Let's get started with: writing your screenplay.

In 2011, I graduated from college with a BFA in Screenwriting. It was awesome....until Sallie Mae started blowing up my phone. I still write screenplays and help other people edit their work, though I do it a lot less now that I'm not in school. The other day after watching Very Good Girls I got inspired to write a piece that's loosely based on mine and my friend Kathryn's friendship.

Because I'm still in the very beginning of the process, I thought I would break down how I go about writing a feature.

STEP 1: INSPIRATION, IDEAS & CHARACTERS

This particular part of the screenwriting journey is rarely hard for me, but it may be for some people.

What to write about....Hmmm....

Like I said above, what got me interested in writing about best friends was watching another movie about best friends.

Today when I was walking to the coffee shop, I was listening to Scrumdittlyumptious and thinking about what kind of a dance I would like to see performed to it. I got thinking about the mystery behind Willy Wonka's character, and then I was interested in watching a dance about a girl who's in love with someone who everyone knows about, but doesn't really exist. I started trying to figure out how this fantasy dude could actually disappear on stage at the end of the dance, but I couldn't quite figure it out.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that I get inspired by other forms of media ALL THE TIME.   Music, movies, books, television, photographs, you name it.

If you're not sure what you want to write about, my suggestion would be to do a few things.

  1. Make a playlist of music you really like, and listen to it for a few hours without distraction. This will get your brain pumping the good vibes, and may lead to some neat ideas. Perhaps all the music connects in a way you hadn't thought of before? Maybe it's your protagonist's favorite music too?
  2. Make a pinterest board of images that inspire you. My board is called Dreamsville, and it's a big collection of images that are dreamy to me. You may notice a tonal theme with your board, which will get you going on what to write about. However, don't feel like you have to big picture your inspiration, if you find a specific image you like, write about that specific image! What universe is it taking place in? Who's involved in that universe? Why?
  3. Watch one of your favorite movies with the sound off, and play music in the background instead. This last suggestion is a little bonkers, but I do it a lot when I'm drawing. It's interesting to put two unrelated things together in the same space. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But it's certainly worth a try!

This is like, super really important:

CHARACTER BEFORE PLOT. ALWAYS. (At least 98% of the time.)

Get intimate with who you're working with. How well would someone like Thor work in a Woody Allen drama? Conversely how would Annie Hall do in a Marvelvese film? A funny consideration no doubt, but think about the logistics of how your characters would react in the situations you plan on putting them. Does it feel organic for Annie to go up against Loki? Or for Thor to knock Alvy Singer for excessively masturbating? These are things to consider.

When you're designing characters, the thing I find most helpful to do is to fill out a bunch of ask box memes as if you were that character.

Once you've got a pretty clear idea of what you want to write about...

STEP 2: OUTLINE

I'm a big believer in outlines. Like, a huge, big, religious believer. Not everyone is this way, I just find it helps keep me on track.

HOW TO WRITE A FILM OUTLINE:

David Mamet has a really concise way to outline your script. Before you even think about going through a story pyramid, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  1. Who wants what?
  2. What happens if they don't get it?
  3. Why today?

This gives you some great things: protagonist, stakes, and a reason for your story to be taking place at all.

Another thing I'm a big believer in (besides outlines in general) is Lynda Seger. Her books are absurdly helpful. When outlining your story, it helps to think in terms of an act structure pyramid.

how-and-why-linda-seger-paradigm

Theoretically, your first act can be up to about 35 pages. The end of the first act is essentially the point where your protagonist makes a decision that he thinks will propel him towards his goal. After making this choice, (s)he cannot backpedal, and must go forward dealing with the repercussions of this decision.

I found a really awesome blog when I was searching for pyramids to study. It does a complete story breakdown of Bridesmaids. So, if you're looking for a practical application of story pyramids, that would be a great one to read over.

Also, if the story pyramid is a little uncomfortable to you, my suggestion would be to try breaking down a few of your favorite movies into story pyramids. My go-to  is Grease. The set-up/catalyst is figuring out that Danny & Sandy both attend Rydell. (Dramatic irony FTW!) The first act break is when they see each other at the pep rally. I'm fairly certain the crisis point is with ChaCha at the dance, with the resolution being You're The One That I Want through We Go Together. Anyway...

Outlines are helpful.

There are many different ways to write an outline. I find it handy to first go through a story pyramid, then start a new document and write the script out scene by scene. The scene descriptions don't have to be super dense, just basic ideas that will give you an idea

E.G.

Scene 1:

Thomas finds Mary at the grocery store. He asks her if she wants to have dinner. She says maybe, telling Thomas her friend Krista said he's a scrub.

Scene 2:

Dinner at Thomas' house. Mary's accepted his offer and it gets awkward in a Jack Nicholson/Cher Witches of Eastwick way.

The other thing that I've found a lot of people do is they get a pack of notecards and a cork board/somewhere to attach them.

Notecards

A lot of my friends' offices look like this. 

The idea behind this is that you write each scene on the notecard, and then you attach it to the wall/wherever, then you can move them around as necessary; and have a visual representation of the flow of your script.

This technique works for any narrative, though I have yet to try it with prose.

STEP 3: WRITE YOUR DAMN STORY.

Unless you are the Cohen brothers, please God...LEARN SCREENPLAY FORMAT.

independence_day_script

I am a huge fan of Final Draft. If you're interested in seriously pursuing screenwriting, it's a must have. If you're poor like me, learning proper indentations is a must. (There is a free screenwriting program available, but I find it to be cumbersome and the opposite of helpful.)

Formatting in Word, should look like this, noting that the usual typeface for screenplays is Courier New.

ScreenplayFormat1

The inches represent margin length for each. The tab key will get you .5".

Dos and Don'ts of screenwriting:

DO: Be super concise with your descriptors. Ain't nobody got time to read a novel length description of what Times Square looks like. Try your hardest to ONLY include things that are vital to the story.

DON'T: add shots, camera movements, anything that has bupkis to do with your story. Remember: YOU ARE THE WRITER. Not the director, DP, or key grip. If you have something that requires special attention, don't explain how that item is going to get special attention. i.e "Mary picks up the knife, and the camera pans over to Evan's POLICE BADGE on the nightstand."

Basically what you're saying is that either Mary is noticing Evan's badge, or the audience is seeing Evan's badge. Specify that instead. "Mary picks up the knife, then sees Evan's POLICE BADGE on the nightstand." Or, "Mary picks up the knife. We see Evan's POLICE BADGE on the nightstand."

In theory, each of those sentences in the second example could be a separate line of action. One of your main goals as a writer, aside from concisely telling a bomb-ass story, is to not tire the shit out of whoever has to read it. Break up text whenever possible and appropriate. Your director & crew will thank you for it later.

STEP 4: EDIT THE MOTHERF&%$ER.

This part is my favorite. I love editing. It's awesome!

What I'll typically do is get a think tank together via email and send it out to them. Then, I will either wait for them to write me back, or offer to buy them a cup of coffee so we can have a sit down meeting.

I'm here to break some bad news to you if you think your first draft is going to be award winning. IT ISN'T. It's probably going to suck donkey nads, and you know what? THAT'S TOTALLY ALRIGHT. If your first draft doesn't suck donkey nads, you're probably an alien and I want to steal some of your mad writing prowess. If *you're* the only person who's convinced your first draft is an award winning non-nads-sucking piece of genius, now might be a good time to re-examine your life choices.

Anyway, it helps to get a few opinions from voices you trust. The first person I usually send work to is my friend Chris. She always has useful feedback for me, and gives me some great ideas to mull over.

Whoever you decide to send your work to should be someone who's opinion you value, and who's also willing to give you some good constructive criticism. Sending work to your mom may be good for your ego, but if all she does is tell you how great you are, how will your work get better?

I'm all about that "kill your darlings" quote, but I think what's more helpful is to stand in front of your notecard board, and figure out what's essential to your story. What's helping propel the protagonist forward? What is essential (or inessential) in your script to do this?

That part always gives me a headache. It helps tremendously to read through everyone's notes and figure out what works and what doesn't through everyone else's eyes; then compare it to what I think should stay in the script.

STEP 5: PREPARE YOUR OSCAR SPEECH!

I'm totally kidding.

If you feel like you've got a pretty good script together, it may be wise to start making a pitch packet.

YOUR PITCH PACKET SHOULD INCLUDE:

  • A treatment for your script.  I haven't written many treatments, so I'm not sure how to best explain it. If you're thinking of pitching somewhere specific, see if you can find pitches for things they've already accepted, and model your pitch after them.
  • A logline for your script. A logline is essentially your script's plot in a sentence. Here's a good example, from the GodfatherAn epic tale of a 1940s New York Mafia family and their struggle to protect their empire, as the leadership switches from the father to his youngest son

You should be able to breakdown your story into a logline. If you can't, try asking your editing think-tank. If no one else can either, then perhaps your story is a little muddled?

After you have these two things together, think about how you realistically want to accomplish getting your movie made. (Send it to studios? Try and pull together the money to make it on your own? See if any of your friends are interested in making it? Let it sit for a hot minute on your computer because you hadn't really thought about the actual "making it into a movie" part?) (I'm usually in the last boat...hahah)

The way I've outlined my process is VERY MUCH about linear narrative story structuring. If your process is more nebulous, don't feel bad. Everyone works differently. My life is nebulous, so I prefer having something more concrete to bring me back down to earth.

In any case, I'm going to get working on my outline.

Happy writing~!

-Mac