Writing a screenplay from scratch, or converting a previously published novel into a screenplay, may seem like particularly daunting undertakings. Of course, the task ahead is not easy, but concentrating on the most important factors while writing your screenplay may increase your focus, and eventually, the likelihood of a sale.
According to Albert Lopez, a filmmaker based in San Francisco, there are six main things every aspiring screenwriter must keep in mind while working on a screenplay. They are the most important points because they are the most basic elements of any script. In no particular order, these are:
1) Know where you’re going.
2) Don’t use dialogue as a crutch.
3) Give characters playable actions.
4) Maintain structure/format.
5) Create obstacles for your main characters.
6) Second acts are hard to write.
Know Where You’re Going.
You need to know where you plan to go with your story. Knowing your denouement before you begin writing your screenplay will give you direction to complete the arduous task that lies before you. Having this focus helps propel your screenplay toward your goal – getting your characters to the place you always intended them to reach in your glorious final scene(s).
Don’t Use Dialogue as a Crutch.
Do not use dialogue to tell your story. Dialogue is used to build characterization – to establish your characters. “On-the-nose” dialogue should be avoided. Take, for example, a married couple arguing in their kitchen. The wife should not say, “I hate you. I am so mad at you. You never help me out around here. You make me feel invisible.” Instead, she enters the kitchen, tight-lipped, approaches the sink, starts rinsing dishes, and says, “Did you take out the trash today?” She full well knows the answer to that question!
Give Characters Playable Actions.
Provide your characters with something to do while they are talking. Let’s look at the husband and wife in our dialogue example. Through the subtext of the wife’s actions, we understand she is mad. It is also possible, with playable actions, to see that her husband truly does behave in a way that makes her feel invisible. How? Is he sipping juice at the breakfast bar while reading The Wall Street Journal, flipping pages as she enters the room, not even bothering to look up as she enters? Or is he unshaven, lounging on a futon in front of the television, surrounded by half-empty chip bags, failing to acknowledge his wife as she returns, haggard, from her job? The characters actions help drive the plot and establish the back story.
One cannot stress enough the importance of structure and format when writing a screenplay. These factors can be the life or death of your script. Structure is important because a screenwriter must know a basic outline of the script in order to get characters where they need to go by the end of the script. What is the destination? At what physical place or emotional state is your main character to arrive? Your screenplay must have structure to get her there.
Formatting your screenplay properly is vitally important. Many studios and producers will not even read a script that is not formatted correctly. If you need help getting started, Mr. Lopez recommends the book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, by Sid Field. This book details the “how” of the technical aspects of writing your screenplay: structure, format, plot points, scene headings, and much more. For example, did you know your screenplay needs to be in Courier font, or that preparing it in Word is one flag of an amateur? If you have a budget of a few hundred dollars or more, there is an excellent selection of screenwriting software on the market, including Final Draft, Movie Magic Screenwriter, and Sophocles.
Create Obstacles for Your Main Characters.
Give your main characters goals, and place obstacles in their way. Your main character(s) must be opposed by a strong force in order to gather the empathy of readers and, if all goes as planned, moviegoers. A period of testing is imperative for your protagonist. Most of this testing that stands between him and his ultimate goal will occur during the second act. This is part of why it is vital that a screenwriter knows her ending upfront. You can put obstacles in front of a goal only if you know the location of the goal.
Second Acts are Hard to Write.
Death, taxes, and the second act slump…trite but true. Act Two is the most difficult one for any screenwriter. This is the act where the most events are happening, and hitting a “slump” is natural and quite normal at this stage. Work through it, and try not to torture small animals or loved ones at this stage. (No husbands were harmed in the making of this film…I digress.) Your heroes are still dealing with the same problems set up in Act One. In Act Two, however, the journey is more difficult. Adversaries and obstacles arise in full force during Act Two. The tension is mounting throughout the second act, and it is up to you to sustain it. No pressure.
You know the basics. You have the talent. Now go write that screenplay!