Issue 9: Lesson 9—Writing the Screenplay (Overview)

Writing a screenplay can be a long and arduous process, especially if you’re a newbie. Fortunately it’s a process that can be broken down into manageable stages. So, in preparation for the next few lessons on writing your fact-based screenplay, this issue we provide an overview of these stages – from outline to final draft…

A two-hour film will necessitate writing a script of approximately 120 pages (one page per minute of screen time), and this is the length that’s generally seen as acceptable when trying to sell a screenplay. Of course, there are 90-minute films and three-hour-plus epics in the world, but 120 pages is a pretty good target to aim for; especially if you’re new to the industry and trying to make a first sale.

If you’ve ever read a screenplay (if not, why not?) then you’ll have noticed each page contains more white space than text. Brevity is key when writing a screenplay, with descriptions and blocks of dialogue kept to a minimum. Compare this to a novel, which will run to around 400+ pages, each of which is filled top to bottom with text. This is one of the reasons why people often think writing a screenplay is easy. However, nothing could be further from the truth…

With a novel, you can ramble on for page after page about what your character is thinking about, his state of mind, or the emotion behind a simple gesture. You can write whole chapters on character and place descriptions, as well as packing in all the exposition the reader needs to fully appreciate the narrative, complete with extensive monologues. You can even write the whole novel in the first-person.

With a script, you can only include things that can be seen and heard. Think about that for a second. Take a look at the following passage…

“John gazed lovingly at Sarah, who did everything she could to avoid his intense eyes. She thought back to a time that at once seemed like yesterday and a million years ago; a time when she craved those eyes to fall upon her; a time when she didn’t care what everyone else thought. But now, she just felt embarrassed and little repulsed. She purposefully and defiantly turned her back on John, who wanted the ground to open up and swallow him whole. What he wouldn’t give to turn back the clock and feel her warmth wash over him once more, instead of the cold, sharp wind that cut him in two…”

OK, maybe that’s a little cheesy, but think how you could write that passage as a movie scene, with no option to fill out the simple act of a man looking at a woman with the history and emotion behind that look. Think of all the scenes that would need precede this one in order to heighten the emotional impact.

The point of all this is that conveying your narrative effectively in a screenplay format requires forethought and planning. So, here’s a quick rundown of some steps to help you think about your screenplay more concisely:

Character biographies: A useful tool to have, these offer insight into all your main characters – their background and personality traits. It’s a useful exercise to draw these up and put some effort into thinking of the answers. Find some example questionnaires herehere and here.

Timeline: This is especially important with multi-layered stories that take place over a long period of time. These help you keep track of what happens when…as well as highlighting any gaps or inconsistencies.

Logline: This is basically your story described in 25 words or less. For example, ‘A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an infamous ill-fated ocean liner during its maiden voyage’ (Titanic).

Step outline (or beat sheet): This is a brief description of your screenplay that highlights the main plot developments.

Synopsis: This is a full description of your plot, written as prose.

Treatment: This is a comprehensive and detailed telling of your story. The treatment might stretch to several pages and may end up reading like a short story or novella.

Drafting: This is the process of writing the fully formatted screenplay, with scene descriptions and dialogue. Plan on writing several of these…

As you work through your script, one word will become ever more important – structure. This means ordering all the events in your screenplay in a dramatically effective way. What all the steps above aim to do is to help you develop the best structure for your script and make the writing process much easier. After all, it’s easier to rework a step outline or treatment when you run into problems with the structure than getting to page 87 of the actual script, realising things have gone off track and having to start all over again.

Remember that all these tools are for your own benefit. The synopsis and logline will come in handy down the line, but at this stage, you’re just trying to make your writing journey a little less fraught with pitfalls. So, try out different planning methods out and see what works best for you:

  • Scribbling in a notebook
  • Using spreadsheet and word processing tools
  • Using special screenplay software tools
  • Pinning notecards to a noticeboard

Find some planning methods that work for you and invest some time in the planning process. You’ll be glad you did!

Next lesson, we offer a route map through the world of the screenwriting gurus and experts to help you find more inspiration and less confusion.

Issue 10 of RSL is out on 28 September.