So now that you’ve got your story in your head, you’ll just sit down and write your script. You ready?
NOT SO FAST! You actually haven’t written your story yet.
SCREENPLAYS ARE NOT WRITTEN—wait, they actually are. Yes, you will at some point be sitting at a keyboard and typing. But the thing that you are really going to work hard to create—THE STORY—is BUILT. Built like a brick house. A house starts as a pile of material. Then, through design and labor and imagination, that pile of stuff is properly structured and put together to look like one beautiful thing: a house.
Your story is also built. Built from the materials of your characters and your imagination into something that looks like one thing: a movie. It’s done thoughtfully, deliberately and with a purpose—not spontaneously. But first and foremost, you’re going to make that story work. And sitting down and writing a script in format is not necessarily a good way to do it.
When talking with my clients, my students, my professional colleagues—I’ve usually said “if you’re writing your script, then you must be almost finished, right?” The answer is frequently, “No. I’m just getting started.”If that’s the case, there’s something important to consider. I’m not saying it’s completely wrong to sit down and write a formatted script. In fact, I know a few writers who cannot do it any other way. They toil over each draft as if it were a new piece of writing each time. That’s what they are most comfortable doing. But if you feel stuck; if you feel like you’re sweeping over the same spot on the floor again and again, then this process might be what you’re looking for.
Sitting down and writing a formatted script is, fun and easy. You feel as if you can write the whole movie in real time. The only thing holding you back is the speed of your fingers dancing over the keyboard. You write things like—
WIDE: A rustic country home. ALICE, 35, attractive in an interesting way, tends to
her goats on a windswept moor in rural Wales. She wears a tartan wool skirt and rugged
CAMERA MOVES IN TIGHT ON: Alice’s hands, worn, but still feminine. Her goats bleat in expectation as she scatters corn nuggets onto the muddy bog.
Now don’t y’be greedy. There’s enough
It’s really cool sounding isn't’? You could really go on forever capturing the vivid detail of these moments on screen. I mean—those GOATS, right? You could go all night like this! But you probably won’t write much of a story. And when I say “written” I mean created a detailed story outline in prose that describes only what happens to your characters and captures their struggle with the amazing problems and conflicts in your story.
Please believe me when I tell you I wrote that whole thing spontaneously for this article just to prove something to myself. No matter how good it sounds, THERE’S NO STORY—take my word for it, I wrote it! I have no idea what’s going to happen next. It’s JUST WORDS.
The reason I support writing a story outline is that you CAN’T AVOID telling the story. An outline won’t let you get bogged down in detailed descriptions of setting, shots, camera angles, clothing or goats.
The Story or “Step” or “Scene” Outline or Beat Sheet, is a simple list in normally
formatted prose that shows, scene-
EXT. CITY STREET—DAY (Yes, you can use slugs. These remain your scene headings when you move on to your formatted script)
ADAM, 28, a hard-
INT. ADAM’S APT.—LATER
Adam listens to his voice messages and—THERE’S A MESSAGE FROM JANET. He’s perplexed.
INT. ELEVATOR, OFFICE BUILDING—DAY
Adam on the elevator. The doors open, and who should enter but—??
Get it?...and so on.
A story about Adam and Janet “meeting cute”, as they say. Maybe there’s a romance
or maybe she’s a terrorist using him in a global plot—or maybe they fall in love
and start a goat farm. In this case there’s just a few snips of dialogue. there
will certainly be more in the actual script. But what there is clearly is STORY,
above all. This is what HAPPENS in the scene. The props, costumes, all of that JUNK,
is left until later—when you will (hopefully) realize you barely need to describe
it anyway. Go put together about 70-
If you use index cards—either handwritten or the Index Card View in your screenwriting software, you can start to shift things around, build sequences, see where your Act Breaks are and really PLAN your whole script, right down to the beats in the scenes. By the time you sit down to actually write your script, you’ll be concentrating on the stuff you should be concentrating on—the dialogue, the beats within the scenes, and an approach to mood and setting—using some very thoughtful and economical detail. You won’t want anything to get in the way of this sharp and cogent story.
Another benefit of outlining is that YOU WILL KNOW YOUR WHOLE STORY when you sit down to write the script. Remember: the SCRIPT is the only thing that communicates your story. But your story is what’s important. Even if your formatting is faulty or suffers from a lack of polish, it’s your story that a producer, director or actor is looking at.
Good characters? This is the core of your story. Interesting ideas? This comes out of your story.An audience experiences your story as ONE WHOLE PIECE OF ACTION. But you are the one who decides what small pieces it will be built out of. Writing your script will take only a fraction of the time it took you to write the Story Outline. It might take you anywhere from three months to a year to refine your story. But it will probably only take you a few weeks to write that script. And it’ll be a breeze because you won’t be stressed out creating the bigger elements of your story.
BRING ON THE GOATS!