Posts Tagged scripts

How to write a screenplay: Start with the picture in your head

How do you go about starting to write that great movie in you head? How do you write a screenplay if you haven’t done it before? When I start thinking about a story I want to develop, I usually have an image or series of images in my mind. These are the ‘seeds’ of my script. As I am a very visual person I tend to think in pictures. So when I have an idea for a story my unconscious normally uses an image to communicate it to the other relevant parts of my brain.

Start with that picture in your mind

That’s how I begin writing; I have a picture that inspires me. It could be something like ‘three Knights on horseback on a hill overlooking a village’ or an ‘alien sitting in a restaurant looking at his watch as it countdowns to something.’ The point is, in the beginning there is very little to go on except this image but once I have it and it excites me enough I can start to ask questions about it.

Start asking questions

Questions are great for opening up the little material you have and expanding on it without you having to just think of stuff out of the blue.

Take the alien example above. I can ask questions such as:

  • How did he get there?
  • What’s his watch counting down to; is it the destruction of the earth?
  • Does anyone recognise him?
  • Where does he go after this?
  • Is anyone chasing him?
  • Meat or fish?

You get it anyway. What happens when I start asking these questions is that more images and ideas develop in my mind, some good, some not so good but a whole load of material will start to come together. It’s exciting at this point to think of the possibilities of the story; you can take it anywhere you want.
Follow the leads

Some of these new leads will inspire me again and form the basis of other scenes. At this point nothing should be discarded as it is too soon to decide or make judgements about what is relevant and not and what might be good in the long term. Later, much of this material may be discarded but for now every idea should be kept for possible eventual use.

Name the scenes

Now at this point I will separate what feels like different scenes and give them a short, one line description. Often they will not seem to link together in any feasible way but this again too early to question. If you try too hard to link scenes together before they are ready, you will only end up with a dull and ordinary script; due to the fact you are only using only remembered knowledge of how to write stories from what you’ve read, seen or done before. Your deeper mind will link your story together in far more interesting ways if you let it.

Don’t forget to start writing

The most important part of writing a screenplay is actually starting it! You have to follow an idea that excites you and that you feel you want to write about. It’s time to take that picture or line or whatever it is in your head and get it down onto paper. Don’t worry about a beginning, middle or an end just start with those images that inspire you and the rest will follow.

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Scriptwriting: Part 4 by ‘Michael Robert Johnson’

You need to really learn how your characters speak, because there’s nothing worse than reading a script where everyone speaks the same, where every line could be exchanged between all the characters. Find different rhythms in your head for the way they talk, if you can do that it will translate onto the page. Work out if your character takes a beat before he speaks, making his speech much more measured, or if he simply blurts things out without thinking about them.

Again, dialogue is as much about what you omit as what you put in. It’s important to remember that in real life, very, very few people vocalise their thoughts word-for-word. Speech is a contraction of a thought process, often designed to evoke a response as much as it is to impart information; often speech is about disguising a thought process, diverting people away from what we think we may have given away with our eyes.

Which leads me to another point about being economical with dialogue: you need to LEAVE SPACE FOR THE ACTORS. Most writers are compelled to put every bit of information into the dialogue because they think in terms of the action having to be complete on paper, but this is simply not true. Think about the following:

Say two characters – who know each other well – are waiting for an important piece of plot to telephone them (another script-writing mistake, but we’ll come to that). When the phone finally rings, there’ll usually be a bit of dialogue along the lines of. “That’s our boy”, or something as one of them approaches the phone. It’s simply redundant (and stupid). All you need to indicate is that the characters exchange a look. If the actors are any good, the audience will know exactly what that look is communicating.

It maybe an old cliche, an actor saying he wants to cut a chunk of dialogue because he can say the same thing simply with his face, but like most cliches it’s actually true, a good actor really can impart a line or two’s worth of information with just a look – and doing it visually is always the better way; it is, after all, a visual medium. Now that may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many scripts don’t appear to reflect this.

And another cliche about dialogue is you should speak it out loud. This cannot be emphasised enough, because it’s the only way to work out if it has the correct rhythm to it. After all, if the writer can’t speak his own words comfortably, how the hell can he expect the actors to?

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Scriptwriting: Part 3 by ‘Michael Robert Johnson’

There’s a fantastic analogy made by Stephen King in his book

On Writing (which is well worth a read) on the subject of story. He likens the process of fashioning a story to that of uncovering a specimen in archaeology, that you chip and brush away at the tiny fragments until finally you have uncovered a complete entity. I think he’s really right about this, because ALL STORIES SHOULD ADHERE TO THEIR OWN INTERNAL LOGIC. It’s one of the most widespread mistakes in script writing, and it largely involves making characters do things that they clearly wouldn’t do in reality (or even worse, in the reality you’ve set up).

You know what it’s like, watching a crap film, when a character suddenly does something outrageously stupid or completely out-of-character, and it’s all because the writer suddenly makes them do something for the sole reason that that the plot requires them do it – it is sheer laziness. This is what I mean about writing being a craft. If you want to do it, you have to adhere to the internal logic; and if you want a character to do something, you have to make it believable for him or her to do so.

I’ll make the example very basic. Say, at a particular juncture in the events, that your main character has a choice of three different avenues to pursue: now the lazy way is simply to have him choose the route – avenue 3 – that leads him to the desired climax of the story, but in real life (i.e. internal logic) it’s not so simple, there may be a variety of reason why avenues 1 or 2 may be taken. The best way to adhere to logic is instead of making him decide which route to take, find reasons that actually prevent him from taking avenues 1 or 2.

Just remember to listen to your characters, if you understand them enough, they will tell you which way the story is going to go next; and be prepared, because it’s often in an entirely different direction to the one you thought you were taking. This is one of the reasons why the rigidity of the “three-act structure” or the card system can work against you, because sometimes you need to hear your characters speaking before you know what will happen next.

To be fair, a lot of this can be worked out when your first draft is complete and you’re going back through it.

As your first draft will more than likely be from the point of view of the main character, it’s important to go through it again making different “passes” for different characters. By that I mean going right through the script and looking at the all events from the point of view of each minor character. This is the best way of finding out whether or not they’re behaving realistically; finding out if – when someone responds to the hero with the reply “yes, that’s not a problem” – the real response is actually, “are you crazy? They know where my wife and children live!”.

A lot of this comes down to really getting to know your characters and the worlds they inhabit – in their own heads and beyond. Most of them are simply versions of you who have been through different experiences. But don’t mistake this difference. Say, for example, you have a character who suddenly gets a gun pointed into their face; if that person is a soldier, or a bodyguard or an armed robber, they’re going to act differently than if they are a teacher or singer; and if they are the latter, they’re going to turn cold, feel faint and possibly shit themselves. Just because they are your heroes, you can’t fake bravado in the face of cold reality, it just won’t wash.

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