HOW TO START WRITING A SCREENPLAY
Browsing Stage 32 yesterday and I came across several newer writers who were about to embark on the journey of writing their very first screenplay. Exciting times no doubt, but with that excitement comes the fear of the unknown.
Usually stories start from the smallest of ideas. A series of images whirling around in your head. It could be a scene you imagined playing out over and over again. Let’s look at something a little smaller as it could be a single image or better yet, a single item. A football or tea cup. A dream conjured up from nowhere.
No matter how the idea came, be glad that it did. Planting this little seed, it has sprouted and we need to add a little water to make it grow. This is where the fear comes in. How much water does this little sprout need?
Okay, so what the hell am I talking about? I’m talking about how to get started, which surprisingly not a lot of people know. An idea is just that and everyone has them. It’s not enough to fill a 90 page screenplay, but it is enough to get started and that’s what we want to do. Below is my advice on how to get started by taking that small idea, fleshing it out and bringing it to life in a beautiful 90+ pages.
OUTLINE YOUR IDEA
As I said, a single idea isn’t enough to get you to 90 pages, but it is enough to get your started. The first thing you want to do is to develop your idea further. You need an outline, some sort of map to get you to your location. If I was to tell you to drive from LA to Orlando, without a map, you might find it to be rather difficult. Don’t drive blindly, let’s get a map.
So your idea is that of a single item. Let’s say a pair of ballet slippers, just for example. Close your eyes and how do you see that item? Are they in the hand of a girl walking to a class? Is she on her way to an audition? Are they on her feet and she’s on stage? When I close my eyes, I see these ballet slippers lying in a heap of rubble, dingy, dirty and faded. Almost as if a building has exploded and somehow these slippers have found their way among the rubble.
A cool image no doubt, but again not enough to get us anywhere. Obviously on our road trip to Orlando, we want to make stops along the way. Our first stop is going to be 25% of the way, so let’s build our map to that point first.
The first thing we need to know is, what is that 25% location? Keep in mind, that this place needs to be an impactful moment where our main character makes the decision to dive into the uncomfortability of something, changing the direction of their life DRASTICALLY.
The image in your head is a girl walking with ballet slippers in her hand. Your main character is a 20 something female working at a grocery story. She desperately wants to be a ballerina, but lacks confidence in her ability. To take it a little further, she lacks support from those close to her as well.
To change this girl's life, we need to put her in a situation that could drastically impact her life. This girl is going to go to an audition. She’s going to quit her job and with her slippers in hand she decides to walk to an audition.
A great example above, let’s take a look at my slippers in the rubble. I’m going to say there is rubble due to a war that breaks out. Let’s have this be an alien movie. I have a secluded mountain man, living in a home with his family. Aliens attack, blowing up his cabin and killing his entire family. He finds his daughters ballet slippers among the rubble. Even worse, they’re still on her feet.
Okay so now I know where I’m starting, a man living secluded in the woods with his family and I know where my first stop is, the home is blown up by aliens. All we have to do is bridge the gap and build the map to our first destination.
Without boring you with the rest of the details, you’re going to create a few map points along the way, repeating this process. Arriving at the 25% mark, you now need a 50% location. Next you’ll need a 75% location and then finally you’ll arrive in Orlando at that 100% mark. Congrats, welcome to Disney.
Before jumping into what’s next, take a look at a few helpful hints for your location points.
50% location - If you’re writing a story with the intent of having a happy ending, then your main character needs to be winning up until this point. My mountain main needs to be killing aliens successfully up to this point. Then at 50%, the aliens catch on and start hunting him. The opposite is true for a sad ending. He needs to be losing until 50%, when he decides to go hunt aliens.
75% location - Again, with the happy ending, your main character needs to hit rock bottom here and have to make a decision to win. With a sad ending, our main character has to seemingly win at this moment.
100% location - End happy or end sad, either way, end it. Button up any questions the audience may have and put a little bow on this gift to the world. Did my mountain man blow up the mother ship or did the aliens scoop him up and take him to their planet a few galaxies away?
HOW TO MOVE THROUGH YOUR SCRIPT
Now that we know our locations, let’s find the roads we’re going to use, driving from point to point. How do we do that? Simple. Work backwards and ask the question why. Take a look at my points below and see how I get there. It’s pretty cool.
0% - Mountain man lives in the woods with his family.
25% - House is blown up and slippers lie in rubble.
WHY did the house blow up? - Aliens came to earth with the intent to destroy it.
WHY did the aliens come? - Our mountain man accidentally sent a signal out that they received.
WHY did he send a signal? - He is a genius and in his journey to get off the grid, he has developed his own water, electricity and finally, communication device.
WHY does he want off the grid? - He’s a mountain man who hates the cruel and ugly world he came from.
WHY does he hate the world? - He dedicated his life to a career and the company stole his ideas. They framed him which led to his arrest for a crime he didn’t commit, leaving his family without his support for a few years.
Done and done. I now have a map from 0-25% and it’s that simple. To button this up, I would open the story on the mountain man and his family in their secluded home. He has a flashback showing the world he came from. At the 25% mark, he would walk up to the rubble of his home, finding his murdered family. He grabs an ax and makes his way to kill some aliens.
IT’S THAT SIMPLE!
Rinse and repeat this process from point to point.
Building your map and creating your outline is a fun and exciting process. You get to see the story come to life and flesh out the ideas rolling around in your head.
Writing a script is a time consuming process that will tax your mind, body and soul. It’s an emotional roller coaster that will leave you exhausted. Before that roller coaster takes off, buckle that seat belt(outline) so you feel safe.
The nice part of an outline is that you can change it quickly and simply. Hell, the process is so simple, you can throw it away and start over if you’d like.
I hope you found this helpful in providing direction on how you can go from the simplest of ideas to a full fledged outline in just a few simple steps. Now for my final question...What’s the image in your head?
- The Failed Filmmaker