them, I will also jot down my premise on the same page. My plot points will be associated with my premise. Your major plot points are the Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1, the Mid-Point, Plot Point 2, and the Climax.

The inciting incident occurs approximately ten minutes into the movie, and is the thing that sets the story in motion.

I think of Plot Point 1 as being the protagonist’s first reaction to that inciting incident.  It happens around twenty minutes into the movie (the end of the first act) and starts him towards his objective.

The Mid-Point is half-way through your script probably around the fifty minute mark, depending on the length of the movie. Something about the way your character is going about his goal will change due to a major event, although not as big as the two Plot Points, this is a big part of your script.

This will lead to Plot Point 2, an incident which sets up the climax and drives the protagonist to the resolution of the conflict. This occurs at around seventy pages in to the script (the end of the second act).

The climax is self-explanatory. The drama comes to a head, the story question is answered, and the loose ends are tied up. This happens around page ninety.

Most scripts are laid out in this way. It sounds like a formula, but it is based on classical dramatic structure, and it works. It’s what the industry expects to see. Most scripts, you can almost turn to that page area and find the plot points without reading anything else.

You could look at this as being restrictive, but it really isn’t. In fact, it is liberating. You have five major incidents already decided. You spend the 20 to 30 pages between each getting from one to another and building your subplots.

That is where the character bios and your outline come in to play. Character bios are just what they sound like. The important thing is that by defining your characters in a more detailed fashion, you find subplots and conflicts that might not be apparent, otherwise.

The outline is not as technical as it sounds. For our purpose, the writer’s purpose of writing a spec script, the outline is just a narrative of what happens. This is not a treatment for presentation.  We are just getting out story thoughts down on paper. This is quick, dirty, stream of consciousness storytelling. Just get it down on the page. Ten to twenty pages, whatever you need. Be as detailed as you want, or as vague as you want. You are developing your idea. There is no need for scene headings or even dialogue unless something specifically good comes to mind that you want to make sure you remember later. Just get the story down.

When you sequence the script, you break down that outline in to individual scenes. You can put them on note cards, or use the note card system in Celtx or Scrivner. The important thing is that we are breaking the narrative, plot, and sub-plots into moveable pieces. From there, you arrange your cards in the way that works the best. You can color code your plot and each sub-plot, and then weave them together in a congruent story.

Now that you have your plot sequenced, all that is left is to write the script. By the time you have done all the prep work, this is pretty simple. Be open to change, as needed. After all, you may get another idea or think of something that works better as you are writing. Either way, the majority of the leg work is over at that point. It is just a matter of getting your story into a presentation format.

All of this may sound intimidating and like it is a lot of work. But once you try it, you will find that writing a screenplay is a very obtainable goal. Try it this April as part of Script Frenzy. By the end of the month, you will be able to call yourself a screenwriter.

Good luck and happy writing.