As a budding kid in the world, dreams of becoming an astronaut or famous actress seemed viable. Then high school and college came around, and dreams died. Good news: Someone is more likely to win an Oscar than the lottery. So, while earning the big bucks may not be as easy as scratching some numbers, it is possible to write a winning screenplay with the hopes of retiring at 35 and vegging out by the pool, drinking Pina Coladas all day. Just write something like “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings.” Easy enough, right?
Speaking in terms of the short film, it is a practical and easy thing to accomplish. Now, the real question is: Will it be any good?
If this screenplay will never leave a sticker-covered diary, then who cares? Write to write! If this screenplay is being made for the possibility of optioning, or creating with the intent to distribute to film festivals, then listen up. Anyone can write a screenplay.
Whether the screenplay is good or not is a matter of opinion. Look at Tommy Wiseau and his film, “The Room.” What started as the laughing stock of the early 2000s film community continues to be the most popular midnight movie screening in America.
Over the course of three years in film school and under the tutelage of numerous screenwriting teachers, whose knowledge is incomparable, I share my knowledge and notes on how to write a short screenplay.
1. The Idea
Everything starts with an idea. Do not get discouraged if a thought-to-be “completely original idea” was made last year by Steven Spielberg. People say that there are only seven original stories, but I believe it is two: A stranger comes to town, and a hero goes on a journey.
Some believe there are no original ideas, and everything is influenced by something else. Whatever the belief may be, original stories are hard to come by.
How is it that “Avatar” is the current highest grossing movie of all time when it relates so much to the 1992 film, “Fern Gully”? “Avatar” writer and director, James Cameron, put a technological, alien twist to an already produced idea. Though he seemingly stole an idea, it is acceptable because Cameron reimagined it into something completely different — new and, most importantly, enjoyable.
Have an idea but not sure where to go from there? Journaling is an absolute must when it comes to brainstorming. When stuck or lacking ideas, journaling is a great way to pull from nothing and turn it into something.
Writer’s block is a myth. There may be days lacking in inspiration, but never will there be a day where it is impossible to write. Rather, rethink writer’s block as writing oneself into a corner. Just because a story is going one way, doesn’t mean it can’t go a completely different direction.
The willingness to change the direction that a story is going differentiates writers who believe in writer’s block from those who have just temporarily written themselves into a dead end.
2. The Characters
Screenplays beckon a specific type of attention that regular prose writing does not require. They have a limited amount of time to introduce the protagonist, the antagonist and their personal goals.
For a 10-minute short film, the characters must be introduced within the first minute or two. If the audience must wait any longer, they will become uninterested. For a feature film, it should take no longer than 10 minutes to introduce all the important elements of the story.
Once you establish the protagonist, the antagonist and the goals, everything else comes relatively easily. Here, imagination and creativity come into play.
3. The Structure
Three Act Structure is traditional for planning out a feature-length story, but it still applies to short form as well. Any story has a beginning, middle and end. In cinematic terms, a story has a set-up, confrontation and resolution.
The opening scene should set up where the protagonist is and what they are doing. This does not need dialogue or narration but if the story calls for it, go for it.
When it comes to film, show as much as possible before needing to tell. Film is a visual medium; therefore, visuals are much more imperative compared to dialogue. Exhibit A: the silent movie era.
4. The Plot and Conflict
After the protagonist establishes a goal and the antagonist establishes their reason — or motive — for stopping the protagonist, the two must come into conflict. Conflict is the driving force behind plot. It’s made up of obstacles for the protagonist to overcome.
Throughout the story, the protagonist will encounter many obstacles, but the climax — or confrontation — will be the biggest one of the film. The most important thing to remember when writing is, if the main character does not suffer enough or the stakes aren’t high enough, the payoff at the end will fall flat. If Yoda just gave Luke Skywalker all the abilities of the Force, it would be a boring movie.
The obstacles should build in intensity over the course of the screenplay, leading up to the climax, also known as the crisis. If the climax happens at the beginning, the rest of the film would be uninteresting. It should always be an uphill battle until the final step comes for the protagonist to either fail or succeed at achieving their goal.
5. The Editing
Also, don’t forget to “kill your darlings.” This rule applies to all realms of writing but is most important in screenwriting. It is fantastic to write about an experience you, as the writer, personally relate to, but it may mean that the screenplay has unnecessary elements, which hinder the narrative.
If a character, location or anything in between does not serve the overall story and its procession to the end, take it out. Yes, a musical number would be freaking awesome, but the script is a tragedy about a dead dog.
Personal stories can be great because there are finite details, unable to be mentally conjured on the spot by you or by others who did not go through a similar experience. Documentaries are great if “killing darlings” is not an option or proves a difficult practice for the writer.
6. The Screen Directions
Beyond story structure, screenwriting separates itself from all other forms of writing when it comes to the screen directions. Screen directions are the most boring part of screenwriting because they must be direct and understandable for anyone reading. No similes or adverbs and little use of adjectives (only when necessary) makes the process creatively draining.
Instead of, “The chiseled man gracefully walked away from the heinous crime scene,” a screen direction would go something like, “The man walked away from the scene.” There is a reason for the lack of description. The actors, or anyone who is reading the screenplay, should have the creative capacity to visualize their own idea of how the story should translate visually or what the character may be mentally going through during each scene.
Great screenwriters can give readers just enough to imagine what they want without losing control of their overall intentions for the story.
What makes screenwriting so different from every other form of writing is its physical structure. A screenplay is like a map, and the director decides what to do and where to go.
Tired of studying for that biology final next week? Procrastinate and write a short film. That short screenplay could transport anyone from a college dorm room to the red carpet.
For advanced writers, who know how to write a short screenplay and want to take their skills to the next step with a feature-length script, start off by reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” and then read Syd Field’s “The Foundations of Screenwriting.”