Screenwriting 101: A Step by Step Guide to Achieving the Impossible – Step 4, by Christopher Riley

Like painting a house, the prep work is often more important than the paint itself

by Christopher Riley

Part of ongoing series: Screenwriting 101: Why Story Structure Matters, Even If You Don’t Want It To

Step 4: Develop The One

Uber Screenwriting Team, Chris and Kathy Riley

Now that you’ve chosen the one — the one movie that you are going to write (step 3), you need to do your prep work.  You need to develop that one until it shines.  If you were painting your house, this is where you would wash the walls, remove the switch plates, and tape off the crown molding – the part of the job that determines in large measure the quality of the result. This is a big bite so we’ll cut it into smaller pieces.

Step 4a: Collect Mad Ideas.

Hold your analytical powers at bay while your imagination cooks up the coolest, baddest, sickest, sweetest (depending on your age) scenes this movie can provide. The things that made you fall in love with the idea in the first place. The trailer moments. For a drama, it’s the moment that breaks our hearts. For an action film, it’s the sequence that breaks the bank. You don’t need to know how these moments forward the plot. You don’t need to know where they fit into the structure. All you need to know is that you love them. Ten Mad Ideas represent a good start. Twenty is better. You won’t use them all. You’ll use the best. Write them down. Set them aside.

Step 4b: Identify models.

Find examples of the best-loved movies that are like the one you’re writing, movies that work like yours in terms of genre, structure, and cast, and that appeal to a similar audience. Study these masterworks and learn from them. Analyze how they are put together. How do they begin? What happens at the story climax? What are the stakes? What sorts of obstacles does the protagonist face on the way to what kinds of goals? What role does the antagonist play? Which emotions do these films deliver?

The artist within us chafes at this advice. We don’t want to copy. We don’t want to follow the pack. Granted. But we mustn’t deny ourselves the opportunity to discern the principles that make films appeal to audiences and critics, especially the best films in the genre in which we’re working. Learn all you can from these models, resist the lazy impulse to copy them, and instead harness the physics that makes them soar as you create something entirely new.

Step 4c: Build your characters.

Find answers to the two most important character questions. First, know what your hero wants, the goal for which she will strive no matter the cost. Second, understand how your hero needs to grow and change. How is she damaged or deficient and how does that keep her from reaching her goal?

Secondary questions include the following:

* Why do we root for this protagonist?
* What is this character’s superpower? What hidden strength can she draw on to reach her goal?
* What terrible thing will happen if she doesn’t reach her goal?
* What terrible thing will happen if she doesn’t grow and change?
* What obstacles will this character encounter that will require her to change?
* What are the five or six defining moments that have shaped this character for better and for worse? You already know, for example, that your hero is broken; here you discover how she came to be broken.

Ask these questions about your hero, yes, but also about your antagonist. Ask them about your supporting characters. Build characters, even villains, whom you understand because they represent some part of you. Draw on life here, not on what you’ve seen in the movies.

Make your characters vivid and complicated, rife with contradictions and secrets – but always driving toward that single goal. And plant within them the seeds of the change that will occur as they journey over, under, and through all obstacles toward their goal. You may find it useful to write a page or two in each character’s voice to discover how they talk and what they think about things. Some of what they say may find its way into the script. Much will find its way into your imagination and round out your understanding of who they are.

Blake Snyder describes 15 beats which make up movie structure

Step 4d: Find your structure.

I’ve written elsewhere about the necessity of story structure. I’ll say here only that without it you can’t sustain audience interest and your movie will collapse like a tent without poles.

Structure arises from your hero’s struggle against obstacles toward the goal. It is the shape of your story. That shape comes in three acts: Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end. In Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder describes 15 beats which make up movie structure.

Eight Essential Story Points

Kathy and I use what we call our Eight Essential Story Points. Each of us is describing something we observe in virtually every movie with broad audience appeal, every movie that grabs us on page one and holds us in our theatre seats spellbound until the end despite our aching bladders and that guy in the row in front of us talking on his phone about the infection that’s eating away at the nail on his big toe and turning it a funny green color. That’s structure. Kathy and I define our Eight Essential Story Points like this:

1. Opening – The hook. Grab the reader with something visual, fresh, weird, or mysterious that asks questions whose answers we do not know. Show something the audience has never seen before. Tell us important things about our hero and the status quo of his life. Should be consistent with genre. What makes this day special? (Begins on page 1.)

2. Upsetting the Apple Cart – An incident disrupts the status quo in the hero’s world and sets his story in motion. (Usually lands in the page 10 to 15 range.)

3. End of Act One – Something happens that cuts off any possible return to the status quo; our hero is shot out of a cannon or caught in a trap; he can’t go back, he can only go forward; he is challenged at the point of his internal need for change. (Happens around page 25 or 27.)

4. Beginning of Act Two – Our hero makes a plan to reach the goal. (Immediately follows the end of act one.)

5. Midpoint – A major development spins the story in a new direction; the hero’s plan is adjusted. (Happens around page 55.)

6. End of Act Two – A crisis; the hero’s plan fails; all hope is lost. (Happens around page 80 or 85.)

7. Beginning of Act Three – Our hero makes a new plan that requires him to grow and do something he’s never done before at the most basic level of his deepest need for change. The new plan results from the new person relying on a new capability. (Immediately follows the end of act two.)

8. End of Act Three A final showdown. The new plan succeeds (or fails) and our hero achieves his goal (or doesn’t), often in an unexpected way that satisfies not the want but the need for growth and change. (Concludes by page 105 or 110.)

Film structure does not represent a formula to be followed or avoided. Structure represents an essential element in successful film design. You can observe this pattern in bad studio movies, sure, but you can also find it in your favorite indies and foreign films, not to mention your favorite studio blockbusters.

Step 4e: Write a treatment.

Armed with all of this prep, you’re ready to write a treatment. Think of the treatment not as a blueprint for the film but as a selling tool that pitches its best features. Examine a good movie trailer, one that made you want to go out and see a movie you’d never heard of. You won’t usually find much plot detail. Instead, you find compelling characters and riveting character dilemmas. If it’s a comedy, you get some of the best comic moments. If it’s action, you get jaw-dropping, original action set pieces. Trailers string together Mad Ideas. Build your treatment the same way.

Write a pitch for your movie in simple, present-tense, third-person prose and pack it with your characters and your best Mad Ideas. How does this help you? By focusing your creative attention on what exactly makes your movie one everybody wants to see. And the answer to that question will help you write a better screenplay.

The extended courtroom sequence in “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a single scene built of several smaller units

Step 4f: Write a beat sheet.

This is your blueprint, a working document that may be dreary to read but will brilliantly guide you as you write your first draft. What exactly is a beat? Think of a beat as a unit of story roughly equivalent to three pages of script. In most cases, it’s the same thing as a scene. Less frequently, it’s a portion of a very long scene telling a discrete piece of the story. Think of the extended courtroom sequence in To Kill a Mockingbird, a single scene built of several smaller units: Atticus cross-examines Mayella and catches her in a lie; Atticus questions Tom and elicits the truth; the prosecutor cross-examines Tom and provokes him to declare a deeper and more dangerous truth; Atticus delivers his closing charge to the jury, imploring them to do their duty. (For more on beat sheets, see Blake Snyder’s discussion of The Board in Save the Cat!)

In every beat, something changes. The hero learns that his dog can talk. Dorothy gets vacuumed up by a tornado and leaves Kansas. Dorothy meets and frees the Tin Man. Dorothy meets and frees the Scarecrow. You’ll need about 40 beats to make up a feature-length story. You can write your beats on index cards, Post-Its or PowerPoint slides, anything you can arrange, adjust, edit, shuffle, place, and replace until you’ve got your plan.

Next Post in the Series: Screenwriting 101 – Step 5: A Step by Step Guide to Achieving the Impossible, by Christopher Riley

See also: Why Story Structure Matters, Even If You Don’t Want It To, by Christopher Riley

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