The Script Board: A Guide to Screenwriting

Developing your idea

Every creative journey starts with an idea. That little spark that strikes when you least expect it. A flash of the unknown. A scenario that makes you stop and think, did I really imagine that? Is it a leaking box in the boot of a car? Five beautiful virgins with suicidal tendencies?

Perhaps it’s a character who walked, fully-fledged and wonderfully flawed one day into the confines of your head. Whether he’s a whip-wielding archaeology lecturer with a flair for enraging Nazis, or she’s more of a wall-flower with a deep-rooted depression, you’ve got the start of something, and now you need to get it down on paper.

You’re probably raring to write, fingers quivering over the keyboard, ready to dive head-first into scene number one. It’s understandable. But before you start filling your head with plot points, conflicts and the real brain teasers–the aptly named: ‘Save-the-Cat’ moments, you’ll want to have at least a rough idea–the vaguest of notions– of what your script will be about, and how it will end.

If you start writing before you’ve figured at least this out, things will get messy. You’ll get frustrated. Writing without a plan is like an architect building without a blueprint, you can try to build on vision alone, but all those extra hours of planning you skipped in the beginning are guaranteed to come back and haunt you later.

To increase your chances of success, you’re going to need a step-by-step outline of your story. There’s no way round this, no shortcut, I’m afraid. Besides, this is the one process where you’re allowed to be as mad and as inventive as you like. If you want to add that roof sauna with the jet propulsion you’ve always wanted, go ahead. It can’t be budget-cut at this stage.

The Key Elements

The best way to know whether you’re on the right track, is to make sure that your story includes the three most important elements of storytelling. If you look at any film, Hollywood or otherwise, they all share these pivotal aspects in common:

  • Your protagonist (well, duh!). Every story needs a protagonist, someone the audience can root for, a central character your story revolves around.
  • Your protagonist’s objective. What does your character want? Frodo Baggins wants to destroy Sauron’s evil ring, Jerry Lundegaard (Fargo) wants quick cash in hand, and Clarice Starling, from Silence of the Lambs, wants to catch serial killer Buffalo Bill. Your protagonist’s objective is the driving force of the entire production. There is no story without it.
  • Conflict. Conflict includes all the obstacles your protagonist must overcome in order to reach their objective, usually put in place by your antagonist, whose own objectives will clash with your protagonist’s. Example: Sauron doesn’t want his ring liquefied in lava, so he’ll move hordes of orcs across Middle Earth to stop Frodo. Marge Gunderson, on the other hand, isn’t about to let Jerry get away with his crime scot-free, and Lecter sure as hell isn’t going to give up Bill’s identity without making Clarice fight for it. Conflict exists to threaten your character’s objective. It’s necessary to raise the stakes. Harry Potter wouldn’t be half so fun without Voldemort forever one-upping him, and Little Miss Sunshine would lack poignancy if Edwin hadn’t keeled over during the last leg of their journey.

The Roadmap

So where does structure come into the mix?

Simply put, structure dictates the order of events that guide the hero toward his or her objective. If you look at any storyline, you’ll see that the protagonist goes from A to B to C. In layman’s terms, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. Most scripts nowadays follow the three-act structure, a formula which Syd Field, author of the Foundations of Screenwriting, claims is the glue that holds most screenplays together. This is the roadmap, and whether it’s a sketched diagram of plot points or a dozen index cards blu-tacked to your wall, it will save you a whole lot of re-writing (and tearing your hair out) later.

Although there is no formula which will magically turn your idea into an earth-shattering, Oscar-winning script (that comes from within, from the dusty cobwebby depths of your mind), having a solid structure in place can (and will) guide you in the right direction. If we break Field’s paradigm down, it looks something like this:

 

Act IAct IIAct III
Beginning pp. 1 – 30 Set UpMiddle pp. 30 – 90 ConfrontationEnd pp. 90 – 120 Resolution

 

The first act, as you can see, is the set up. You’ve got thirty pages to introduce your character, expose setting and lay the groundwork for the film’s plotline. In this act you’ll also include the inciting incident, the push to adventure, the point of no return.

The second act is the confrontation. This is where most of the action goes down, where your character will get a taste of the dangers to come, where everything will go wrong, and where your character loses all hope of achieving his/her objective.

The third act is the resolution. It’s the last leg of your character’s journey where the odds will turn and your protagonist will come out triumphant (or not, if you’re Scorsese). It’s where your plot reaches its maximum tension and there is an emotional or physical confrontation.

Be warned!

Many writers just starting out confuse story with structure. We’ve all done it. We’ve all changed our protagonist’s ultimate choice, because it didn’t fit in with the structure. Beware.

Plot and structure are not the same thing. Structure is applied to your story later on, once you’ve figured out the basics. What you need to know right now is your premise, your pitch. Before Harry ever got his Hogwarts letter (the inciting incident, otherwise known as the ‘Call to Adventure’), J. K. Rowling knew Harry was a wizard, and that he’d attend a wizarding school and defeat the dark lord who killed his parents. That was her story. All those red herrings dotted around Snape and Quirrell came later, structural additions which added layers of complexity to the story.

This is the layout every script should have. You probably know most of this intuitively, but now go over your story and double-check. Do you know your character’s main objective? What about the obstacles? Are they clear in your mind’s eye?

Story is the backbone of every successful script. Once you’ve got your premise sorted, you’re free to move onto the technical side, formatting.