Here you are: Phase 2 on your moviemaking adventure! Screenwriting can sound rather intimidating. It can at times just sound like a lot of work (maybe a waste of time?) when you are really interested in just shooting your movie.
But it is vital to creating a movie that is well thought out and interesting for your audience.
Plus, if you have already completed Phase 1 and already thought out your setting, script writing will just be that much easier.
So here are the tasks that you will need to accomplish to get your script on the right path. Let's start by reviewing the tasks:
Written out like that, it doesn't really seem too difficult, so now let's dive into the details--step by step.
The three main sources for screenwriting ideas are original stories from your brain, favorite books, and true events from history.
Original stories are, by far, the most difficult material to use for movie making. It can be very hard to write a plot and develop characters when you are making it up as you go along.
Personally, I believe that it takes a whole different set of thinking skills to create a good story. However, what you have are the skills and enthusiasm to make a movie.
If you are like most independent filmmakers, you are excited to get to the camera and the costumes, not spending a ton of time developing an elaborate and time-consuming story
The only plus to using an original story is that you don't need to worry about any sort of copyright infringements.
The easiest original stories to write are ones that take place in modern times, which can be hard to find an inspiring storyline for. The best and easiest thing to do: avoid original stories.
Unless you have a very strong story, not very many people are going to be interested. Sorry.
If you do choose to use an original stories, think really hard about your characters. If you have a knack for writing your own story, that's great. Just make sure you still work through every step of this screenwriting phase.
The second source hotspot for screenwriting is found in old novels.
A book which has not been copyrighted within the last 75 years is up for whatever you want to do with it.
These books are in the public domain.
Not sure what the copyright date is on your book? Check the inside cover, the most recent date listed after the publisher is the copyright date.
Still not sure? Look for the book on LibriVox. All books on LibriVox are in the public domain.
Using an old story will capture audiences because they are tried and true, and many people have already read or heard about them and trust that they are good stories.
Among the many pros to lifting scripts from old novels are:
For Outlaws of Ravenhurst, many people said they had read the book and were looking to see if a film was ever made of it and found Industrious Family that way!
In the great library of old stories, you can “hire” the master story-making minds from across the whole history of literature.
Plus, all genres can be found in literature.
And remember it is not a shameful thing to use good stories that are not all your own. Walt Disney formed his career around the retelling of fairytales.
A third and final source for screenwriting material is history. There are many interesting and inspiring stories of virtuous heroes found throughout the course of history.
Historic films are popular because people feel a connection with the characters.
The idea that these were real people who lived in the same world and probably suffered similar trials in their private lives is appealing to everyone.
Everyone has his own favorite period of history and is happy to watch any movie he can about that era. When we made Max & Carlota there were quite a few people who were interested in the movie because they were interested in the Hapsburg family line.
Answer these questions about Task 1 before moving on to the next task:
Once you have selected your source and idea, draw a mountain. Yes, a mountain.
Think of your script as a journey--because it is one!
You have your main character, who is usually presented with a problem in the beginning:
...Marred for life
...Got struck and is now void of all sense
...Needs to find out the secret behind a sudden and mysterious death
...Has been locked into a tower from infancy and now wants to see the world
..Is stuck making muffins from broccoli...You name it!
There is always a problem or challenge.
Your character is challenged to overcome his problem, which is what is commonly called the plot. You now need to divide your story into three sections: exposure, climax, and resolution.
The first quarter of your movie should be dedicated to exposure. This is the part where you meet the character, find out his greatest flaw, his greatest fear, or any other background which may be important later.
The middle half, the climax, is where the problem reaches its highest intensity and the character must either overcome it or resign himself to it. This part should be able to stand alone as a story.
The ending quarter is the resolution, where you put the audience back on the ground, resting assured that the ending was satisfying. This is where the problem is solved.
Inside of the main mountain are smaller hills. These are the various other problems and their solutions found throughout the story. Draw these inside of your main mountain.
Penciling-in each of these hills with the event's focus will help remind you later while you are writing.
Above is the original mountain that we drew when brainstorming Grisly Grisell. As you can see, we have the estimated duration written out beneath the mountain. Each crease represents the supporting climaxes. Written in each crease are notes about each segment.
Climbing up the mountain are the sections of exposure ("introduction"), climax ("middle"), and resolution separated into 1/4, 1/2, and 1/4 format.
A word about estimating film duration: We have found that a page of script equals about an hour of filming, a minute of edited scene. So, referring to the drawing above, we were planning on a 120 page script for a 120 minute film.
For our company, this is basically a one year project.
I know that this is all a lot to take in, so let me lead you through a few examples to solidify these ideas.
Let's say you are planning your movie to be an hour long.
You are going to want to have 15 minutes of exposure, 30 minutes of climax, and 15 minutes of resolution. Make sense?
Now for a breakdown of what composes the exposure, climax, and resolution using Outlaws of Ravenhurst as an example.
In the beginning, you meet the Gordon (George Abell) with his Catholic American family. He is suddenly and quickly taken away from this life and family by his evil Uncle Roger and Godfrey.
These two show their true colors in the carriage scene. You understand that they are both Protestants who are steadfast in their resolve to make the new Gordon the same.
You also meet the Gordon's mother, who is also a Catholic, and encourages him to stay true no matter what the cost.
This entire opening part of the movie we call exposure.
Next, comes the climax. This escalates with the Gordon resisting his uncle's will and instead staying true to the Faith. Then all that follows: meeting Father Stephen, being locked in his room, escape, meeting his father, going to save the clan.
These events make up the climax.
The climax is the most important part of your movie. It should be strong enough to stand alone without the exposure and resolution. It would, of course, feel abrupt, but it should still tell a complete story.
Now comes the resolution: Clan Gordon escapes to the colonies. The Gordon is reunited with his adopted family, the Abells.
The entire clan is allowed to live and raise their children in the Faith in peace without fear of pressure and intimidation from the state.
The audience is given the sense of, The story is told. You may return to your own lives now.
The underlying bumps would be when the Gordon is torn from his family, when he and Sir Roger have their first confrontation about the Faith, when Sir Roger whisks the Gordon's mother from him and makes her appear to not care about him, when Sir Roger whips the Gordon, and when the Gordon must escape from the castle.
These all have their own problems and solutions which support the main mountain. Although these are of lesser importance, they still add to the overall quality of the storytelling.
I'm sure you are just itching to "finally get some work done" and get the first draft of your script ready. Don't worry, you're finally there.
And please know that all this preparation is necessary to reduced frustration later on in your project. So let's get started on the actual typing part of this job.
First things first: Decide on the genre of your film. Do you want it to be a:
Once you have decided the genre, try to constantly refer back to it while you are screenwriting. Another thing to always keep in mind is your resolution, how the story ends. Make sure that your entire script is working towards the ending.
Don't forget to refer back to your mountain. Although the mountain is a good guide, it is only that--a guide. If you think something that you didn't think of before makes sense to have in the film, add it. If something in your bump is not quite jiving with the rest of the story, delete it.
The truth is, you never know when you start screenwriting what actual events will appear in the script or which ones will remain in the finished script. Be creative and don't be afraid to make changes.
Your mountain is a tool and you are not a slave to it!
When writing Grisly Grisell, Mary and I really hacked and added until we found a story we could easily tell.
Yes, we had to say "Good bye" to some characters and suffer the pain that always comes with leaving friends behind, but our story was all the stronger for it. Some of the other characters were altered to be more dramatic or to take up the places left by the deleted characters.
Another great tool that will be a tremendous help before you sit down to your script is knowing your actors.
Many hard-to-deliver and understand lines can be avoided this way.
For example: There are some scenes in Max & Carlota that I wrote especially for particular actors. Like the Napoleon III scenes for Jonah Lawrence. It is crucial that actors understand what they are saying.
If they don't understand their lines, you can bet that your audience will not either. Another thing to note here is that it is best (and something I definitely struggle with myself!) to keep your lines at a fourth grade reading level.
It is best if the audience can follow with ease. Most people watch movies to relax and don’t want to feel as though they are straining all of their thinking faculties to interpret your fifteenth century English.
If this is your first film, try to use people you are comfortable bossing around. As you make more and more films, you start to get to know certain people better and what they are capable of delivering.
We will talk about working with actors and hosting acting guilds in more detail in Phases 5 & 6.
The next step to screenwriting is to write the skeleton of your story. This is much more crucial when your script is based on an original story or events from history. When you are lifting a story from a book, the book itself is pretty much your skeleton.
When lifting a script, skim through the table of contents and write down a list of the strictly necessary chapters.
Although some of the content is all right while you are sitting with your tea, cuddled up with your blankie, and reading the book, the scene that tells the entire history of the Gordon family is quite lengthy for a movie, and sometimes only adds confusion for the audience. We had to make this adjustment when we were making Outlaws of Ravenhurst.
There just isn’t enough time during the span of a movie to keep up as the viewer. Make your list of chapters and don’t look back.
Next, write a very rough idea of what your movie is going to look like. It doesn't have to be long; it doesn't have to be interesting. It can be as detailed or as bare bones as you want.
It could be an outline.
Read through it and make sure that all your important points are there. Make sure that it follows your mountain. Are you really passionate enough about the story to turn it into an interesting movie?
If you scrap it now, you haven't lost much time, sweat or interest.
Really think about it:
If you answered "no" to either of these questions, seriously consider going back to Phase 1 with and brainstorm a new story.
Once you are sure you want to keep going, move to your screenwriting software for some scripting. I use FinalDraft12 and highly recommend using it.
This software comes all ready to start rock'n!
It has memory of characters so that you don't have to type them in every time. Seems like a small thing, but it is a major time saver. Overall this is a great program if you really want to be serious about moviemaking. It saves time, frustration, and I am still finding features that make me love it more and more!
Recently I found a feature that has reports for characters, locations, and scenes in the "Tools" section. These reports have really helped with planning our shot list and planning shoot days!
Begin to flesh out your story.
Although the earlier tasks probably only took you a few days or weeks each, plan on this task taking you at least two months. Don't feel discouraged if it takes you longer. Great things take time to create.
Keep in mind that all your characters need to be distinct. Having an idea of who your actors will be is a tremendous help because you don't tend to make real people all the same. You will probably unconsciously draw in your actor's personality which is bound to be different from all the other actors.
An easy way to keep characters distinct is to find one flaw and one virtue that is going to be that character's virtue and flaw. If it is a main character, he usually conquers this flaw with the virtue.
This technique will keep you from blending all the characters into one person.
For example: In Aladdin, Aladdin's greatest flaw is the pretension he is playing. He loves Jasmine, but has to live the lie in order to marry her. He is willing to do anything to do that.
His greatest virtue is, in a way, honesty. In the end, he is willing to say that he messed up and walk away from all he had been working for. Even freeing the genie when he could have gotten it all back.
This honesty wins the Sultan's respect, Aladdin in turn wins what he wanted all along-the princess' hand. Win-win. The audience is happy and you have a winner!
Follow your outline and mountain to write the story. Think of movies you've seen for ideas on how to present dialogue. No character ever says, "Hey, my name is Michael. Here is my life story..."
Instead, the most important character's background is presented during the exposure period. It is not all told in the opening scene, sometimes it is the mystery the movie is based on.
In The King's Speech, for example, the audience spends the entire movie piecing together Bertie's childhood.
Another thing is, if the character's background is not important, don't include it. Most side characters don't give background and in most cases it is not needed.
Be careful with your climax, you want the audience to be at this part blankly pushing more popcorn in their mouths without leisure time to take their eyes off the screen. This is where they are totally arrested with the story and need the solution soon.
While screenwriting, don't go plummeting from your climax to the resolution. Remember you have a quarter of the movie to wind down. And don't forget to let your audience know that this is the wind down.
You can feel when a movie is nearing the end because everything is calming down a little and all the loose strings are coming to an artistic bow.
Give this sense to your audience by ending the climax and working slowly through the resolution. Don't sum up the movie in the last two minutes.
Your beginning is supposed to sell the movie. The last thing you want is for your audience to watch the first fifteen minutes, yawn and then wander into the kitchen to see if there are any scraps of food.
You want their attention captured so that thinking about a little snacky-snack is out of the question.
Making a movie is a bit like taking someone on a hot air balloon ride. They agree to go for pleasure, granted that you bring them back down to earth in a reasonable amount of time and after you have fulfilled any prior promises as to what they will see.
This is another part of the process when I highly recommend analyzing your favorite movies. How do they begin. There are basically three kinds of beginnings:
A shocker shows something visually exciting that stops abruptly, commonly followed by the opening credits. A murder, a sudden ambush, an execution, or a hair-breadth escape can often open the film.
It is regularly followed by a more calm opening that either follows the same character or drops him in suspense, showing a seemingly unrelated story that ties in during the climax.
A half-story is not usually visually exciting, just confusing. All the characters are excited about something: a death, a birth, whatever, but the audience is left confused as to what the exact cause is or whose death or birth is causing the excitement.
Movies that open with a backstory usually have a long involved history that would be very difficult to show or explain in the film. One of the main characters or a narrator tells the story while visual aids are employed to accompany the backstory.
The rest of the film is told through the characters, with minimal narration.
The setup is similar to telling the backstory but is told through the characters. An initial conversation filling in details without feeling forced tells the audience the purpose of the story.
Genre greatly determines what kind of opening you are going to want to use. Thrillers, action and adventures, mysteries, and tragedies often have a shocker or half-story opening. Romances and tragedies typically open with backstories. Mysteries and comedies regularly have set-up beginnings.
Think about your genre and what kind of beginning that will be most fitting for your film. Be creative and have fun with your captivating introduction.
When you make a movie, you take your audience on a journey. This could be...
...exciting, romantic, tragic, fulfilling or even comical, but this adventure always ends by letting the audience go.
At the end, they can go back to life without feeling a sense of incompletion. This is an essential part of your movie: the ending.
Your movie can end in a variety of ways. There's the:
Whatever you do, choose one and stick with it. Don't try to combine them.
The cute movie ending endears the film to your audience. Typical of a romance, this kind of ending resolves all the problems and ends with a wedding or a celebration.
The hole in your heart ending inspires and saddens the audience. You must include an inspiring note to this kind of ending, otherwise your audience is just going to think, "Wow...that was really dumb." If you want tears, you also want a swelling feeling of inspiration.
The inspiring ending is an ending that leaves your audience feeling inspired. A death does not always have to be the event that inspires. Sometimes the most inspiring films are the ones about the main character overcoming the challenge (like in The King's Speech).
Pick your ending emotion and present it in the most creative and simple way possible. Although this may seem to be mostly the job of the actors and cinematographers, the screenwriting can do much to illicit the right feelings for the cast and crew to do their part to the fullest.
Once you have completed your beginning and ending, print the script out and review it. You will catch all the little mistakes on paper that you might miss on the computer.
You don't need a whole bunch of consultants. Just three:
For us, our producer is our grammar reader. She is very good at seeing the things that are written wrong as well as catching any story elements that needs more or less explaining. Find someone you think would be good at this job for your project.
When I say "a detached friend," I mean someone detached from the story. This is a person who will tell you what things are unnecessary and what doesn't make sense.
After writing the screenplay and reading through it twice, you are really attached and everything is necessary and makes sense because you wrote it. That is why you need someone who will be honest and has no loyalty to the story to analyze it for you.
This is the truly pruning part of screenwriting:
Prune, prune, prune until it is perfect!
After you have made edits as suggested, choose a priest and send it to him to look over for any theological errors there might be.
This is a must do!
Even if the story is not particularly Catholic, you don’t want to make a movie that is theologically incorrect and even a slight danger to faith, especially the sensitive faith of young children. Although you are not intending it to be so, certain small things may escape your notice.
This may seem like it takes a lot of time, and it does, but you will end up with a strong story that is worth telling.
Using Grisly Grisell as an example, it took me about 15 hours total to write the first script, after having gotten it down to 80 pages on my own. Then I reviewed it with the director and producer.
We spent about 5 hours on it. Next I sent it out to a few consultants. Fixing their edits took me probably another hour. The director, producer and I looked it over one more time, really polishing it: another 2 hours.
So perfecting a one-hour film script takes about 23-25 hours from start to completion. For my pace, it's about 3 months worth of work.
With all this advice, you may feel more overwhelmed than ever, but don't get low. Screenwriting is fun once you get started. Dare I say...it's almost addicting. Once you get going, all you will want to do is work on it and get 'er done.
Happy screenwriting! Once you have completed this phase, you will be ready to move onto Phase 3, How To Create A Proposal.
Did I miss something on this page? Do you have any more questions about your current screenplay, our current screenplay, screenwriting in general? Please leave it below. I'd be happy to help you with them!