Twenty Tips for Writing a Great Academy Award Winning Screenplay
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To be good enough, your script must levitate over the reader’s outstretched hands
Haven’t you always wanted to write a screenplay? Many writers have, I’ll bet. Well, I’ve written some screenplays – unfortunately none of them were purchased or made into movies. The reason is they simply weren’t good enough and/or I wasn’t up to the task of marketing them.
By the way, this article is not a how-to-write screenplays article. To begin with, the block formatting of this Web site isn’t suitable for displaying screenplays. Fortunately there are plenty of how-to books telling you all you need to know about writing your script. Of course, the Internet provides numerous articles on the subject; there’s also screenplay software available.
I advise you to read at least one how-to book before you begin writing your first screenplay.
But here are some of my personal tips on what to include (or exclude) in your wonderful movie masterpiece. I’ve learned the hard way, so you won’t have to. (Well, you’ll probably have a tough time of it anyway – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves :-)
Please read on:
1. A Format You Must Follow
Screenplays have a unique style, certainly different from that of a novel or stage play. They’re made to read vertically rather than horizontally – that’s why the dialogue is in the middle of the page. The purpose of a screenplay is to make the movie you're writing a reading experience – not an easy task.
Assuming you’re a novice, you’ll probably be writing is a speculation screenplay or spec script. These scripts have few if any camera directions and the scenes aren’t numbered. Such details are meant for shooting scripts, mostly written by industry insiders - that is, screenwriters with a track record. Consequently, reading a shooting script isn’t near as much fun.
2. It’s the Story, Stupid!
All screenplays begin with a process of brainstorming, about which you develop your movie’s premise, which could also be called the logline. In 100 to 150 words, you describe what your movie is about. And it better be exciting and original, because writing your screenplay without one would be a waste of time. Then show this premise to your friends (preferably writer friends) and see if they react enthusiastically and say, “Yeah, I’d like to see that!” If they instead give you a blank stare, you better write another one.
Remember to write what you feel deeply about, because that will probably help produce the best screenplay.
If your premise goes well, then write an outline or beat sheet, which highlights every event in the story (some use a set of those 3 by 5 cards). The outline could be rather long; in fact, you could keep writing outlines, providing more and more detail, until the latest one becomes your screenplay’s rough draft.
I always wanted to start writing the screenplay first thing but, believe me, that was definitely an amateurish mistake!
3. Start with a Bang
The first ten pages of your story is called the lead-in, which is the most important part of your screenplay. If you don’t start your story with a bang – literally or figuratively - the reader at the literary agency may throw it into the trash before turning to page 11. Ten pages - that’s all you’ve got to make them jump out of their chairs and cry “Wow, this is best beginning since The Thing!”
When I watch a movie that starts slowly, I often ask myself if it started as a spec script. It almost certainly didn’t, unless the writer had connections in Hollywood – and then, who knows?
As an example of a flicker that starts with a bang, in the first scene of The Big Heat, a cop commits suicide by shooting himself in the head. Then, his wife, looking very calm, takes his suicide note and hides it. Don’t you wanna know why?
Of course, your story could be a character-driven movie such as Sideways. If this is the case, you’ve got ten pages to make your leading character fascinating.
4. How Long Is Too Long?
Your screenplay should be from 90 to 120 pages in length. Each page is supposed to represent one minute in the movie. Back in the early 1980s I read in a screenplay book that scripts couldn’t be longer than 120 words. This was an absolute requirement, one page longer and nobody in the movie business would even read it. These days they may not be so strict. For instance, the spec script for Thelma and Louise is 126 pages.
My advice is to write a screenplay that is no longer than 120 pages. Why take the chance?
5. What Happens Next?
Above all, the plot in your screenplay should be designed to make people wonder what happens next. The plot should be full of ups and downs, twists and turns and perhaps a startling revelation or two. It also needs to be lifelike. But that doesn’t mean your movie should be told in a naturalistic way. Generally, real life is boring. Your script should emphasize the dramatic parts in life, omit the dull ones, and keep people entertained for 90 to 120 minutes. In a way, your script is nothing but a carefully crafted illusion.
Movies have always been larger than life, but these days they have to be spectacular, especially the action-adventure, thrillers and crime stories. A good example of a movie which shows some of the best popcorn-eating action, exciting gunplay and plot twists aplenty is The Departed . If you can plot like that Oscar-winner, you’ll be a master in your field.
6. The Protagonist
The protagonist is the man or woman who goes through the changes in your movie. He or she is the one who encounters one conflict after another. In Gone with the Wind, it’s Scarlett O’Hara, and in Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s Indiana Jones. Your protagonist’s thoughts and feelings need to be shown in the action of your movie. In many cases, the protagonist can’t win his goal unless he conquers a character flaw. In The Badge, Daryl Hardwick, the sheriff of a small southern town can’t solve the murder of a transsexual until he conquers his smirky, hillbilly homophobia.
Keep in mind, your protagonist doesn’t have to be likeable. But if he isn’t, he better be somebody you can’t take your eyes off, such as Charles Foster Kane in the masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Your movie could have multiple protagonists, but you better leave that difficult task up to the experts.
7. Major Dramatic Question
The Major Dramatic Question (MDQ) always involves the protagonist. What is his or her major goal? In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling’s goal is to catch the serial killer Buffalo Bill. As for Die Hard, John McClane, the NYC cop, must singlehandedly defeat a gang of international terrorists. Since the movie’s reason for being is the MDQ, it better be very important and easy to understand. The answer to the MDQ will be a simple “yes” or “no.”
However, the goal, while simple, should have a deeper, psychological subtext. Clarice Starling, in addition to the external problems of trying to catch a deranged mass murderer, must also deal with her own fears of being a woman in a man’s world, as well as the cries of those lambs slaughtered on her country farm when she was a child.
8. Good Things Come in Threes
Once you’ve devised your MDQ, its time to divide your story into the Three-Act Structure. This creates what’s called the dramatic arc of the plot.
The first act sets the stage for the entire movie. What the protagonist must accomplish to attain his goal is established herein without confusion. In Die Hard, John McClane is locked in a high-rise building with a gang of terrorists who plan to rob the company vault, kill the hostages and then escape. McClane must free the hostages, a group which includes his wife, before the end of the third act. Incidentally, this point in the movie is called Plot Point One.
The second act is much more difficult to write, and therefore defeats many scripters. Act two is where the conflict extends and escalates – that’s why the second act is the longest of the three. The events alternate between positive and negative for the protagonist; he wins one battle and loses another. And, by the end of the second act, matters couldn’t get much worse for him.
In the third act, the action revs up and the events contract. Building to the climax, the protagonist must act quickly and decisively or lose the fight. This is where writers often add a ticking time bomb to the scenario. Nothing builds suspense better. Then, inevitably, the protagonist prevails. He may die in the end, but he attains his goal with his demise. (Remember the ending in Armageddon? )
Please be aware that using the Three-Act Structure is mandatory when writing screenplays. If you don’t use it, you won’t sell your spec script in a thousand years!
Be that as it may, movies without the Three-Act Structure are produced. Remember the cult classic, Eraserhead? This odd flick doesn’t seem to have such a format - but the script wasn’t sold to a production company. It took David Lynch six years to raise the money to make it himself!
9. Midpoint Dynamic
At the middle of the second act, it will be time to present your Midpoint Dynamic. At this point in Die Hard, John McClane finally gets the attention of the police by throwing the body of a terrorist out the high-rise and onto the hood of a patrol car. This changes the dynamic of the story and adds a new vibe. The confrontation becomes a media event. Unfortunately, for McClane, now the terrorists also know he’s in the building. Also changing matters dramatically, McClane, after killing a terrorist, discovers a bag of detonators and explosives, a revelation that means the terrorists will probably use explosives to kill the hostages.
These exciting events lead the audience inexorably toward the spectacular denouement. You just can’t wait to see it, can you?
10. Plot Point Two
At the end of act two, the protagonist is literally or figuratively running for his life and must act quickly or the bad guys will win the day. This part, known as Plot Point Two, is the springboard into act three.
But in some movies it could be a high point for the protagonist (or protagonists). In Thelma and Louise, the distaff outlaws lure this obnoxious trucker from Fresno to a crossroads where they get even with his foul mouth by firing bullets into the gasoline tanks of his 18-wheeler, igniting a series of immense fireballs. No doubt the audience cheers wildly at this point. Nobody messes with these plucky gals!
Sadly, though, Thelma and Louise realize the police are closing in on them, so they probably won’t make it to Mexico. Either the police will capture them and send them to prison or they must . . . .
11. Complementary Opposites
Way back in the 1920s, Lajos Egri wrote the book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, often considered one of the best books ever written on the subject. One of the main things I learned in this book was the concept of Complementary Opposites. At the very least the protagonist and antagonist should be opposites. John McClane is just an average cop from NYC, a genuine good guy, while the antagonist, Hans Gruber, is a sophisticated - though ruthless - international criminal. They’re just about as opposite as two characters can get.
As for the antagonist, you present his utter terribleness early in the movie in what’s called a Thumbnail Sketch. This is a short scene in which you show just how bad he is. The scene may not even relate to the plot, it simply needs to show what a no-good a-hole the protagonist must defeat in order to attain his goal.
The protagonist and his or her sidekick are usually opposites as well. After all, opposites tend to create fireworks. At the very least the people in such small groups should be different; otherwise, your story will almost certainly get boring. In fact, virtually every couple in your movie should be comprised of opposites. Groups of people, such as families, should be composed of opposites as well.
12. Enter Late, Leave Early
Once you know the major objective of a scene, you can apply a key screenwriting technique: Enter a scene late and leave it early. Start the scene after the action has begun, riveting the audience, and then leave it immediately after the conflict ends. Remember the part in Thelma and Louise when Louise tells Thelma she had her first orgasm with J.D., the hitchhiker they had picked up earlier? Then they realize J.D. has been left alone in the motel room with their money. Crap! They don’t rifle through the motel room looking for the cash. The scene starts when they discover the money gone. Then Thelma takes charge of the situation, cheers up Louise, pulls her to her feet and off they go. Thelma’s take-charge attitude is the key change in this scene.
Later, Louise, having learned a thing or two about robbery from J.D., rips off a convenience store, completing the cause and effect of this sequence of events.
13. Say More with Less
Your dialogue should be to the point. Characters should rarely say more than three or four lines at a time. Actually, you should be able to tell your whole story without any dialogue! (In the days of silent movies, that’s what they did.) Your dialogue should also be clipped and conversational, as real people speak. And, when you can, add subtext to your words, making them even more descriptive and revealing.
14. No Flashbacks
In general, your movie should have no flashbacks; they can ruin the continuity of a film. Exceptions to this rule can be found in the movies The Shawshank Redemption and Titanic. The flashback in The Shawshank Redemption is when Red, thinking Andy may have committed suicide, finds Andy missing from his cell. Hey, Andy’s not only missing – he’s dug an escape tunnel through the wall! Then they show Andy’s harrowing break out in flashback.
For Titanic, Rose, a survivor of the disaster, tells her part of the story in the beginning of the movie, at points in the middle and again at the ending, framing the whole story, which may be the most acceptable way to use flashbacks.
15. What about Subplots?
Just about every movie needs subplots. (Some horror stories such as House don’t have subplots, because they can destroy the suspense.) A perfect example of the need for subplots is Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. In the main plot, Judah has his mistress murdered so she won’t make trouble with his wife. While the subplot shows Woody Allen playing Cliff, a documentary filmmaker who tries to woo the woman of his dreams, only to lose her to somebody else, leaving him miserable. Allen’s subplot adds comedic relief to the main plot in this dark comedy.
At the end of the movie, Judah and Cliff meet and discuss their respective lives, unifying both plots, adding a meaningful ending to one of Allen’s best movies.
You’ll need to establish the tone of your movie. There are two ways of doing this. Decide on what scale of light (on the left) to dark (on the right) your movie fits. If it’s in the middle, maybe it’s something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Another scale is from realistic to unrealistic – where would you put your movie?
Another way to set the tone is to use the Frying Pan Test. If you hit your protagonist in the head in with a frying pan, how would he react? Would he laugh at you or pull a pistol from behind his back and shoot you?
This technique is particularly effective if you’re writing a thriller, science fiction, horror or an action-adventure. The key is this: Don’t explain what’s happening in your scene. Provide some details regarding sight and sound, as usual, but make them wonder what the heck is going on. The only way for them to find out is to keep turning the pages, naturally, preferably from start to finish.
The Star Wars movies use this technique to perfection. Watch them again with this technique in mind. Cowboys and Aliens also uses it to a great extent. Remember, under-explain!
18. The Climax Pays Off Everything
Aristotle once wrote that the ending of a story should be inevitable but unexpected. In practice, this is difficult to pull off, but you can do it.
The ending of Thelma and Louise follows this rule. Most people probably thought the cops would catch them or that they’d turn themselves in and become cult heroes while living the rest of their lives in prison, right? Wrong! Instead, they did a swan dive right into the Grand Canyon. Who woulda thunk it?
Hey, for the ending to a movie, you should ham it up. Everybody does. Make the ending as spectacular as you dare, just keep it within reason. For instance, it wouldn’t have been cool for aliens to save Thelma and Louise from the cops – unless the tone of the movie was considerably different!
Also, if you’re going to rely on coincidence, or do what I call pull a rabbit out of your hat, only do it once late in the movie, where you can get away with it the easiest. This is when the hero finds an unattended motorcycle (with keys) and leads the bad guys on a breathtaking escape. I’ve seen this done in myriad movies, so it must be some kind of unwritten screenplay law. Remember, you only get to do it once!
Believe it or not, I used to think the ending of a movie wasn’t that important. Boy, was I stupid!
19. Make Your Pitch
When you’re ready to solicit your movie, write a pitch or logline, which should be three to six lines long. When somebody asks you for your pitch, you should be able to rifle it off in just five to 10 seconds. Here’s the logline for Tootsie: “A struggling actor becomes a soap opera star by disguising himself as a woman, only to fall in love with the leading lady.”
Then write a query letter – just one page in length, explaining a little more about your flick. You’ll probably mail scores of these to agents!
The synopsis of your movie should be the longest of your pitch. But don’t make it longer than 500 words – one page, block format. In this, explain the major plot points of your fabulous screenplay.
20. Off to LA LA Land?
Should novice screenwriters live in LA? If you can, you probably should – that’s the capital of the movie business in America. Everybody knows that, right? The next best place is New York City. At the very least, plan to visit LA when you’re shopping your beloved script. That way you won’t have to make long distance phone calls when hounding agents about your script.
And you will almost certainly have to get an agent before you can sell your script. That’s the way it is in showbiz, so get use to it!
According to the book Writing Movies: The Practical Guide to Creating Stellar Screenplays, about 80,000 scripts are marketed each year and of these only about 100 spec scripts are purchased. Needless to point out, these aren’t very good odds. If you’re easily defeated by pursuing such a long shot, maybe you should write a novel instead and then offer to write the screenplay.
Otherwise, break out your video camera, make your own movie and put it on YouTube. Many have, and so can you. You know what they say about practice.
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