Feb 2011 09

by Brett Warner

Go to any Starbucks in New York or Los Angeles and you’re guaranteed to find yuppie after yuppie, hunched over their MacBooks, working on a “screenplay.” By “screenplay,” of course, I mean Facebook…or online poker…or SuicideGirls – hopefully. There are a lot of screenplays floating around out there, though, and only an infinitesimal percentage of them will ever make it to the big screen one day. Why? Because most of them are shit. 99% of them are makeshift, amateurishly conceived pats on the back. Most movies are bad, so writing a screenplay must by extension be a piece of cake, right? Yeah, no. Even the most bloated, awful Hollywood blockbusters start out with a good screenplay. Hard to believe, but it’s true.

The biggest misconception about screenwriting — other than it’s incredibly easy — is that it’s just creative writing with different formatting, when in reality, a script is closer in function to a blueprint for a house. It’s the instruction manual which is constantly referred to by the director, actors, cinematographers, set dressers, costume designers, editors, composers, and everybody else.

That said, anyone can learn how to build a better house. At the risk of enabling the competition, I’ve put together ten concise ways to take your well-intentioned crack at film writing and make it into something readable, workable, and (hopefully) filmable.

[Neyrissa in Movie Marathon]

Step 1. Watch a lot of movies.

It seems painfully obvious, but cannot be reiterated enough. The movies at your local multiplex, on your Netflix queue, in the bargain bin at Target, they all did something right. You can learn some invaluable do’s and don’ts from every type of film, everything from the stuffy Jane Austen adaptation to the latest torture porn sequel. Watch a lot of movies all the time and pay special attention to rhythm, tone, and dialogue.

Step 2. Read a few classic screenplays.

Also obvious, but pick a few films that you think really hit the spot and hunt down a copy of the screenplay. Soak in all the formatting choices and little nuances you can. Most likely, you’ll be surprised at how little of the eventual film is actually spelled out on the page. The best screenplays suggest the entire breadth of the finished film in as few lines as possible. Less is always more in a screenplay.

Step 3. You need an idea.

If somebody asks you what your screenplay is about and you start summarizing the plot, then your script is dead before the first INT. Start thinking about your story in looser, thematic terms. Is this a film about jealousy, about the plight of America’s working class, or about the personal struggle of a single mom with thirteen kids? Whatever it is, you need a concise, easy to verbalize idea that will thread itself through every character, scene, and line of dialogue. A script is not supposed to be real life — everything is there to serve an ultimate dramatic purpose. If you can’t sum up the “big idea” of your screenplay in a sentence or two, then it doesn’t have one.

Step 4. Pick your audience.

When writing a screenplay, you must constantly have two sets of people on either shoulder constantly keeping you in check: the people that will eventually be reading this thing, and the dopey idiots sitting in the theater watching it. The first group reads a thousand scripts a day, usually gets bored halfway through page one and tosses it out before turning to page two. Throw out any notions that your screenplay will be a meticulously paced, gradually escalating thrill to read — you need to fucking astound right away. The first page of your screenplay needs to be the most exciting page you’ll ever write in your life. Which isn’t to say that every movie needs to start out with a dead body landing in the middle of Fifth Avenue or a massive explosion or something, but you need to set up right away what’s going to attract producers and talent to this project. Your “big idea” needs to be there in those first few lines of screen action.

Secondly, you have to be able to visualize this screenplay as a finished film. Who’s going to want to see it? Ideally, everyone, but take the time to imagine what demographic your story will resonate with. What rating will it have? Try to picture who’s going to give a shit about your movie — if you can’t, you’re going to have a hard time selling your script down the road.

Step 5. Understand the Three/Five Act Structure.

This is the part that amateur writers really don’t like, but I cannot reiterate enough that a screenplay is like a tightly wound watch — it must have a consistent rhythm and ruthlessly precise structure. There’s no absolute rule as to how many acts your story needs, but certain things have to happen at certain times. For example, act one in every film occurs with the presentation of the dramatic problem. Could happen five minutes in, could happen halfway through, but there is always a dramatic problem and the first act’s purpose is build the bedrock for that conflict. Classic Agatha Christie example: somebody in the mansion gets killed. There’s Act One. Act Two consists of all the examining and questioning and investigating. Characters suspect one another, accusations get thrown, motivations get acted upon — all that exciting stuff. Act Three is the final execution of an attempt to solve the conflict. (i.e. They find the murderer… or they don’t.)

Blah blah blah…the point being that Dorothy doesn’t wake up back in Kansas halfway through The Wizard of Oz, nor does the tornado scoop up her house before she sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Even the hardest to follow films follow the same basic structural principles. Watch a lot of films, read a lot of screenplays, and you’ll begin to understand why “the happy ending” always comes at the end.

Step 6. Know everyone’s motivations.

It’s extremely important to understand why your characters are going to say what they say and do what they do. No one does anything without a self-serving motivation – it’s not being cynical, it’s simply true. Feeding the poor makes you feel good, robbing the bank will help you pay your bills, etc. So throughout every scene and every single line of dialogue, you have to keep in mind what each character’s goals are and how he/she is going about trying to obtain them. We don’t do random dramatic things without reason, so your characters shouldn’t be either.

Step 7. Don’t write awful dialogue.

When you have a moment, stop and listen to two random people talking to one another. It will astonish you how dissimilar it is to movie dialogue — in real life, people never say what they actually mean and very rarely does one line of dialogue follow logically from another. When you’re having a chat with somebody and they’re telling a story about their summer vacation, you’re mentally preparing your own follow-up: you’ll tell them about your own vacation, or a different story that happened at that vacation spot, or why you don’t like vacationing, etc. There is meaning behind everything we say, and that needs to happen on screen for your characters to be at all believable. No break-up scene should ever start out with the beyond-blunt line “I want to break up with you.” No, it starts out with “Jim, I think we should take a few minutes to just talk.”

Additionally, people have their own unique voice. No two people talk with the same rhythm, or with the same word choice and mannerisms. So each of your characters should have their own style of dialogue, a style that says something about who they are. The shell-shocked army vet, the illiterate prostitute, and the boisterous Congressman are not going to talk the same way, so write their dialogue accordingly.

Step 8. Write an honest ending.

A lot of moviegoers won’t accept anything other than a happy, loose-ends-free ending. As a writer, your only obligation in how you end the damn thing is to be honest and loyal to what you’ve been trying to say throughout the entire film. Apocalypse Now is about the surreal, spiritually crippling horrors of war, and appropriately ends with Martin Sheen putting down his weapon and walking away. Don’t write a happy ending if you don’t need one. Like I said, your characters are self-motivated little bastards and shouldn’t always get what they want. Just stay true to your “big idea” and the ending will present itself to you.

Step 9. Revise and rewrite.

Seriously, no screenplay in the history of movie making ever went straight from first draft to production. Your first draft will be garbage, guaranteed. There will be plot holes, characters will say things that don’t ever pay off, you’ll have a character with a gun but forget to have them pick it up, etc. The point is to just finish a draft and have something to work with. By the time it’s finished, your screenplay will be the tightest piece of machinery you’ve ever seen. No line of dialogue or direction will be wasted, every single word will be carefully chosen, and anyone reading your screenplay will be able to keenly visualize a finished film.

Step 10. Share it with somebody who knows this stuff.

Your mom and your boyfriend are not the best people to ask for an honest critique. Share it with somebody in the film business, or a fellow screenwriter, or anybody who understands the specific set of rules that a screenplay must follow to get an idea of how well yours is coming along. Be sure to copyright EVERY draft (you can do it by online or by mail for a few bucks courtesy of the WGA – and you don’t even need to be a member) before you send it around unless you want to see a line of your dialogue or even your entire story raking in millions without your name anywhere on it. Most of all, don’t be discouraged. If screenwriting is something you really want to pursue, then take it seriously enough to fuck up enough times before you start to stand up straight with it.

Remember: movies can be awful, but a screenplay has to be great. Otherwise, Anthony Hopkins will never agree to star in it.