10 Things About Writing A Screenplay

1. Just A Blueprint

A novel is a finished product. A film is a finished product. A screenplay is just a blueprint. It’s just a template. You’re creating the possibility of a film, not the final product. Let that free you.

2. Writing To Be Read Before Writing To Be Seen

A script has to read well before it ever makes it onto a screen. Nobody reads a shitty script and says, “This sucks out loud on the page, but boy, it’s going to look awesome on the screen.” Well, okay, Michael Bay might say that. But then he rides his cyborg tiger into the heart of an atomic cloud to the tune of some Aerosmith song.

3. Story Is King, And The Characters Serve As His Pleasure

A screenplay fails first because of its crapgasmic story. Not just plot, but story. Story is all of it: plot, characters, theme, mood. You’re trying to say something, trying to tell a cracking good tale. Characters are the vehicle for that story. We’re going to spend two hours with, what? Boring characters? Dull story? Unlikable and unbelievable plot?

4. The Three-Act Structure Matters

I know. You want to fight against the three-act structure. You want to kick and spit and break the bonds of this straitjacket The Man has slapped you into. Don’t. The three-act structure is here to stay. Trust me when I say, producers and directors look for it. They seek those act breaks. Here’s the trick, though: the three acts are nowhere near as limiting as people pretend. They’re very easy and translate roughly to Beginning, Middle, and End. And out of each act is a turn, a pivot point of change and escalation. Hit those acts at 25%, 50%, and 25% of your script’s total length (Act I, II, and III, respectively) and you’re golden.

5. The Secret Act Break Smack In The Middle Of The Script

Don’t tell anybody else. I’m sharing this just with you. Take off your pants and I’ll tell you. Are they off? Sweet. HA HA HA HA JUST KIDDING NOW YOU’RE PARTLY NAKED AND VULNERABLE AND NOW I WILL ATTACK YOUR PRIVATE PARTS WITH BEES. … okay, that was weird. I apologize. Here’s the secret: the second act can really be two acts with the act turn smack dab at the midpoint of the whole script. Treat these like any act: escalation leads to an act turn which means some kind of pivot or change, both external and internal.

6. 90-110
Your script should be between 90-110 pages. Especially if it’s a spec script. Going to 120 pages is… regrettable, but doable. Going above 120 or below 90 can be death for your script.

7. Too Many Characters Fouls The Orgy
A script with too many characters feels hazy and crazy. It’s like making a soup with too many spices or having an orgy with too many participants. Then it just becomes a greasy, smelly game of Twister. “Left leg, some guy’s pubic tangle. Right leg, shellacked with a heady broth of somebody’s man-seed. OW MY EYE.” Keep major characters to five. With maybe another 10 to 15 lesser characters if need be. (That doesn’t count characters like SECURITY GUARD or CAMERAMAN ON PORN SET, by the way.) Remember: they all need to be fully realized, at least in your own head.

8. Go At Your Description With A Camping Hatchet

Want to trim up your script? Description goes first. Get in there with a hatchet, start choppity-chopping away. Hack away big portions of muscle and fat. Only way to kill the cancer is to cut it out. Go mean or go home. Because here’s the thing: the more story you can pack on the page, the more story gets to live on those 90-110 pages. Don’t. Waste. Space. Think of it as Manhattan real estate. Prime value.

9. Each Scene Has Purpose, And Each Purpose Is Complicated By Conflict

Every scene must justify its own existence. Scenes of redundancy don’t belong. THIS IS CINEMADOME. Two scenes enter. One scene leaves. How a scene creates a place for itself in your script is by having a purpose — no, not a porpoise, put that dolphin down. Dolphins are for closers only. Purpose, I said. A reason. And that purpose must be many-tiered: it must move forward the plot and develop character in equal measure. And that plot and those characters must be going through external conflict, internal conflict, or some combo-pack of both.

10. Expect It All To Change

Films are a major team effort. A screenwriter isn’t the one dictating the story. The screenwriter is the one helping to set the course for the story — but other hands hold the wheel. Producers. The director. Other writers. Whatever mule-kicked marmot they put in charge of the studio. (I kid, I kid.) The story will shift and twitch and grow new limbs and have new dreams and sometimes it’ll be made better, sometimes it’ll be made worse, and other times it’ll just be made different. All of this needs to be okay. Let that stress of egomaniacal autocratic storytellerism leave your body. Expect it all to change. Find comfort — and, in fact, freedom — from that. Find power in collaboration.

This is a snippet of the essay, “25 Things You Should Know About Writing A Screenplay,” which comes from my new e-book, 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING, which talks about writing dialogue, plot, character, and other dizzying feats of penmonkey derring-do. The e-book goes for $0.99, and can be found at Amazon, B&N, and sold direct as a PDF from terribleminds.

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   Chuck said on July 26, 2011 at 3:34 pm

To clarify — your acts are broken up in to 25/50/25. First act ends at 25% of your script, second act ends at the 50% mark. Third act comprises the final 25% — and that ends whenever it ends. :)

— c.

   Tamara LeBlanc said on July 26, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Awesome post!!!
I don’t write screenplays, but fiction writers can benefit just as much.

   Lee said on July 26, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Chuck, good writing, bad maths. Second act ends at the 75% mark but takes up %50 (I have no idea why I’m known as “The Pesky Brit”).

I love your writing style, off to investigae with e-book thingermyjig. For under the price of one of the queen’s very own pound coins, it feels too good to be true!

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