What steps can we take to write an effective screenplay? As a beginner or a seasoned writer, it is helpful to understand and remember the fundamentals. The idea of creating and writing a perfect screenplay comes with breaking down each step and understanding how each one helps. Let’s take a look.
Step 1: Creating a story plot
If you’re writing a story plot for the first time, ask the following questions to get started:
- What/Who is the story about?
- Is there a conflict in the story?
- Does the story conclude or end the conflict?
If you have clear and detailed answers to the above questions, the story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Outline your plot
This sub-step gives a structure to the story and helps you in understanding the flow of events and how the story moves forward. The following steps can help you in creating a detailed outline:
- Write down the events of the story in time order. The earliest events first.
- Connect the two events with a plausible reason. If it helps, ask questions like, ‘What made the character take this step?’
- Write the events that have an introduction of characters or incidents, show motivation or desire, incur action and its consequence, the climax, and the ending.
The story is beginning to take shape and we can now move to the next step.
Step 2: Writing a treatment for your screenplay
What is a treatment? A treatment is a brief pitch of your film that ties together the story, characters, and plot. A good treatment can help with:
- Exploring the possibility of the storyline, where it can lead.
- What the characters can do to achieve their motif.
- It can help uncover the potential of the story.
A treatment can be seen as a substitute for a physical presentation to a production company, just a little less formal! It should include your title, logline, character bios, and story.
Step 3: Writing the characters in your story
The characters complete the story’s purpose through their actions and motivation. Each character has his or her role to play in the story and should come with their own unique wants and needs.
How do we profile and detail each character?
- Cause of action must be defined for each character: A cause of action is the purpose of each character and the motivation for their behaviour.
- The protagonist must have the strongest motivation: A protagonist stands out in the story because of their extraordinary or bold behaviour.
- Be unique in your creation of a character: This refers to the quirks, habits, a unique or strange trait that a character may possess.
Step 4: Writing a scene in your script
A complete scene in a script has many technical aspects that you should always be aware of. It’s very important to make sure your scene has a purpose in your script, some good questions to ask yourself is “does this scene need to be in here? If I took it out, would it confuse the audience?”, if the answer is no, then don’t write it.
“Screenwriting is compression” – William Goldman
A well-written scene comprises of the following details:
- Scene heading: If the scene is taking place in an indoor (INT.) or outdoor (EXT.) environment, at day or night. It also tells you where the scene is taking place. This is a single-line reference. Click for more details on how to write a scene heading.
- Scene description: How the scene looks on the screen. Details of the environment, the characters, their movements and actions, the background score and describing any on-screen elements.
- Dialogue: What and how the character speaks, on-screen, off-screen, or in a voice over.
- Transition: How the screen transition happens in cuts from one scene to another. Although these are usually only found on a shooting script!
Step 5: Writing good dialogue and conversations
Dialogues are what and how the character speaks or delivers his or her line. A dialogue must be:
- Clear in intention
- Short segments
- Have direct communication
- Must be specific to the topic/theme
Dialogue from characters may have the following traits to give them a unique identity and style:
- Language: If they belong to a certain demography and speak a different language.
- Dialect: If the character has a particular accent or manner from a particular region.
- Jargon: If the character has a catch-phrase or repeats certain words.
Dialogue helps in propelling the story forward and must provide information. Good dialogue must stay away from the following pointers:
- Pleasantries: ‘Good morning’ and ‘Hello’ are niceties that can quickly disengage the audience. They do not add value, so cut to the chase!
- Scene captioning: Describing the scene must be avoided. The audience is viewing that on the screen so information is not to be repeated.
- Long speeches: While one or two long speeches are technically permitted in the story that may be the high points, the dialogue, otherwise, must be short or a few sentences.
- Redundancies: Avoid the repetitive nature of dialogue as it can quickly disrupt the flow of your scene.
Step 6: Timing the pace and beats in your script
A story reveals and unfolds in steps. Not all information must be revealed in one go. To understand how to time the pauses or beats in a story, you can refer to the following pointers:
- Let each event in the outline leave the audience with a leading question. Like, ‘What will the character do now?’ or ‘How will this disastrous situation change?’
- Only keep in what is relevant to your story. Any information that does not connect with the next incident or the finale, does not contribute to the story.
- Keep one or multiple sub-plots alongside your main plot. This keeps the audience curious about other possible outcomes in the story and it also provides nice tension relief throughout your script.
Step 7: Edit and repeat
A good writer is a brutal editor. Editing and repeating this process helps in polishing and improving the story. There are a few key aspects that one must look for while editing:
- Avoid exaggeration: If there is any unnecessary dialogue or scene descriptions, you should cut down or condense them for a tighter script.
- Character consistency: Are the characters maintaining their profile, emotional response, dialect, word choices, delivery style and traits throughout the story? Make sure to keep your characters consistent!
- Closure: The story must end with a close on a well-thought-out theme.
- Grammar: Ensure that the sentence structures are grammatically correct with appropriate punctuation.
A story structure and outline may also change during this process, a decision that a writer may take if it improves the story. The purpose of editing is to make the story better and to not leave any loopholes.
Any screenplay may be broken down into the above steps. These basic steps are helpful even when the story is not yet completely formed in your mind. The process starts with a rough draft to begin with and allows the writer to explore the story, its characters, the plot and the ending.