When trying to write a screenplay sometimes the most daunting obstacle can be simply determining where to begin. We at SPTG have a very disciplined process that keeps all our writers and clients on the same page. This process was honed over two decades of starting out in the wrong area of detail and getting lost in the process.
Typically our stories come to us in numerous ways. Sometimes we see a scene complete in our minds, other times we see an action sequence with very little story. Sometimes it is just a premise that creates a really exciting world. Regardless of where the process begins, our technique of approaching this process works for the individual writer and for the collaborative efforts around client -> writer relationships.
As with all stories, there has to be a foundation mechanism that will determine when in time we are, where in the universe we are, and the basic concept of who does what to make the story possible. This is what we call the premise. For example, the premise to Terminator was a robot coming from the past in an attempt to kill a woman who was going to give birth to a man who would challenge the robots in the future. The premise contains time travel, a robot, a woman, and a method by which she can defeat the robot and survive.
The story is why do we care about the premise? Why in the case of the Terminator does anyone want Sarah Conner to live? It is our job to create a character that engages the audience. We have to make her lovable to some extent. She has to become a hero. She has to make decisions under pressure. She has to be “gapped” from being able to quickly solve problems, and above all, everything has to be interesting to the audience.
In the end, the premise should setup the story. It should facilitate all action that contains emotion. The “why should we care” about this premise setup. Your job will be to create engaging characters that the audience can side with as the story unfolds. To the degree your story has complexities, at least one character should too be unaware of what is going on so that someone can explain it to them or so they can discover in a reasonable rate the intricate workings of your flow.
The outline or scene outline as we sometimes refer to it should be a set of four bullets for each act of a four act system. The number of bullets should be a minimum of 12 but in the event that a scene is very quick, additional bullets are just fine. The bullets should account for 30 minutes of action for at least act one through three of a four act system. Your fourth act can consume up to 30 minutes, but is not mandatory.
The breakdown or scene breakdown as we sometimes refer to it should start with your overall outline from the previous step. Under each bullet from your main outline, you should create an indented scene breakdown outlining all of the vital action necessary to evaluate the scene. Should a scene lack any real substance, you will want to either remove the scene or bolster it with more meaningful action or content.
If a particular moment of dialog is meaningful to the scene, feel free to use a bullet in your breakdown to mention who says what. These dialog lines should be crucial moments in your script and not ancillary moments. Remember, we’re looking for moments that lock down why we’re telling this story.
Once your have your scene breakdown finished and approved by all parties, you will be ready to begin writing your actual screenplay in your preferred software. This version of your screenplay is aimed at proving that you have the crucial components to get your story realized in its most primitive form. Don’t worry about stylistic dialog at this point. The goal is to finish the first version without getting locked up in details that can stall the process.
Iterating Your Script
Once you have a finished version of your script, you will be ready to start a refining process. This process involves several goals. Your first goal will be to cut down all action descriptions to their smallest form without losing the overall meaning of said action. If there are better words to condense multiple words, this is your moment to take advantage of that refinement. Remember, a reader doesn’t want to spend a second more reading your script for evaluation than they have to.
This stage is also where we start to add stylistic dialog. This means accents, slang, and other refinements that make the dialog feel authentic and unique between characters. Please see our lessons on dialog for more details.
No script is considered “done” by its creator, yet we do have to select a time when its ready for review. If you have spent a considerable amount of time focused on your script you may need a break before being able to see more refinements. This is a standard process. Don’t feel bad taking a day or a week or two weeks off from your works in order to think things through.
One trick of the trade is to pretend that you are at your film’s premiere. Imagine the audience seeing every scene from start to finish. Did you leave something out? Could you have written dialog to be more meaningful? Did you create a character and forget them? Perhaps refine the dialog to be easier to speak the words aloud. Practice reading your script out loud to see how it feels to you. Regardless of your expertise in writing, you know subconsciously what sounds believable and what sounds written.
These are just some of the methods we use as SPTG to get our scripts written.