“How To Write Great Original Screenplays” (Part 1 of 3)

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Ever wanted to write a screenplay? Many have, but a lot don’t know where to start. It was frustrating for me at first, having to learn the format, structure, and “rules”. So, we’ll start simple. What is a screenplay? Screenplays are written documents, professionally formatted and prepared specifically for the medium of film. A simple rule of thumb is that one page of a properly formatted script should equal approximately one minute of actual screentime. If you do not intend to learn the proper format for screenwriting, I suggest you stop reading now and save yourself some time. I am not going to cover formatting here, but instead, I’m going to cover the next step beyond that. The most crucial step, which cannot be learned or taught; storytelling. Without the vital gift of storytelling ability, it won’t matter how well you can format a script, you have to have the creativity to actually create a quality piece (well, I guess in some places, quality doesn’t matter, and bad quality is actually sometimes embraced! Take “Plan 9 From Outer Space” for example).

First thing’s first, if you want to write a script, you’re going to have to learn the format. There are plenty of resources online to quickly decipher the hardly-complex filmmaker’s code. Secondly, you’ll want some software, as formatting in standard word processors can be quite tedious. There are plenty of great programs I would recommend, like Final Draft and Adobe Story. If you want something for free, I would suggest Celtx, a free screenwriting software for Mac or Windows that does most of the hard work for you. http://www.celtx.com for a free download.

Okay, so you know the format, you have the tools to write, but where do you start? The daunting task of staring the blank page straight down the face is all too overwhelming. You need a story. But not just a story. A story. Not just vague characters and dull plotlines, but vibrant characters, witty dialogue, and a rollercoaster plot. But where do you find the inspiration for that? Well, you could steal, borrow, or “homage”, or, you could simply pay more attention to life. Life is the ultimate rollercoaster ride, why not try to incorporate some pieces of your life into your story and characters? You’d be surprised by how many famous writers take everyday pieces of their own lives and weave them into cinematic gold. Pieces of conversations you either have or hear can be a great starting point for natural, coherent dialogue.

Here comes some theory. Basic screenwriting formula can be applied to any story, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. The standard formula that you’ve seen over and over again. The romantic comedies, action films and blockbusters that all seem the same. But once you understand the elements of these basic Hollywood formulas, you can manipulate them as you please. You have to know the rules to break the rules. Some of the key rules are as follows: “show, don’t tell”, simply meaning, film is a visual medium, try and keep it that way. Of course, this rule is broken all the time, most notably by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and Martin Scorsese, who’s films are driven almost entirely by dialogue. In other cases, the rule of showing, not telling, is applied well, in such films like “Drive” and “Carnival of Souls”. The dialogue and character development is pushed to a minimum in these films, focusing more on ambience and story.

Formula is slightly different, as you can go pretty much any direction. That said, the most basic and heavily used formula, the “3-Act Structure”, can be seen countless times, and summed up pretty quickly. Basically, in this formula, you have a protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist wants or needs something, and his goal in the story is to achieve his desire. The antagonist is meant to make the protagonist’s goal harder to achieve, but typically, by the end of the stoy, the good guy always wins. This formula can (and does) apply to many films, you just have to watch and pay attention. “Star Wars”, “Superbad”, and “Machete” all use this formula. In “Superbad”, Seth and Evan want to buy liquor for girlsso they can party, and hopefully get laid. This seems easy, as they walk right down to the liquor store, but their plans are thwarted by two cops who want their friend McLovin to know, not all cops are assholes. By the end of the film, they make it to the party with most of the liquor in tact, and the story resolves. Conflict is key. Conflict creates interest, and you want people to be interested.

Other films, such as “Pulp Fiction” and “Slacker”, follow completely different formulas. “Pulp Fiction” takes three narrative stories, and intertwines them in a completely mixed up format, feeding different parts of the story to you at different times. “Slacker” starts off on one conversation, and then proceeds to jump from the next one to the next one, following a large town of people in Texas as they go through their average day. This type of structure has no clear narrative, but is a good experiment if you want to write a script full of opinions, viewpoints, and even messages.

The formula is up to you. Keep in mind, formula is NOT your story, but merely the way in which you tell your story. Don’t fret too much if you can’t come up with a formula that isn’t “fresh”, “new”, or “different”. The story should always be the most important focus. Finding the way in which to tell your story should come afterward. So when trying to find inspiration for your story, characters, and even dialogue, start with real life, then exaggerate. Blow things out of proportion, and make them interesting and entertaining, with enough drama to satisfy a teenage girl in a courtroom, enough action to put sports stars to shame, and enough story to make people have to watch it again and again…

written by Kyle Oliver, 4/26/2014

Kyle Oliver is an award-nominated
film writer, director and editor.
You can follow him on Twitter @ThatKyleOliver

© Copyright 2014 by Kyle Oliver

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