The Basics of Screenwriting: 3 Tips for Your First Draft

It’s so easy to write a screenplay, or is it? I mean think about it, less words on the page and less words than a novel in general. Less pages, more spaces, easier opportunity to write a gripping narrative. After embarking on two feature scripts of my own as well as several short films, I’ve discovered the opposite is true. So let’s get down to basics as to why this elusive craft of screenwriting is so technical. We’ll also address the importance of structure as relevant to the protagonist of your own story. 

 

1.) Less is More…At Least the First Time Around

Generally speaking, most Hollywood screenplays happen within three acts and are, on average, about 90-120 pages in length. These days, it’s rare to find a film that isn’t past the 90 minute mark. However, many indie films are closer to this time frame than typical box office flics. Before writing my first feature screenplay, my professors advised me to, “Write about a situation and character that could exist today.” Oh yeah, I couldn’t make it more than 90 pages either. This is when my real training began. The purpose of this was to see my writing in my most natural, stripped down voice, as well as challenge me to write something without any extra “help.” What I mean by this is that I couldn’t write anything supernatural or sci-fi. Don’t get into the habit of relying on extra plot devices that may not be needed. In my last blog, I mentioned the value of production friendly stories. To recap, this means to write something that wouldn’t need any extra visual effects or other costly elements. I’ll admit, my first film did have a lot of fantasy tones, specific costume needs, and locations that would definitely rack up cost in the real world. The second time around was much better. My advice to you is to try and write something that won’t need any extra “flare” the first time around. It will challenge your storytelling and help you stick to the 90 page mark. Staying around 90 pages will also help your structure training, which is what we’ll talk about next. 

 

2.) The Structure Playground

Ah yes, the technical “bones” of structure. Simple to learn but easy to do incorrectly if you don’t know what you’re doing. Before I took my play-writing and screenwriting classes, my scripts were not the best structure wise. Looking back, I can truly see just how sloppy they were. I had too many lines and chunks of unnecessary dialogue. Structure is important not only for onscreen pacing, but you’ll be taken much more seriously as a screenwriter. One of the most helpful rules I was surprised to learn is that you should never create headings more than three or four lines. Same goes for the actor’s lines (at least your first time). Be deliberate and strict with how you word scene description, direction, and dialogue. Here’s an example of a scene heading: 

 

INT. FRONT PORCH-DUSK

A MAN (20s) sits on a PORCH SWING. He wears a FLANNEL as he pushes a BOOT against the floorboards to rock himself back and forth, a CIGARETTE between his fingers. He stares off into the morning, deep in thought. 

 

A simple example just over three lines. I’ve kept myself in check with this rule for some time now and I’ve found it’s really helped keep my writing trim and straight forward. If you absolutely must add more description, create a space and add one more line. As I said earlier, this can be applied to dialogue as well. My amazing writing professor told me that longer monologues can be reserved for the third act in which something critical is revealed. This usually comes from the villain and is set around the time when the entire story needs to wrap up. We can discuss more of this in the beat section next!

 

3.) Keep With the Beat 

Finally, let’s talk a little bit about character progression and beats. As an interested screenwriter, you’ve most likely heard about beats or something called the “beat sheet.” This refers to the Blake Snyder method, in which the story is broken up into fourteen smaller sections with the three act structure. Below is Snyder’s beat sheet. 

THE BLAKE SNYDER BEAT SHEET 

Opening Image – A visual that represents the struggle & tone of the story. A snapshot of the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins.

Set-up – Expand on the “before” snapshot. Present the main character’s world as it is, and what is missing in their life.

Theme Stated (happens during the Set-up) – What your story is about; the message, the truth. Usually, it is spoken to the main character or in their presence, but they don’t understand the truth…not until they have some personal experience and context to support it.

Catalyst – The moment where life as it is changes. It is the telegram, the act of catching your loved-one cheating, allowing a monster onboard the ship, meeting the true love of your life, etc. The “before” world is no more, change is underway.

Debate – But change is scary and for a moment, or a brief number of moments, the main character doubts the journey they must take. Can I face this challenge? Do I have what it takes? Should I go at all? It is the last chance for the hero to chicken out.

Break Into Two (Choosing Act Two) – The main character makes a choice and the journey begins. We leave the “Thesis” world and enter the upside-down, opposite world of Act Two.

B Story – This is when there’s a discussion about the Theme – the nugget of truth. Usually, this discussion is between the main character and the love interest. So, the B Story is usually called the “love story”.

The Promise of the Premise – This is when Craig Thompson’s relationship with Raina blooms, when Indiana Jones tries to beat the Nazis to the Lost Ark, when the detective finds the most clues and dodges the most bullets. This is when the main character explores the new world and the audience is entertained by the premise they have been promised.

Midpoint – Dependent upon the story, this moment is when everything is “great” or everything is “awful”. The main character either gets everything they think they want (“great”) or doesn’t get what they think they want at all (“awful”). But not everything we think we want is what we actually need in the end.

Bad Guys Close In – Doubt, jealousy, fear, foes both physical and emotional regroup to defeat the main character’s goal, and the main character’s “great”/“awful” situation disintegrates.

All is Lost – The opposite moment from the Midpoint: “awful”/“great”. The moment that the main character realizes they’ve lost everything they gained, or everything they now have has no meaning. The initial goal now looks even more impossible than before. And here, something or someone dies. It can be physical or emotional, but the death of something old makes way for something new to be born.

Dark Night of the Soul – The main character hits bottom, and wallows in hopelessness. The Why hast thou forsaken me, Lord? moment. Mourning the loss of what has “died” – the dream, the goal, the mentor character, the love of your life, etc. But, you must fall completely before you can pick yourself back up and try again.

Break Into Three (Choosing Act Three) – Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute Thematic advice from the B Story (usually the love interest), the main character chooses to try again.

Finale – This time around, the main character incorporates the Theme – the nugget of truth that now makes sense to them – into their fight for the goal because they have experience from the A Story and context from the B Story. Act Three is about Synthesis!

Final Image – opposite of Opening Image, proving, visually, that a change has occurred within the character.

THE END

For more on this, I’d recommend Snyder’s book, Save the Cat in which you will find specific breakdowns of famous films as well as guides for genre. This book was incredibly helpful for me, especially as I prepared to write screenplays. The second book I’d like to suggest is The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. This book was my saving grace during the writing process. I’d swear by these two authors, but I’d recommend the first book as an introductory and the second for when you’re ready to dive further into the details. Trottier further expands on the beat sheet idea and spends a paragraph on each point. The Set Up, Big Event, and Debate are examples paralleling Snyder’s analysis. Beats will be especially helpful as you embark on the dreaded no man’s land of act two. This is where most of the holes in your story will rear their ugly heads. With structure knowledge and beats as a guide, you’ll be out of the woods in no time! In a 90 page screenplay, the first act happens between about pages 1 and 20, while act two takes place between 20 and 45, and act three happens for the remaining 45 pages. Beats determine the pace of your character’s journey within this framework. Essentially, the life changing moment or catalyst happens around page ten. To be brief, the catalyst is the moment when everything changes for your character. The world is turned upside down. It’s when Katniss volunteers as tribute in The Hunger Games and when Frodo is summoned by Gandalf in Lord of the Rings to embark on “an unexpected journey.” It’s the inevitable change that will propel your character’s destiny. I will include the titles of both books again at the bottom as well as a tool to help you calculate the page by page breakdown of your structure below! I personally love this and still use it quite often when writing/outlining.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. You should never have to be married to any kind of traditional guide. But that’s why these structure rules are here; to  guide us. Think of them as training wheels. Pretty soon, you’ll know them like the back of your hand. Then, you can take the training wheels off, still keeping in mind the foundation of this knowledge, and venture outside of it. So have at it! You know the rules, follow wherever the story takes you! The journey begins with a single word on a page. Once you have that, keep going! I believe in you, reader. 

 

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Recommended reading: Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. 

Fot help calculating page amount, checkout the beat sheet calculator here!

Feel free to check out my merch here!

 

See you soon, fellow story nerds! As always, more story tips to come 🙂

 

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