Congratulations! You've got a fantastic idea for a science-fiction movie script. But how can you transform your sweeping epic into a workable screenplay? A screenplay isn't a novel, and you can actually use that fact to your advantage.
As a film student with a concentration on writing, I've thought a lot about the proper way to write a screenplay. It's only through trial and error that I've started to sort out what bits of advice really work for me, and which ones can go by the wayside.
A screenplay isn't something that's designed or written for being read. It is first and foremost a production document. You shouldn't be writing a screenplay, unless you want it to be made into a movie. If you don't want it to be a movie (or some other visual medium) then you should write a novel instead.
And a good screenplay is a blueprint. It's a set of directions for the actors, the director, and the crew to follow to construct the film. Like a blueprint, a screenplay has to be able to support the weight of the story, and that means following some basic rules. But those rules can be a little tricky to understand, like how much detail is too much and how much is too little? How do you develop your characters and tell your story in a way that will come across to the audience, who usually hasn't read your script before they see the film?
There are five things you can do before you even get started that will help you start to wrestle with those questions and come out ahead of the pack.
Read. A lot. The best way to really get the feel for the proper way to approach a screenplay is by reading a lot of produced screenplays. Note: a draft probably won't cut it on this front. You want to learn by studying a finished product, to see something that's been honed. You want to read something that's sold because while it might not guarantee quality, it at least guarantees that it had something that made a producer give the writer a chance.
You can find scripts in bookstores, but most are also available on the internet these days. You can do a google search if you are looking for a particular script, or just browse. Three places to look are The Internet Movie Script Database, JoBlo's Movie Scripts, and Script Collector.
A good writer is a good reader, in any genre, style, or format.
Outline first. I tried one time to go on a rant about how I tend to just freeform write and "let things flow" as I'm going. Then I wrote a feature screenplay. My professor required outlines, beat sheets, treatments, and a ton of preparation work and I hated every step.
By the end of the semester, I can't imagine how I could have disagreed. I could not have written that screenplay without doing that work up front. You can free form write, but your script won't be as good and the process will be more difficult.
If nothing else, you need to know your story's beginning, middle, and end before you get started. Scripts are built around setup and payoff. You can't set up and pay off if you don't know where you're going.
Don't discount structure. When I first started grad school, and my teacher started talking about screenplay structure, I scoffed. I crossed my arms and resisted and told myself that structure just meant formulaic and who wants that?
I was completely and utterly wrong. Even quirky and strange movies that feel plotless still tend to follow this model, because it's so ingrained in the language of film.
The three act structure is simple. Act One establishes your character, sets up the story, and begins the journey. It's usually the first quarter of the length. Act Two takes up half of the film, and contains the bulk of the conflict, as the protagonist faces the things that stand in the way of what he/she wants. Act Three is your resolution. It is NOT the epilogue, though the epilogue is part of Act Three — the climax is the bulk of Act Three.
The original Star Wars trilogy provides the best way to understand the three acts. A New Hope establishes our heroes, their characters, and their universe. Empire Strikes Back is full of conflict and obstacles, double crosses, and unhappy endings that set up our climax. Several plot threads are established but not completed. Return of the Jedi contains the final moments where Luke confronts Vader and Palpatine, and chooses not to follow the dark side. Vader is redeemed and all the threads that were created in Empire are brought to a close.
Each individual film also follows along three acts. In Star Wars, Act One is establishing Luke on Tatooine. Act Two is their journey to the Death Star and rescue of Princess Leia. Act Three is the Battle of Yavin. In simple terms, the three acts are just the beginning, middle, and the end.
Following the three-act structure isn't a bad thing. It grounds the audience in something they know, it guides and paces your story. Plus, it's been around forever for one reason: it works.
Most writers who discuss structure use nine points in the story to build around. The "Nine Point Clothesline" that I use is from the book How To Write A Movie in 21 Days by Vicki King. Most books will tell you what page number each step should happen on, and that's getting a little too detailed and prescriptive. You'll probably find as you write and follow your outline that these things will naturally occur at about the place they assign, but it's not a hard and fast rule.
Page 1: Establish the mood, tone, and place.
Page 3: Establish the central dramatic question.
Page 10: Here the book talks about setting up more story or giving more information so we know what the hero wants. For me, it's easier to just say this is where you'll probably put your catalyst or inciting incident.
Page 30: The break into act two, an event that moves the hero into new territory.
Page 45: A moment of initial growth or change in the character.
Page 60: The midpoint. This is a hard one, because not every story has a midpoint. But the midpoint is usually a mirror of the end, either a false victory or a false defeat. The hero makes a deeper commitment to his/her task.
Page 75: The "all is lost" moment, when the protagonist is convinced he/she can't achieve their task. But in the end, something happens that changes everything and makes the climax possible.
Page 90: The second turning point. The hero is committed to the final path towards the climax.
Page 120: The dramatic question is resolved.
If you plotted the arc of one of my favorite films, Pitch Black, you'll see it follows this structure very closely. We establish the setting in the opening monologue. The central question is "will they survive?" The inciting incident is the crash of the ship, the break into act two is the discovery of the monsters in the dark. Around 45 pages into the script, the characters discover the empty mining town, the ship, and the coming eclipse. The midpoint is the eclipse itself, the "all is lost" moment is when Riddick abandons the survivors in the cave. At the second turning point, Fry takes control of the two survivors, finally completing her arc to die for them in the climax. At the last moment, the question is resolved: three of them survive.
Not every movie falls into a perfect little timeline, but take the next film you watch and think about the way it plots the arc of the story. It probably follows this structure. If nothing else, it will contain three acts, a catalyst, and the two turning points on the character's journey.
You can find any number of books that tell you what the author thinks is the "perfect" screenplay structure, and really they're all both right and wrong. I like the outline I use, because it works well with the way I structure character arcs, and it makes the most sense to me personally. Look around online, and find a structure that makes sense to you and your story.
Learn to format correctly before you get started. I once had a teacher tell us to get the script down and then start to worry about formatting. All you're doing if you try it that way is asking for hours of mindless reformatting AND mistakes you didn't catch. Not to mention that there is absolutely no reason for it.
You can get the basics of screenplay formatting from Script Frenzy . But if you're really serious, what you need is The Screenwriter's Bible by David Trottier. I have yet to find a formatting question that this book doesn't answer.
Don't spend a ton of money. You can spend a couple hundred dollars on Final Draft, if you really want to. Or you can download Celtx . It's absolutely free, and it does everything you could want it to do. It makes screenplay formatting so simple that you're only limited by your typing speed. Once you sell a screenplay you can buy something shiny, but for now don't let anybody tell you that you need to buy Final Draft or any other expensive software.
If you prefer an online option, check out Scripped. It works a bit like Google Documents, where your screenplay is online and accessible from any computer with an internet connection.
Your next stop is to start thinking about how to write "visually" and how to represent character without the benefit of the third person narrator. I'll talk about those things in another post, in a few days.