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Striking a Balance Between Visual and Narrative Scripts

Visual Storytelling

Visual storytelling refers to the images screenwriters use to convey a tone, emotion and style of a film. They show – rather than tell – the reader what’s happening in that scene and describe the character’s actions in such a way we know exactly what’s going through their minds. So, although it’s the cinematographer’s job to visually support an idea in practice, the basis comes from the screenwriters themselves.

Visual moments are the hallmarks of the film industry – they depend on a writer’s ability to write visual moments that are aesthetically appealing. As a scriptwriter, you should define what it is you want the director and actor to express – visually. Give them the general idea and a good director and cinematographer will know how to follow your train of thought, or even better, provide a new direction that feeds off from your original one.

Narrative Writing

Essentially, all screenwriters set the scene (pun intended) in their scripts. The point of any film is to provide a visual medium, and while this sounds like common sense, it’s easy for scriptwriters to muddy the waters between visual and narrative storytelling.

Of course, you’re going to need narrative writing, as this is what you’ll use to create the action, but be aware that an overuse of it can lead to an awkward amount of description. This doesn’t make sense when we think that we can’t see into the character’s head, the way we can in books. And too much description denies the pace of a film, it needs constant action to keep it moving forwards. This means that longer stretches of narrative belong more in the world of literary writing, rather than film.

Take a look at these five rules on how to successfully balance visual and narrative scriptwriting in your script:

Five golden rules to achieve that healthy balance

1.Notice the world around you

The space you use as a writer or the location you’ve imagined for your scene says a lot about the style you’re trying to convey. For example, a desert scene might portray loneliness, or a specific coloured set design might convey a character’s personality. Subconsciously, when we read this in a script or watch it on a screen, we usually understand this, be it on a conscious level or not. It works. That’s why scriptwriters like Wes Anderson or the Cohen brothers are so powerful when conveying tones. They take advantage of specific spaces.

Locations also work to convey polar opposites. Take Toy Story for example, in it we have Andy’s bedroom, the walls are painted in baby blues with clouds stencilled over them. It’s safe and conveys a sense of Andy’s personality. He’s a dreamer. Sid’s bedroom on the other hand, is far more sinister. The lighting is dim and morbid, with angry black posters and a junkyard of broken toys scattered across the floor. It’s violent, scary.

‘Shame’

2. Externalize internal tumult in your characters

Novels – or narrative writing – can take us into the mind of our characters, but the most important thing to remember is that scripts can’t do that. We can’t see into their heads, so scriptwriters need to work to condense thoughts and inner struggles in a few seconds of impactful visuals. This is organic and natural, because of course in real life we don’t go about our day communicating our inner most thoughts to those around us: instead we portray gestures and facial expressions that communicate – accidentally or not– these for us.

Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan’s Shame uses shallow depth of field – the main character looks like he’s ashamed, and the backdrop of buildings and life going on behind him only serves to highlight his tumult.

3. Be visual without a single camera movement.

View the screenwriter as a visual guide, if you will, and a professional one doesn’t necessarily let the director fill in the blanks from nothing because a lack of information was provided. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should put ZOOM or LOW ANGLE into every other scene. This is the director’s job and looks amateurish. Screenwriters provide just the stage directions for other professionals like set designers, directors, actors, dressers…

4. Use visually stimulating vocab and verbs

This is such an effective technique. If you use active, demanding verbs like peer, toss, snorts and so on, this creates an instant visual that people can follow, and says more in just one word than noun+verb+adjective. It also helps to put your characters into motion and have them walk and move as they speak, as this is visually stimulating for the viewer.

‘Her’

5. Be concise but specific in the pictures you paint.

Pinpoint the most important features of a scene in your mind, what sticks out? Is it a club in the corner? The vast stretch of stormy sky? A car in the background? Put these in your writing. Scripts are celebrated for being succinct and to the point, so just choose the most important objects or actions in your scene – you won’t be able to say it all, so the ability to summarise is a must for any scriptwriter.

In one of Her’s scenes, a film by Spike Jonze, the main focus is quite obviously the screen portraying an owl about to attack – it’s set just behind Theodore, and looks as if he’s about to be captured – it’s a wonderful visual moment.

 

So there you have it, five golden rules to achieve a healthy balance of visual and narrative writing. Just remember: proper illustration on the page leads to proper illustration on the screen.

Five Writing Habits to Finish your Screenplay

As the end of December rolls around, most writers vow to write more in the year ahead, even when juggling busy schedules. They’ll work less, go out less and make more time for script-writing. It’s a resolution that’s made in firm belief (and perhaps champagne-induced) it’s unbreakable. But if you’re already feeling stuck, overwhelmed and bogged down with post-Christmas gloom, there’s a way to beat the January blues and keep your New Year’s resolution to boot.

As well all know, writing is a solitary act and unless there’s a specific deadline strapped to the brief, it’s very much a “I’ll get to it when I get to it” scenario. It’s time to readjust that mindset, and there’s no better month than January (grey and cold outside, anyone?) to get to it.  There are a series of writing habits you can incorporate into your weekly schedules, habits that are easily achievable and useful even to those who are juggling full-time jobs and don’t have time to spare.

Call it a wake-up call or a writer’s Godsend, here are several tips and tricks award-winning script-writers recommend:

1. Read a Screenplay a Week

Any writer, be it a novelist, fiction-writer, non-fiction writer, blogger, scriptwriter or even content writer, knows that in order to write you must read. You simply cannot achieve one without doing a lot of the other. You need to read to write. It’s as simple as that. There’s a reason that Scott Myers (writer of Trojan War and Alaska) recommends this on his own blog, Go Into the Story. Reading scripts is useful for all sorts of reasons: you get to see how pacing is timed, how many pages are needed per scene, how dialogue works, how characters unfold, how tension is built through dialogue or action. Format is displayed correctly—and there’s no simpler way to learn format than by seeing it—plus, you’ll really get a feel for your favourite films on paper (well, in this case on PDF). By reading one screenplay a week and critically analysing it for all the above factors, you’ll notice a vast improvement in your own writing. Good writing really does rub off.

You can find a whole bunch of links to scripts here:

https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/script-download-links-9313356d361c

2. Watch a film a week

This doesn’t mean watching a film at home a week. This you should do as much as possible anyway (yes, watching films really IS a justifiable means of research). What I mean by this is actually going to the cinema once a week and watching a film in the same genre you’re writing your script it. It’s an opportunity to put out your antennae to your audience and gauge their reaction to the dialogue, the plotting and the action scenes. Does the audience laugh at all the right beats? Do they yawn through the slower parts? This all helps you understand what it is people respond to in a film and whether or not it’s working for them. After all, films are all about the entertainment, so it’s good practice knowing if your own target audience is entertained or not—what makes them tick.

Then at home carry out an actual analysis of the film you just saw. Better yet, do a scene by scene breakdown and figure out how the script’s structure works. This is sure to shed some light on your own script, and may even give you ideas how to lay out your story according to good story building.

Going to the cinema once a week might not be within your budgetary means, but at least try and catch two films a month—chalk it up to research funds, even if you don’t need a penny to write a script, it does help if you have an assigned budget for research, material, courses and even events. Treat your project as a business, and your business will eventually become lucrative.

3. Write 15 pages of Story Prepping/World-Building a week

One of the most enjoyable processes in screenwriting, world-building is something that should never be left at the wayside.  Try writing fifteen pages of world-building a week. Just pick an afternoon/evening after work on a day during the week and you’ll see it’s easy enough. For better results, choose ONE subject to focus on every week. This could look something like this:

Week 1: Your Protagonist: Motivations, Background, Friends, Family, Physical Appearance.

Week 2: Secondary Characters. Relation to your protagonist. Backgrounds. Roles in script. Physical Appearances.

Week 3: Your Antagonist’s role.

Week 4: Plot A. Your main story line. What happens?

Week 5: Plot B. What else is happening?

Week 6: World Building. Where is your story set? If contemporary or historical setting, what research do you need to carry out for realistic portrayals? If fantasy, what are the rules of your made-up society?

4. Write a Scene a Week

Writing a scene a week is again, perfectly achievable. If you think that one scene roughly amounts to five pages of writing on Celtx, this is about an hour or two of writing, depending on how much research you need to incorporate into the actual writing process. But if you’ve done your world-building homework a day or so before you begin your scene, you can coordinate the themes so that the scene you’re working on will incorporate your world-building research.

John August for example, writer of Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie’s Angels to name a few, aims to write five pages a day and by barricading himself away, can come up with forty decent pages from one session. That’s serious dedication to his art. You can read about his habits here:

https://johnaugust.com/2011/my-daily-writing-routine

5. Home Time is Work Time

Finally, there is no successful journey without some degree of personal sacrifice. In order to achieve the above rules, you’re going to have to set aside a few evenings a week and at least one day out of your weekend, if not both.

But because you love writing, none of this will feel like work and it will be worth it in the end. Steven Pressfield, writer of Above the Law and Separate Lives, writes six days a week and is at his most productive on the weekend. You can read the interview on writing routines here: https://www.writingroutines.com/steven-pressfield/

Careful scheduling is the only way to achieve maximum results. We probably have all fantasized of the bohemian scriptwriter who, after knocking back a few shots of absinthe, sits down and completes an award-winning, revolutionary screenplay in a night. But usually, it’s down to a scriptwriter’s sheer force of will and strict personal culture.

It also helps to turn off the internet and silence your phone whilst you do all this. Living in the age of instant-messaging and online distractions is (unfortunately) not script-writer friendly.

 

While there’s no secret formula of success for screenwriting, there are ways to tighten your schedule and become more productive over time, increasing the odds of finishing a high-quality screenplay and breaking free from your full-time restrictions. As John August himself says, for the most part writing is just a slog, one you’ve got to traipse through on a daily basis. But oh, so worth it in the end.

Plus, look at it this way: if you write five pages of solid screenplay a week (which isn’t that much considering) and a feature is usually 120 pages long, then in approximately five months you’ll have your first draft. That’s the hardest part, the rest is editing.

Understanding Antagonists, Beyond the Archetypes

A good villain is one who stands in the way of the hero’s goal, but an exceptional antagonist is someone who can exploit the protagonist’s greatest weakness. Although an antagonist is meant to serve the purpose of the protagonist’s journey, forever throwing a wrench into your protagonist’s honourable objectives, this doesn’t mean you should just create a one-sided pawn with a limited character profile to serve his/her purpose. You need to breathe life into the antagonist’s character, making him as realistic and as three-dimensional as your protagonists. Evil for the sake of evil has been overplayed and overdone in films, so complexity is key in the creation of a chilling villain.

If done right, an antagonist’s reasons for doing what he’s doing (usually in direct conflict with the protagonist) can be one of the most emotionally compelling parts of a story. We don’t have to like what they’re doing, but we do have to understand their motives, on an empathetic level at least.

The following are the most common types of antagonists in film, and though we’ve categorized them into a list, be warned that these are still just a blueprint, and it’s up to you to develop them further to make them really stand out.

The Villain

Villains are all your human antagonists, the ones who go out of their way trying to foil your character’s plans, and if you’ve written a three-dimensional antagonist, it will be because their own plans are also crucial to the plot. In other words, they’re not corrupting the protagonist just for the sake of it (Unless that’s your intention, of course).

Within this department there are a whole lot of different types of villains.

Anti-Villain

First, you’ve got the anti-villain, where antagonists have some redeeming or likeable qualities, even if their actions are questionable or criminal. Vincent and Jules from Pulp Fiction fall into this category, or Magneto from X-Men.

Authority Figure

After this you’ve got the Authority Figure who the characters ridicule or spend the majority of their time trying to avoid, like Richard Vernon in the Breakfast Club, or Miss Trunchbull from Matilda. These characters are often persistent to a fault, and are portrayed as stereotypes representing the law.

The Bully

Bullies are usually portrayed in a pretty straightforward manner, in direct contrast to the heroic/good nature of the protagonist, but often bullies are the way they are due to the way they’re treated, and often instigate some feelings of empathy in the audience. These include Johnny Lawrence from Karate Kid, or Fletcher from Whiplash.

The Corrupted

These used to be authority figures who turned to the dark side, often betraying their comrades in the process, be it for power, money, glory or revenge. Notable examples include Colin Sullivan from the Departed, or Steve Frazelli in the Italian Job. After this you’ve got the deranged villain, like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, or Annie Wilkes in Misery. The Mastermind is usually a genius antagonist who devises an intricate plan, complex and diabolical, to achieve what he wants. A good example of this is Goldfinger from James Bond.

Not all villains, of course, are people. Some of the best films have villains that are so intriguing because of exactly that. They’re not human.

Mother Nature

Films that feature mother nature as their villains are pretty terrifying, because beating the odds of destruction at her hands is pretty difficult. Not only is she unbeatable, but who can stop a twister, or a hurricane or a tsunami (or an iceberg)? You can run, but you can’t hide. Tsunamis, hurricanes, storms, viruses, these usually feature in disaster flicks, and the best your protagonist can hope to do in the face of such villains, is wait it out. Some examples include The Perfect Storm, the Day after Tomorrow, or the Impossible.

The Beast/Creature

This one pretty much speaks for itself, but imagine any film that revolves around the fear of a beast that is out to eat them. They might stumble upon it in unknown territory, like the Amazon or out to sea, or it might be a mixture of beast meets human civilization. Such examples in film include the shark from Jaws, the rabid dog from Cujo, and of course the deadly serpents from Snakes on a Plane.

The Supernatural/Monster

These include antagonists who aren’t humane, or perhaps even redeemable because of their very nature. These are the villains from nightmares and horror tales bent on death or blood, and include vampires, werewolves, evil wizards, angry spirits, ghosts, warlocks, trolls, and basically any other species that wants to kill you–usually in creative and imaginative ways. Antagonists like these that spring to mind include the demon in Paranormal Activity, Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th, the Poltergeist, or Count Dracula from Dracula.

Of course, what makes these characters all the more interesting is the fact that they’re not completely consumed by their evil objectives, nor are they blind to their own faults. After all, it’s not Dracula’s fault he needs blood to survive, nor was Jason Voorhees at fault for the way he was raised. What they can change, however, are their murderous tendencies. But that’s what makes an antagonist so complicated. Perhaps they can’t, or won’t. Perhaps that’s all they know.

The Extraterrestrial

There’s nothing like the unknown to put the fear of God into you. And what is more unknown than aliens? Often, the aliens featured in films are the antagonists, because their main intention is world domination, or abductions where the victim will be subjected to weird and painful experiments, at the cost of his life. They’re portrayed as evil, because they are unknown and so foreign to everything humanity knows.

Brilliant examples of aliens as antagonists invading Earth include: The Fourth Kind or War of the Worlds, in which their intentions are always malignant. Other times, aliens are antagonists because humans have invaded their territory, such as Alien or Pitch Black.

The Machine

Best represented in the Sci-fi genre, machine villains are so terrifying because they’re the most ruthless of antagonists. They literally express no emotions, and feel no empathy, because it’s not been built into them. It’s not their fault, per say, but they follow what they’re programmed to do, regardless of anything else. They’re the most obedient of soldiers ever made.

They have no concept of fear, or pain, and so they never stop. There’s not much room for complexity, unless you create a wonderful being like Sonny in I, Robot, capable of feeling human emotions, or David from Artificial Intelligence, the first robot boy programmed to love. But remember these are protagonists, so they’re meant to have a redeeming feature. But you could create a truly memorable antagonist by giving your machine the same sort of redeemable qualities.

Examples of ruthless machines include Ultron from Avengers, or Roy Batty from Blade Runner, and of course, the Terminator.

 

So there you have it, the most popular–and standout–types of villains and archetypes within the field of antagonism.

The secret to these characters (or at least most of them) is that they’re not lacklustre or cliched, they’re not predictable, they won’t roll over to make way for your protagonist without a fight (and that fight’s got to make your protagonist sweat), they’re equal to your protagonist in terms of intelligence, wit, strength–sometimes they’re even more powerful and clever, or they’re the ones that raise the stakes.

The reason behind their desire to cast down your protagonist has to be credible. No matter the type of villain you choose for your script, the key thing to remember is that they’re flawed, wonderfully wicked, and complex characters.

If you’ve already created a character profile for your protagonist, the best thing to do is now write one for your antagonist and place them side by side so you can see what links them, and what divides them.

Scriptwriting Collaborations: A Look at Partnerships

You might not have considered taking part in a collaboration. As writers, we’re very individual people, going at it as lone wolves, isolating ourselves between four walls to write and plot and scheme and essentially, go mad. But what happens when we actively share the madness with another writer? Below you’ll find out the main benefits of doing so.

Many writers who have stayed together, have become successful together. It’s all about finding the process that works for both of you.

Divide up your writing tasks

Writing together lightens up loads in every sense. You can each write to your strengths. Each writer can focus on their fortes, rather than agonizing over their downfalls. At the beginning of a collaboration, if you each outline your strengths and weaknesses (Who’s better at character-building? Or Script format?), then you can each perfect your craft, and learn from the other in your weakness. It’s a win-win situation. If you do this well, you’ll also be waving goodbye to any writer’s block, as you won’t be stuck in a rut with your biggest weaknesses–you’ll have someone there, battling them alongside you.

You build up a tolerance to feedback and (constructive) criticism

This is VERY important in the film industry. If you’re a person who’s hyper sensitive about tweaking so much as a sentence in your script, this won’t last for long with a writing partner. If uncomfortable at first, you’ll build a hardened shell to your partner’s suggestions and won’t hesitate in changing major plot points at least five times a day. Your script won’t suffer for it (quite the contrary in fact) and you’ll both find that honesty will lead to stronger scripts. You forget about your ego, and focus on the good of your story and the well-being of your writing partner.

This being said, you probably will occasionally argue with one another–especially when it comes to cutting favorite bits or beloved characters. This is totally normal however, as disagreement is a vital and integral part of the screenwriting process. But, argue your case nicely and then move on.

Adding hype and excitement

Once you both break the ice, you’ll inevitably end up having a whole lot of fun. What with jokes, writing prompts and endless title brainstorming, writing will become such a social act it won’t even feel like work anymore.

Writing is a lonely exercise

You’ll have your own creativity support group to go to. There’s nothing worse than feeling lonely and misunderstood about your writing, not understanding why it’s not going anywhere. But with a writing partner who essentially wants the same outcome as you do, there’s no one better to understand you. Having someone in the same situation as you takes the terror right out of your job (in this case script) prospects.

Dual Brainstorming is more effective

Someone else’s enthusiasm is contagious, not only will it lead to better brainstorming sessions, but you’ll find yourself so wrapped up in the world you’ve created with your partner, that the rest of the real one may even cease to exist–the ideal state when you are creating. Writing with someone else is essentially the WD40 to rusty brain gears.

The Writer’s Workout is better designed for Two

Creating a long-term plan in which you write for a period of time every day is far more easily accomplished when you have established appointments with a partner you don’t want to cancel. Plus, as lone writers, we generally carry out quality control every time we finish a segment of a script, or maybe even at the end of the first draft, inevitably stretching out the time it takes to improve it. When writing as two, the quality control is ever-present and ever-functional. It happens naturally as we go along, listening to the other person’s ideas. This makes way for changing things on the spot, and so by the time you get to the draft-stage, you’ve got yourself a far more solid script.

Yin and Yang: Two Imaginations are better than one

As lone writers, we are often blind to the gaps in our story, to the gaping holes in our logic until it’s too late. With another writer looking over your shoulder however, you’re more likely to catch any uneven stuff before you send it off into the ether.

Here are a few scriptwriting partners who have all taken collaborations to a whole new level:

Coen Brothers for No Country for Old Men, Raising Arizona, Fargo. Apparently their screenwriting process works like this: One will write an initial scene, pass it to the other where he will then continuously try to outdo the first in any way he can:  plot, characters, building tension. This helps push them to break boundaries and create better scripts.

Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman. Annie Hall, Manhattan. Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman would outline the script idea together, the finer points of each scene, and then Woody would go away and write the draft. And then it would be a back-and-forth scenario of tweaking and polishing and walking around New York City discussing it.

Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead. First of all they created “Flip drafts” for their screenplays before they even started writing the script. These were story-board type breakdowns of each scene, including major characters, camera shots and key events. This helped them have a clearer idea of where to begin in their script.

The Duffer Brothers perfected their Stranger Things scripts, by first imitating their 80s idols like John Carpenter as well as M. Night Shyamalan. By combining other people’s elements, tone and styles, they developed their own unique voice which unequivocally shines by itself.

Finding the “write” partner

First and foremost, most script collaborations are between people who know each other fairly well. From best buddies to spouses to siblings, there are a whole lot of writing partners you might not have considered. If you don’t have anyone who moves around your social circles who writes, then you most definitely need to change that.

Sign up to a screenwriting class, attend a meet-up, (at the very least) join a Facebook Group with screenwriters. Advertise your need for a collaborating partner and don’t be afraid to tell people you want to write together. Chances are they’re just too shy to suggest it.  Challenge yourself! It might just be the best thing you can do. You won’t know until you try it.

 

The Elevator Pitch, Loglines & Taglines

What is an Elevator Pitch?

An elevator pitch is your script’s concept, boiled down to a bite-sized portion of words. Also known as loglines, they’re a bit like short sales pitches; they’re a two or three sentence long summary of your script’s plot–and they’ll dress to impress.

What does this mean? It means you’ve got to sell your script in an innovative and appealing way–be it for your intended audience, your agent, a producer, an actor… In the film business, a day won’t go by in which you won’t need to be pitching to someone about something related to your script, so it’s always good to have your elevator pitch handy. It’s got to be something that catches their attention, gets them thinking, and most importantly, gets them begging to know more.

Elevator pitches are called that because it should take you no longer than the time it takes for an elevator to reach whatever floor your ‘pitchee’ is going to (supposedly). The term came from the Hollywood myth that script writers used to catch execs and producers in their building elevators on purpose to pitch their scripts, and not only did the phrase stick–but you won’t get far in the world of scriptwriting without hearing this jargon being casually thrown about.

The good thing about an elevator pitch–painful as it is for a socially awkward scriptwriter to voice–is that it can help you shape the success of your script. If you manage to generate some interest over your pitch, you know you’re on the right track (or at the very least you’ve got a way with words, always a useful trait for a screenwriter). If however, you’re rejected flat on your face, then at least you can go home, cry a little, then start over. Cut scenes. Shape new ones. Polish old ones. Kill your darlings–there’s a reason that’s a time-old piece of advice. And then you can try again. And again and again until your script is ready, and you’ve a new, improved pitch to try out on someone else. Pitching scripts is like testing the waters, and the more people you meet and talk to, the more your networking circle grows.

Loglines

They’re practically the same as elevator pitches, but they won’t be written by the scriptwriter (at least not usually). They’re extremely difficult to write, and highly underrated. To create a logline, you’ve got to compress 120 pages of script into two sentences and each word has to equal its weight in gold: Loglines have got to summarise, intrigue and sell themselves.

These are the short blurbs you’ll see as film synopses in cinemas and TV guides, in Netflix descriptions and on the back of DVD covers. Loglines will give very specific information about the film without being too explicit–but divulging enough so that your audience knows what the basic plot will be about. We didn’t all go to watch Stephen King’s IT thinking it would be about happy clowns, we knew he’d be a sewer-lurking weirdo.

As a scriptwriter, you can follow a logline’s guidelines to form the staple of your elevator pitch. Loglines are usually made up of the following:

  1. Your main character.
  2. The obstacle standing in the way of their goal (antagonist).
  3. A twist that makes your story unique.

If you hadn’t tried it already, coming up with a 90 second elevator pitch is tricky enough even when you know your story inside out. So the first thing to do in order to get your pitch tight and concise, is to layout the building blocks of your plot, and then play around with the wording. Write a simple summary of your script first, even if it’s bland and boring. Then start playing with the words to make it sound a little more exotic.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of successful loglines.

Titanic: A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea.

Pulp Fiction: The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Blacksmith Will Turner teams up with eccentric pirate “Captain” Jack Sparrow to save his love, the governor’s daughter, from Jack’s former pirate allies, who are now undead.

Liar, Liar: A fast-track lawyer can’t lie for 24 hours due to his son’s birthday wish after disappointing his son for the last time.

Groundhog Day: A weatherman finds himself inexplicably living the same day over and over again.

Chicken Run: A dashing rooster and the hen he loves lead a daring escape from a poultry farm in 1950s England.

Note that it doesn’t have to be super wordy, in fact it’s better if it’s not; be clear and concise, and remember to portray the main setup and conflict.

Taglines

Taglines are short (sometimes only two or three words long) phrases used to reveal the film’s nature from an advertising perspective, expressing the film’s theme by using humour, irony, double entendres and wordplay. They create buzz and sum up the tone or premise of a film. A tagline sets up a strategic and effective direction for a film and is meant to be catchy. Sometimes taglines show a film’s twist in just a few words and are an important part of the film’s marketing in the way that they’re the “face” of a film.

Let’s take a look at a few:

Chicken Run: “Escape or die frying.”

Pulp Fiction: “You won’t know that facts until you’ve seen the fiction.”

The Addams Family: “Weird is relative.”

Liar Liar: “Trust me.”

Pirates of the Caribbean: “Prepare to be blown out of the water.”

I am Legend: “The Last man on Earth is not alone.”

 So what have we learnt?

Elevator Pitches describe your script and are used as a selling tool to engage the (financial) interest of an executive or a producer or for casting. Loglines are marketing tools devised to sell the film to an audience, and taglines are small hooks placed on film posters and film descriptions to appeal to the individual, often in the form of a word play or witticism.

As hard as it is to write an elevator pitch, it’s important that your script matches your pitch. So if you have changed your elevator pitch a lot, and digressed from your actual script story to make it sound more interesting, you might just want to reconsider tweaking your script. Writing elevator pitches is an important writing exercise for anybody, as it helps single out blatant problems in your script you hadn’t noticed before. So no matter what, it’s all good practice!

 

Approaching Genre & Subgenre in your Scripts

A little bit about Genre

Genres pretty much define anything from the type of writer you are to the way your characters speak. You’ve a message to write, and genre determines the way in which your message is delivered.

After all, what you do with genre is create a niche which ultimately determines your audience; you’ve got your Western buffs, your Tarantino fanatics, your drama queens, the J-horror aficionados and your rom-com devotees. But whether you’re a noir intellectual who likes to sip warm wine and compare Kafka’s Village Schoolmaster to Haneke’s White Ribbon, or you’re just in it for Borat’s snappy but catchy one-liners, everyone’s tastes fit into a specific genre.

As a scriptwriter, when you begin to break down genre like this, you’ll see that it goes a long way in terms of it defining your characters and settings. You’re obviously going to need dusty towns for a Western or a futuristic spaceship for a dystopian. And let’s face it, a sociopath with a tangent for spilling blood isn’t going to be popping up in the Love Actually sequel anytime soon… and with good reason. We choose different genres because we like to fit films into boxes. We like to be amused, or horrified, or ultimately saddened. It’s how we categorize entertainment, and how we cope with the emotions they inspire.

 

So how do you categorize your script?

This first part’s easy. Even if you’re on the initial story stage, you can pretty much break down your script into one category, even if you’ve only developed your main characters. Do your main characters share undeniable chemistry? You might be leaning towards a romantic journey of self-discovery. But then let’s take a step further. Is it set in harsh Victorian times and there’s a social imbalance between the pair, making it a drama? Or are your characters fighting for their survival and have no time for romance?

Do you want to make your audience laugh? Do you want to pull a Stephen King and do nothing but inspire horror? Defining your script is also about the emotions you want your audience to experience.

There are so many twists and turns that influence the way you choose your genre, so the best advice is to simply experiment, and most importantly of all, don’t chase trends and fads just because they’re all the rage in that moment, but write the sort of thing you like to watch, regardless of popularity. If you do this, you’ll unconsciously be gathering enough research to know what works and what doesn’t (yep, watching the films you enjoy is legitimate research, I promise).

This doesn’t mean that you have to feel pigeonholed as a writer, but it is a smart move to determine one you like and write lots and lots of pieces in that specific genre. This is because practice makes perfect, and there are lots of different elements and story beats you need to know before you can dominate any one kind.

Which story beats fit which genre?

Genre establishes mood. Tone. Style. It’s a selling tool for studios and determines the demographics of the film’s audience. Knowing which genre you’re writing in will also help sell your script or acquire funding because it’s the first thing you’ll need to include in your synopsis, logline or elevator pitch. It immediately helps set the most important scene about your film’s setting and even helps shed light on what sort of budget you’ll be requiring. It is vital.

Down below we’ve helped outline the most common genres, and some of their unconventional sub genres, alongside a list of examples to help you visualise. Whether yours is a noir film, psychological thriller or a western sci-fi, there are certain elements you’ll want to include.

Drama

Dramas rely on exploring real-life issues through realistic and flawed characters, triggering an emotional response in the audience. If you’ve chosen drama, you’ll need to incorporate the ability to tell an honest story of human struggle and perseverance. When developing your character arc, you’ll need to take this into account.

Drama Subgenres:

Biography (Gandhi, the Sea Inside)

Courtroom (Erin Brockovich, 12 Angry Men)

Dramady (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, It’s Kind of a Funny Story)

Historical (Schindler’s List, The King’s Speech)

Melodrama (Brief Encounter)

Period Piece (Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice)

Political (The Ides of March)

Romance (Brokeback Mountain)

Tragedy (Titanic)

Comedy

Comedy films are designed to make the audience laugh, using humour as its staple. An element you’ll need to include in script-writing is reversing the audience’s expectations, by creating scenarios that are the opposite of what they think will happen.

By subverting expectations with amusing–and often ridiculous–situations, the audience will find the humour.

Comedy Subgenres:

Action (Hot Fuzz, 21 Jump Street)

Black-Dark (Burn after Reading)

Parody/Spoof (Scary Movie, Austin Powers)

Rom-Com (Bridget Jones’s Diary)

Slapstick (The Jerk)

Action

Action films are designed to represent the spirit of physical action through chases, stunts, fights, battles and races. In the action genre, the protagonist will find it incredibly difficult to achieve his or her goal, as the action makes up the bulk of the stakes.

Action subgenres:

Adventure (Indiana Jones, The Mummy)

War (Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan)

Disaster Film (Deep Impact, The Day after Tomorrow)

Science Fiction  

Sci-fi films need several elements to make them work, but most importantly you’ll need an advanced, authentic universe, one that is supported by technology and science combined. Science fiction will explore how this world affects the protagonists’ lives.

Science Fiction subgenres:

Fantasy (Blade Runner, The Hunger Games)

Alien (Alien, Prometheus)

Apocalyptic (The Road)

Dystopian (Brave New World)

Time-Travel (Back to the Future)

Horror  

Horror depends on stimulating fear in the audience, so if you’re writing a horror script, make sure to exploit people’s fear of the unknown. The antagonist will often represent protagonists’ fears. You’ll also need to include suspense and the surprise factor. Think about horror films you’ve watched, and how the pacing is often slow before it reaches its climax for maximum impact.

Horror Subgenres:

Comedy (Shaun of the Dead, Gremlins)

Teen (Scream, I know what you did last summer)

Monster (Jaws, Cloverfield)

Slasher (Psycho, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre)

Supernatural (Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring)

Zombie (28 Days Later)

Thriller

Thrillers aim to keep the audience on the edge of their seats by intertwining suspense and tension into the plotline. If you’re going to write a thriller, you’ll need to focus entirely on plot and your character will be proactive, working to unravel the mysteries of the thriller.

Thriller Subgenres:

Action (The Departed)

Film-Noir (Pulp Fiction)

Psychological (Memento, Shutter Island)

Crime/Heist

Crimes are all about focussing on the antagonist and the makings of a criminal. If you’re writing a crime film, you’ll need to have a real psychological passion for understanding the inner workings of a criminal mastermind.

Crime Subgenres:

Mob/Gangsters (The Godfather)

Neo-Noir (Mulholland Drive)

Crime-Thriller (No Country for Old Men)

Western

Western films portray fictional life in Western settings, and will often explore the lives of cowboys. Main elements will include horseback races, gun shootings, train robberies and sheriffs.

Western Subgenres:

Contemporary (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)

Revisionist (Dances with Wolves)

Spaghetti (For a few dollars more)

 

This doesn’t mean you need to religiously stick to one genre or the other. You can be original and start mixing genres to make your very own hybrid–like HBO’s Westworld, for example, a series that mixes contemporary science fiction within a classic Western setting, by making this setting a virtual game. Whatever you choose, however, just be aware of your genre requisites when it comes to character arcs and setting, particularly as they all form part of an effective selling tool.

 

Formatting Fun: Scriptwriting Essentials

Script Formatting

So now that you’ve got the basics of your screenplay worked out and ready, it’s time to cast your ever-eager gaze onto the art of formatting.

This is possibly one of the trickiest aspects of scriptwriting to master, but only because there are plenty of differing views and techniques at large. If you grab a copy of the Hollywood Standard, by Christopher Riley, you’ll find it’s jampacked with formatting gems that will really make your life (and everyone else’s in your near perimeter) a lot easier. He covers every formatting element in existence, from transition shots to camera work–always handy if you’re a script supervisor.

Today I’ll provide you with the tools to equip you in writing one scene according to professional formatting guidelines. It won’t be enough to write a whole feature or even a decent short, but keep your eyes peeled and eventually you’ll get there. Script formatting is a bit like learning to drive a car, rocky and uncertain at first, then gradually easier until one day you wake up and it’s second nature. Another practical way to go about it–hands down–is by installing Celtx (a scriptwriting software) onto your computer. It’s free, it’s easy to navigate and it segments your excessive babbling into formatted elements, practically on automatic.

There are, after all, certain stylistic conventions every script must adhere to, independently of your writing style.

For now though, let’s focus on the basics. Say hello to Courier 12, he’s your new best friend. Every script is written in Courier-or a variation of the font, thanks to its clarity. But more importantly, setting is the first thing you’ll need to whack us over the head with. Bringing us to the time-old questions of who, where, when and why–not necessarily in that order.

1. Scene Heading

Every new scene you write–even if it’s set in the same room but at a different time–requires a heading. You’ll answer three questions (maybe more if you want to be very specific). Is the scene outside or inside (exterior or interior)? What is the specific location, a hotel lobby or a beach? Does the scene take place during the day or at night?

You’ll need to insert a new scene heading every time one of these elements change.

Interior and exterior are always abbreviated to INT. or EXT. (capitalized). But where you abbreviate the Interior with a dot, you’ll separate the location from the time of the day with a hyphen. So your scene headings will look something like this:

INT. COFFEE SHOP - MORNING

Or:

EXT. BROOKLYN BRIDGE - NIGHT

This is what Riley calls a Master Shot Heading, and anything longer than that is usually unnecessary. The code is short and sweet. Beyond that, you might be wasting paper space.

2. Action

The first thing to remember is that professional script-writers don’t tend to worry so much about their character’s inner thoughts for a reason. On the page, it doesn’t matter if Tom is agonizing over whether or not to jump from a balcony in a gun chase, if in the script it takes him a split-second to do so. The screenwriter must lay out the characters’ actions in a way that cinematographers and directors can easily visualize them–and quickly too.  Never be ambiguous, you can’t afford to be vague for literary effect, describe exactly what is happening as if it’s happening NOW. Action is always set in real time.

Writers usually break the rhythm of each action down into one or two sentences each, so that the time it takes to read the action, is how long it actually takes to carry out in real time. This is so that the reader generally has the same imaginative experience as the viewer will have.

 

In Pulp Fiction, the writer establishes via the ACTION, that the coffee shop is in Los Angeles, it’s 9:00 a.m and the place is bustling with breakfast-goers. That’s one sentence.

Next, he establishes the two protagonists of that scene:

"Two of these people are a YOUNG MAN and a YOUNG WOMAN."

Whenever we introduce our main character, you should capitalize their names once, to establish their protagonism.

 3. Character–Dialogue–Parenthetical

On Celtx, when selecting the Character from the drop box, the name of your character will automatically be centred in the document, and the Dialogue option will present itself just beneath that. Character names will always be capitalized.

You can also choose to portray the attitude or accompanying action with which your character speaks with the PARENTHETICAL option. The rule of thumb “Show, don’t tell” applies to the Parenthetical option, however. Parentheticals in every sentence is overkill.

For example:

 

JEREMY

(Slurring)

Leave me alone, I'm not drunk!

 

Or if the Dialogue spoken by your character takes place Off-Screen, you’ll write:

 

JEREMY (O.S)

Leave me alone, I’m not drunk!

 

If your character is narrating but you can’t see them, it’s defined as a Voice-Over, and looks like this:

 

HENRY (V.O)

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.

4.Transitions

Transitions are mostly used in scripts to define the abruptness with which each scene leads into the next. There is a lot of controversy nowadays as to whether these should only be inserted later in a shooting script, but as a writer, you might find them useful anyway.

The most common transitions are:

 

  • CUT TO:
  • DISSOLVE TO:
  • QUICK CUT:
  • FADE TO:
  • FADE OUT:
  • SMASH CUT:

 

Transitions are always capitalized and placed in the right-hand margin of a page, preceding a Scene Heading, as follows:

Jules finishes his burger, crumples the wrapper, and tosses it into the bin.

                                           Jules

                                         Let’s go.
Cut to:
 INT. HOTEL LOBBY - NIGHT

 

These are the ABCs of formatting, but there’s a lot left to cover so next time, we’ll delve into the different transition shots. Meanwhile, get Celtx and start experimenting. Also, look for scripts online, you’d be surprised by how many famous scripts are just sitting there, waiting to be read. See how they separate action into sentences. Learn dialogue pace. And focus on the scriptwriter’s style. You’ll start to notice a pattern unique to each writer. The best scripts stand out not just due to spotless formatting–but also because of individualistic traits.

If you read a lot of scripts, you’ll notice an improvement in your own writing within a matter of weeks. Remember, practice makes perfect.

 

Act One: Drumming Out Your Beat Sheet

Films are undoubtedly a visual medium, and a powerful one, but they aren’t born that way. Every film starts off as a script, and what lies within the pages of your screenplay determines or defies the quality of its visual twin.

You should sequence your story into manageable, bite-sized portions, which when transferred to screen, will look as seamless as they read. As readers, we don’t stop to question the nature of these steps, they usually do their job and do it well; they cajole us into turning the page.

In screenwriting, you’ve got about ten pages to capture an executive’s attention; seriously, no more and maybe less before they continue slogging through the slush pile.

The key to success? You’ve got to open with a bang. Ten pages isn’t much, so you really need to give us something to react to, something big. Remember Lost, by J.J Abrams and Damon Lindelof? The first scene opens to the protagonist coming to on a jungle floor. That’s enough to get us asking questions, but when he makes it out onto a beach, we’re slapped in the face with the answer: a crashed plane, an exploding engine, people screaming, getting blown up. All within three minutes of screen time. That’s all it takes for the audience to get hooked. In features, the first act comprises of about twenty or thirty minutes’ screen time, the written equivalent of which is thirty pages.

This is where a beat sheet comes in handy. Beats determine the mission and scope of each of your scenes, they’re like touchpoints to hit. Great if you do, but they’re not the end of you or your script if you don’t. Blake Snyder’s beat sheet is probably the most comprehensive, the ones you should tick off your Act I checklist:

Opening Image

This is perhaps one of the most important beats of your script. The first scene acts as a hook to catch the reader/viewer’s attention.
The opening image of Jurassic Park sets the premise immediately. Man versus Beast. In Gone Girl, a wife snuggles up to her husband whilst he tells us (via voiceover) how he pictures cracking his wife’s head open and pooling her brains for answers. This is genius in the way it points to the film’s major premise. Is he mad? What answers is she hiding?
The opening image should make us ask that question, what’s going to happen? And we don’t want to be spoon-fed the answer either, we want to be strung out, wherein lies the suffering, lies the pleasure.

Set-up

This is where you lay the foundation for your story. Where is the story set? What is the character missing from his/her life? What is the film going to be about? Essentially, you are presenting the protagonist’s world to the viewer as it is before the call to adventure.

Theme Stated

The theme usually appears in the set-up, and is the underlying message of a film, spoken aloud to the protagonist to challenge the way they think. It’s a message that usually falls flat on the main character in the beginning, because they don’t have enough context or personal experience with it to yet understand its value. In other words, the character is oblivious to it. In Jaws, Brody’s wife waves him off to work, telling him to be careful and he laughs it off. “In this town?” Right.

Gravity‘s theme is pretty straightforward: Ryan needs to let go. We see this figuratively and literally throughout the film. Ryan has to let go of her daughter’s death, just like she’s got to let go of Matt, in order to survive. In 500 Days of Summer, Tom is hopelessly optimistic about Summer, but it’s his sister who sets up the theme of the film by pointing out that just because Summer shares certain aspects in common with him, this doesn’t make her his soulmate, a truth Tom painfully comes to terms with.

Catalyst

Otherwise known as the Inciting Incident, or call to adventure, the catalyst is the first event or action that will show that change is coming for the character. That life as he or she (or it) knows it, will end. In Shawshank Redemption, Red puts his money on Andy to crack during his first night in his cell, but Andy stands his ground and doesn’t make a peep. Inglorious Basterds’ catalyst hits when Lander asks LaPadite if he’s harboring the Dreyfuses under his floorboards. His family won’t come to harm’s way if he collaborates, setting Shosanna’s fate into motion.

Debate

Usually there is some debate surrounding the character’s catalyst. Should I leave my nice comfy hobbit hole to go on what appears to be a suicide mission? Wouldn’t I be safer here, eating crumpets and sipping tea? But not all debates revolve around a character’s departure. In the Hunger Games, for example, the debate is not whether Katniss will participate in the games (she doesn’t have a choice) but if she’ll win. That’s why it’s important you have a general idea of these beats, but don’t use them to define your screenplay.

Break into Two

This is the end of act one. It’s the ultimate game-changer that will propel your character into act two, the cataclysmic decision, the point of no return. Usually there’s new surroundings to be explored and it’s the driving force that carries the protagonist into act two and dumps him in harm’s way. In Jaws, the hunt is on once a reward is put in place for catching the killer shark. In Django Unchained, Dr Schultz cuts Django a-I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine deal he can’t refuse. In Juno, the protagonist ponders over abortion, but then decides to give the baby up for adoption.

Remember this is just a formula, it’s not THE formula. A template designed to help, but never restrict you. Each writer finds their groove as they go along, so it’s absolutely fine to take all this on board with a pinch of salt. If you don’t put the catalyst on exactly page number twelve, the script police aren’t going to beat down your door and batter you senseless with a heavy duty script guide. Like I said in my previous article, your story is unique, and sometimes the rules are there to be broken.

Events

Screenwriting Bootcamp: Write Your Feature Film Outline In One Sitting

Been sitting on an idea for a movie, but never have time to write it?

Have an idea but no idea how to map out your screenplay?

Then join us on for a webinar training ‘Screenwriting Bootcamp: Write Your Feature Film Outline in One Sitting’! Recognised Canadian screenwriter Larissa Thomas brings her successful screenwriting bootcamp to IMIS in an exciting training. In this 3-hour screenwriting workshop you’ll learn how to turn your idea into a story and leave with a completed, rough outline of your feature film.

This live online workshop is taught using video examples, hand-outs, and slides to help you gain a better understanding of film structure and character. Through guided writing sprints, you’ll put your ideas onto paper without dwelling on perfection. With this outline, you can confidently write your feature screenplay knowing you’ve nailed your structural and character arc points.

ALL IMIS MEMBERS CAN ATTEND THE WEBINAR FOR FREE!

(Non-Members: £15+VAT)

About Larissa Thomas:

Larissa Thomas co-wrote, directed, and produced a web series called Allie & Lara Make a Horror Movie (literally about the horrors of trying to make your own films) with two more episodes to go.

Her successful “FINISHIT: Screenwriting Sprint” workshop she created to help beat procrastination, and to help writers take ideas they talk about and make them a reality. ‘It began in 2015 at my very own kitchen table’ before being recognised by filmmaking organization Raindance Canada (based in Toronto). It quickly became a member-favourite, monthly screenwriting workshop. Thomas has ran over 20 iterations of the workshop, broken down over 14 films, and guided almost 200 writers through the process.

ALL IMIS MEMBERS CAN ATTEND THE WEBINAR FOR FREE!

(Non-Members: £15+VAT)

About IMIS

The International Moving Image Society’s (IMIS) aim is to inspire, train, educate, and connect all members of the moving image industry, whether at entry or professional level, around the world. We accomplish this by putting on networking events.

Benefits of Becoming a Member

  • Free access to all our events (like this one)
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