As an avid screenwriter myself, learning the basics to creating an entertaining but provacative screenplay, can be daunting. I know when I first started out, I was overwhelmed with the amount of information out there on what made a good screenplay and what didn't.
It wasn't until I took a couple classes in college (and eventually wrote my own) that I started to figure it out. Now I'm here to help you too.
Whether you're a seasoned screenwriter in need of a refresher or a newbie who has dreams of writing their first one, these essential elements are necessary.
Before you start any screenplay, you need an idea. When it comes to generating your first concept for a screenplay, a lot of people think that it has to be complicated or they have to think outside of the box. But, that's actually a common misconception! Keep your idea simple. The more ideas you throw out into the void, the more muddled your screenplay will become.
I always try to think of ideas that are more character centered because even though the plot is an important factor, the thing your viewers/readers will take away from your work is how the character progressed.
Take inspiration from your own life or other people's. Analyze other films or screenwriters who have done it right. Or even better, if there's a specific genre you're trying to get into (ex. romantic comedy) learn the in's and out's and make it unique to you.
BEAT SHEET & LOGLINE
Now, this is more reserved for the behind the scenes process because you're readers aren't going to be seeing your beat-sheet or rough ideas.
A beat sheet is defined as: "a document that outlines your entire story from the first act to the final one." This part of the process is so important if you want to keep yourself from getting stressed out. Yes, sometimes things will change, but having a road-map for how you want the story to go is crucial for you to succeed.
You also want to make sure you have a logline. It doesn't have to be perfect right away, but having a general concept of what the story is about will help you in the long run. A logline is defined as: "a simple synopsis of a screenplay or novel for the purpose of pitching." Or in other words, it's basically your elevator pitch where you have to rush through why your work deserves to be recognized in thirty seconds or less.
Personally, crafting characters is my favorite part of the process. Human beings want to see themselves in your characters. They have to be relatable. Raw. And you want your characters to actually develop throughout the course of your story otherwise your viewers/readers are just going to feel like they wasted their time.
Your characters drive your narrative. Without them, you have nothing.
So here are some things to think about when you decide to create your first character:
- Have you identified the type of character you're writing? How is this going to effect the way you develop them throughout the course of the story?
- Types of Characters: Lead, Supporting, and Minor.
The structure of screenplays are relatively simple! That's one of the things I really enjoy about this medium of writing because there's a pretty specific formula to follow, but you can still make it your own.
Most traditional screenplays follow the three act structure, which is defined as: "a narrative model that divides stories into three parts or acts."
Usually, this is what it looks like:
These are specific things that you have to hit within your screenplay in order for the story to move along at a consistent pace. This structure is also popular for those who are writing novels as well.
This is going to be your best friend, so you want to study up on it if you want to write anything, especially screenplays.
Need an in-depth breakdown? Visit here: The Three-Act Structure - A Breakdown.
PACING, PACING, PACING
Yes, the word "pacing" is back. Pacing is defined as: "the flow of the story as we perceive it." Basically, this determines how slow or fast your story goes.
This is going to be indicative of the genre that you're writing. Because for example, you wouldn't want your coming of age story to be fast paced like an action flick. It just wouldn't make sense and your viewer/readers aren't going to appreciate it either.
You also have to remember that certain scenes might be shorter or longer depending on what's going in the plot or what your character has to go through.
THEME & SUBTEXT
You've probably heard about theme, but you have no clue what it actually is. A theme is defined as: "a point of view that you wish to express about a specific subject." This is also known as the "moral message" of the film.
Often what we see has a deeper meaning to it. Any film you watch or book you read will have an underlying theme that it's also trying to explore amidst the plot.
Here are some examples of themes you can explore in your work:
- Coming Of Age
- Good vs. Evil
- Man vs. Nature
- Loss of Innocence
You also want to think about and perfect the art of subtext. Subtext is defined as: "the implicit meaning of a text or the underlying message that is not explicitly stated or shown."
Sometimes you want to avoid saying everything your character is thinking because let's be honest: most of us don't do that. We beat around the bush. We don't always say everything we mean. Pay attention to how people speak around you or how other films incorporate subtext in their writing. This will help add a lot of depth to your character, their relationships and your writing.
STAKES ARE KEY
Outside of character development, you also need conflict. Or in other words, stakes. Stakes are defined as: "something that is gained or lost in relation to the goal that the protagonist is pursuing."
When it comes to writing screenplays, this is going to be the biggest thing that keeps your story moving and makes it entertaining enough for people to keep watching/reading.
Building conflict can be difficult, but you have to always remember to raise them, more than you did before. Think about things that can keep your character from reaching their goal. What can they lose? What elements can you throw in to make things more stressful for your characters?
For example, one common stake you might see in fiction is the use of a time constraint. Maybe your character has twenty four hours before the entire world will blow up. And the only way they can stop it is if they find a particular person or object. You see how this adds tension to the scene and raises the stakes? Because not only is there danger involved, but this can also be detrimental to the main character and everyone they love.
UNDERSTAND YOUR GENRE
Last but not least, you need to understand the conventions of the genre you're writing. For example, if you're writing a romance, there are certain things you need to hit in order for it to be considered a romance. This doesn't mean you can't combine genres (ex. romantic comedy or romance/drama) but you have to be able to incorporate set details into your writing.
So for romance, you always have to have a "meet cute" and a happily ever after or happy for now type of ending. Otherwise, it doesn't fit within the context of the genre and now you're left with something that is going to leave your readers/viewers unsatisfied.
In conclusion, these are some of the basic elements to consider when you decide to write your first screenplay. Over time, I do plan on writing more content that goes into depth about the concepts we went over, so stay tuned for that!
Comment down below with any questions or thoughts. Happy writing!