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  • March 15, 2013 9:30 am

    The Script Cabins: Writing a Feature Screenplay 101

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    Though we’ve retired Script Frenzy, we love our Frenziers so much that we’re hoping they’ll join us at Camp NaNoWriMo. We’ve rolled out the red carpet to the Script Cabins, including weekly guides for all you new scriptwriters hoping for some of that classic Script Frenzy wisdom:

    So you’re going to write a screenplay. Awesome! You may be nervous, but don’t worry: you’re not alone. Screenwriting can feel like a mysterious art, but if you’ve ever told a story, you already have the basic knowledge needed to write a script. Just the same, we’ve put together a batch of tips that will make your first draft go more smoothly:

    Start Reading Movies

    Read screenplays. You can often find them online. Make sure you aren’t reading a shooting script or a transcription; you’ll know you’re looking at the wrong version if you see numbered scenes, lists of shots, or dialogue that isn’t indented.

    First, try reading the screenplay for a movie you love. You’ll probably be surprised at how lean and efficient a screenplay is. Stripped of all its embellishments, the structure of the film will be easier to see. Look at how scenes relate to one another, how the dialogue flows, how obstacles are created and overcome.

    Next, read a screenplay for a movie you’ve never seen before. Try to imagine the finished film in your head. Then watch the movie and see how the text was translated into a visual medium.

    Choose An Idea That Excites You

    Write a story that excites you, one that would be a movie you’d love to go see. Don’t worry if it’s weird, or doesn’t have a built-in audience. The best thing that you and your script can possess is passion.

    Practice The Three ‘P’s: Plan, Pitch, Preview

    It helps to plan the story before you begin, even if it’s in its broadest strokes:

    "When a young man loses his family, he joins a group of embattled rebels and eventually brings down an evil empire."

    As long as it has a beginning, middle, and end, you’re off to a good start.

    Then, pitch a 1- to 3-minute version of your plot to whoever will listen. Notice what excites them and where you lose their attention. If you find yourself saying “I dunno, then somehow this happens,” you’ll want to give those fuzzy “somehows” a little more attention.

    Once you have your basic story planned, try “previewing” the trailer for your movie with your mind’s eye. What are the opening images that set the tone? How do we meet the main character? Think through the major visuals and turning points.

    Get To Know Your Characters

    People don’t go to the movies to see scary, romantic, or exciting situations; they go to see memorable characters reacting to scary, romantic, or exciting situations. Your goal is to create real personalities that the audience will want to watch.

    You can start with a basic, 5-10 word bio of your character. Ask yourself what does this person eat, wear, and listen to? What would she die for? Kill for? How did she get to the place in her life where the film starts? Don’t forget to add flaws. Perfection is boring to watch. In fact, the best movie moments occur when a character comes face to face with his or her flaws and fears.

    Give Your Story A Gazillion-Horsepower Engine

    Your film has a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time and it can’t afford to dawdle. Luckily, you can get up to speed by putting extreme situations or motivations into your script. Overwhelming desires, life-or-death obstacles, and universally potent themes can all be powerful fuel. Start looking around in your mental garage for something to build your engine with.

    Put your characters in tough situations that force them to make decisions. If you’ve given them a strong enough drive, they’ll make some pretty interesting choices. If you’ve provided them with flaws and failings, they’ll have plenty of room to grow. And the audience will love being along for the ride. 

    Action: Write A Blueprint

    A screenplay is to a film what a blueprint is to a building. All the action and description in a screenplay must translate into solidly constructed visuals. For those of you who have written prose, this translation process—and its pitfalls—can take some getting used to.

    In a novel, you may write:

    Sarah stands at the window, thinking about what Jeremy said in the grain silo. His face as he’d stood there nervously would always make her want to kiss him. But she couldn’t anymore. Not now, knowing he was the one who’d kidnapped the wiener dog.

    The audience sees:

    Sarah standing at the window, staring for a while, then frowning.

    You get the point: If it’s internal dialogue, memory or anything else that goes on inside someone’s head, it isn’t going to end up on screen unless it’s translated into an image or dialogue.

    Dialogue: Don’t Let it Slow You Down

    Writing great dialogue is a precision art form. While tackling your first draft, don’t let dialogue slow you down. When you can’t think of the perfect rejoinder, write filler and then spice it up on the next draft. Your best lines will often come to you later.

    Still, as you get prepare to tackle your script, there’s no harm in polishing up your skills. The best way to learn how to write dialogue is to listen to how real people talk. Become a linguistic anthropologist, and carry a pocket notebook with you—real-life exchanges are worth their weight in gold. Use them as inspiration to write snappier, plot-driving dialogue.

    Finally, remember: you’ll have plenty of time to be miserably stressed once the studios hire you to write blockbusters for hundreds of thousands of dollars. For now, savor the creative freedom and freefall into your story.

    Adapted from Script Frenzy’s “Intro to Screenwriting” guide.

    Photo by Flickr user pietroizzo.

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