The Key Stages of Script Development
There are a number of stages in the evolution of a screenplay, and each stage usually requires various drafts. Each stage has a specific purpose as you proceed, step-by-step, from a general outline of your story to a script that contains the full dimensions of your film, including locations, actions, dialogue, sounds, movements, etc. This process of working and reworking your film’s story material, adding, cutting, or refining details along the way, is called script development.
The concept is a very brief outline of the basic elements involved in your story. It describes the dramatic engine that will drive the story in no more than a few sentences. Who is in this film (protagonist)? What do they want, what gets in the way, and what do they do (goal + conflict = actions)? And where does it all take place (location)? Once you have determined the basic, but specific, elements of your story, and understand how they work together, you are ready to write a treatment.
The treatment is a prose description of the plot, written in present tense, as the film will unfold for the audience, scene by scene. A treatment is a story draft where the writer can hammer out the basic actions and plot structure of the story before going into the complexities of realizing fully developed scenes with dialogue, precise actions, and setting descriptions. The treatment is the equivalent of a painter’s sketch that can be worked and reworked before committing to the actual painting. It’s much easier to cut, add, and rearrange scenes in this form, than in a fully detailed screenplay.
Generally, a treatment involves writing one paragraph for each major dramatic event, also called a narrative beat. A narrative beat is a dramatic event in which the action, decisions, or revelations of that moment move the plot forward either by intensifying it or by sending it in a new direction. In other words, a treatment sketches in the essential events. For a short film, a treatment might be one to three pages long. For very simple short films, you can simply write one sentence describing each scene or each narrative beat. This shorter version is called a step outline or a beat sheet.
The author’s draft is the first complete version of the narrative in proper screenplay format. The emphasis of the author’s draft is on the story, the development of characters, and the conflict, actions, settings, and dialogue. The author’s draft goes through a number of rewrites and revisions on its way to becoming a final draft, which is the last version of the author’s draft before being turned into a shooting script. The aim of an author’s draft is to remain streamlined, flexible, and “readable.” Therefore, technical information (such as detailed camera angles, performance cues, blocking, or detailed set description) is kept to an absolute minimum. It is important not to attempt to direct the entire film, shot-for-shot, in the author’s draft. The detailed visualization and interpretation of the screenplay occurs during later preproduction and production stages.
Once you have completed your rewrites and arrived at a final draft, you will be ready to take that script into production by transforming it into a shooting script. The shooting script is the version of the screenplay you take into production, meaning the script from which your creative team (cinematographer, production designer, etc.) will work and from which the film will be shot. A shooting script communicates, in specific terms, the director’s visual approach to the film. All the scenes are numbered on a shooting script to facilitate breaking down the script and organizing the production of the film. This version also includes specific technical information about the visualization of the movie, like camera angles, shot sizes, camera moves, etc.
Excerpt from Voice and Vision: A Creative Approach to Narrative Film and DV Production, 2nd Edition by Mick Hurbis-Cherrier © 2012, Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
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