Way back in high school, about a year into my ongoing writing phase, I decided I wanted to write a screenplay. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to do that. So I didn’t. After high school, I bought a random screenplay book to satisfy my curiosity. It was good and I learned a lot from that book, but it disappeared at some point. By which I mean, I have no idea what happened to it.
In university, I took my first screenwriting class and was excited about finally, properly learning the mysterious art of screenwriting. While I did learn a bit, it was all basically the same stuff I’d learned from the book. In my second year, I finally got what I really wanted: basic screenplay plot structure—Syd Field’s to be exact. But I still didn’t really have the hang of screenwriting. My dialogue was too on the nose, my action shared things that couldn’t be conveyed on screen, and I added directions that I shouldn’t have. My script got a C.
I got better in my third screenwriting class. Two friends and I wrote a pilot and not only was it decent enough to get a B, but we had a ton of fun writing and pitching it! I felt like I was finally getting the hang of this screenwriting thing. Unfortunately, both of my friends did not continue taking screenwriting in our final year, so I did two semesters of it solo. I was worried, because I wasn’t sure I could be any good at it on my own. My track record wasn’t great, after all.
I got As both semesters.
Fast forward two years and I’ve written a load of short films, a couple of pilots, and one quarter of a feature film. Recently, a non-writer friend said he had an idea for a screenplay and wanted some help making it a reality. It was kind of fun helping him develop and organize his idea into something good, and I thought it would be kinda fun to help more people with a bit of a long blog post. So here we go.
Now, as you can see from the title of this post, this is just a starting point. It is a blog post, and will not be anywhere as helpful as, say, a book about screenwriting, or a class, or a university degree. This is for all the people who are where I was eight years ago, with an idea they want to get down on paper but no clue how to get from A to B.
“Audiences are harder to please if you’re just giving them effects, but they’re easy to please if it’s a good story.”
— Steven Spielberg
Before even looking in the direction of B, you’re gonna need a map, also known as a plot outline. If you’re anything like I used to be, you might think “I write better without a plot outline. Plotting my story causes me to get bored of my idea before I even start writing it. I’m a pantser, not a plotter.”
I totally hear you. Unfortunately, even if you’re a pantser with prose, you need to plot your screenplay. This is because, unless you’re a super pro at screenplays (in which case, what are you doing here on this blog post?), your screenplay needs to be a certain length in order to fit into the film/television/festival world. And if you’re flying by the seat of your pants, there’s a good chance either a) your script is gonna be an awkward or completely wrong length, or b) the plot points are gonna be oddly placed.
Do not worry pantsers! There are ways of keeping things interesting. First off, you’re not gonna over-plot (probably) because you can only go so far into detail before you’re basically writing the script. Second, plotting will help you out a lot if/when you get stuck, and you may even discover subplots or new characters through planning! Third, if you ever end up in a position where you have the opportunity to pitch your script, plotting will save your butt.
If you’re a plotter rather than a pantser, I’m gonna assume you’re on board with this part.
In the future, you may become more experienced with the screenwriting thing and have a more complicated story that maybe needs something like a 5 act structure, or a more lifelike or artsy idea or with no acts at all. However, I’m gonna show you what most Hollywood movies currently follow: Syd Field’s 3 Act Plot.
Let me break it down.
Act I: Setup
Goal: Make people care.
- Mood (as in the feel of your film)
- Introduce the problem(s) that will arise.
- What will the protagonist(s) do about it? (“Nothing” is an acceptable answer to this question.)
Act II: Confrontation
Goal: Have interesting things happen.
Turning Point 1:
- A decision is made.
- Launches things into motion. (Not for us, but for the protagonists. Hopefully, things having been moving along well enough for us since the beginning.)
A series of problems happen here, each more extreme than the last, leading to…
- EVERYTHING CHANGES
- Usually some sort of hope is initiated
- Things are still happening, but different now.
Act III: Resolution
Goal: You say you want a resolution, well you know…we all wanna save the world.
Turning Point 2:
- Basically a fake climax that goes bad.
- There are heavy losses.
- Rock bottom.
- BUT we see here how the protagonist(s) has/have changed since the beginning, and this gives us hope.
- The ultimate confrontation
- End result, for better or for worse.
Scripts often finish with a bit of the new normal, demonstrating how things have changed (or haven’t) since the old normal at the beginning of the story.
500 Days of Summer, ends with the protagonist having just gotten over Summer, then meeting a girl named Autumn and starting the same cycle again, showing that he hasn’t really learned despite all he’s gone through.
Toy Story has the toys anxious to find out what Andy is getting for Christmas, much like at the beginning of the film with Andy’s birthday. Now however, all the toys celebrate the possibility of new toys rather than feeling threatened.
Hopefully, that helped you form a plot for your script. Part 2: Characters is out now so be sure to check that out. If you have any questions, I’ll do my best to answer them in the comments below. Good luck with your writing!