How to Write a Screenplay Effectively Part 1

Notes

The following article are my notes from a book titled, “Writing Your Screenplay” by Lisa Dethridge. If you find it helpful, I highly recommend buying the book here to learn more.

This is PART ONE of a 2-part series about how to write a screenplay effectively. You can find PART TWO here.

What you will learn:

  • Building a compelling world
  • Developing believable characters
  • Creating an appealing protagonist
  • Outlining the main plot that drives the story forward
  • Devising challenging problems
  • The importance of story time frames

Introduction

In the first half of this article, we will be focusing on how to build a strong world with believable characters by understanding important screenplay format. These structures form the basis of your story that will help audiences connect with your story and maintain interest throughout your screenplay.

There are four key elements to every story structure with script writing that we call, “the four P’s”.

  • Protagonist, the main character of the story must be appealing to move the
  • Plot forward by dealing with a challenging
  • Problem that underlines the main
  • Premise that represents your passion as a writer. The heart and soul of your story.

On a side note, it’s important to develop a daily habit of writing a little bit each day. Don’t wait for the perfect time to begin writing, just start script writing, even for 20 minutes. Don’t worry if your writing is garbage, you can always revise it later. The goal is to train yourself to write consistently each day. You are more likely to achieve greater success by building this habit.

Creating Parallel Universes

Understanding Human Psychology

If you’ve ever wondered what encourages audiences to see a movie, it can be quite challenging. To answer this question, you have to gain a better understanding of human psychology. A great screenwriter is someone who can understand what motivates the human soul. By gaining this understanding, you’ll have a better idea of what makes the audience tick.

Understanding the Elements of a Great Story

If your goal is to become a successful commercial hit, your script writing must be timely. There are many ways to be write a timely screenplay to engage an audience. It may tackle current events, or refer to historical events, or dealing with timeless themes that involve war, peace, love and so on. The goal is to create some context the audience can relate to and becoming emotionally invested in.

Connecting to a global audience

A solid way of creating a powerful connection with audiences is to consider universal themes that transcend cultural or religious differences, including race or class. Creating imagery and ideas that any human being can relate to.

Creating a Screenplay Outline

Here’s an exercise you can try that will help you establish the overall outline of the story you plan to write.

The Story

  • What type of characters and settings do you want to write about?
  • Are there specific problems you wish to address?
  • Are there human behavior or societal issues you want to examine?
  • What drives you to write this story? Think about why you want to write in the first place.
  • What topics do you want to communicate to your audience that are meaningful to you?
  • Are you or have you experienced personal pain, frustration, fear or joy that you want to communicate?
  • Is there a specific genre you’d like to write about?
  • Is there an overarching theme or premise you want to address that is the main driver of your story?

The Audience

  • Who are they?
  • What do you want to communicate with them?
  • What do you believe will draw them to your story?

Brainstorming

  • Create a list of all the elements you want to incorporate in your story. People, events, locations, etc.
  • Create a number of possible stories that relate to these characters, themes or events.
  • Narrow down your list of stories to one or two of your favorite’s ideas that involve your main protagonist.

First Learn the Rules Before You Break Them

As a screenwriter, you must understand that your screenplay is the blueprint of the film, not the main event, which is the film the audience will see on the big screen. Consider your screenplay as a highly detailed manual that will help develop the finished product, the film.

When editing your screenplay format and removing unnecessary words from your script, it’s important you don’t remove any important information that is integral to your story. For example, when you are writing about a specific tree, you may go into detail about how the branches sway in the wind like a scarecrow. You could remove all that detail and just say, tree.

However, if that tree has some significance to the overall story or a character, you may want to leave that bit of detail or perhaps condense it down to a, “scarecrow-like tree”. With that bit of information, the art department knows they’ll have to design a specific type of tree rather than just any ol’ tree if it’s important to the story.

LEARN 7 KEY PRINCIPLES USED BY SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS TO WRITE BETTER SCRIPTS THAT SELL!

The Four P’s

Great script writing incorporates four important structures that we’ll call, the four P’s:

  • Protagonist
  • Problem
  • Plot
  • Premise

Protagonist

The lead character in your story is defined by 5 crucial traits:

  • Physically and psychologically – understanding them from the inside out
  • History – understanding how they came to the point where the story begins
  • Problem – the current issue they are faced with that drives the plot
  • Character journey – developing an arc that changes the protagonist from who they were when the journey began to where/who they are by journey’s end
  • Premise – uncovering the overall perspective of the writer

It’s critical to develop a protagonist that is fully realized with a compelling and deep backstory accompanied by a fully developed psychological profile that reflects the audience in order to create that emotional connection and sympathetic understanding towards the lead character. Like any human being, your protagonist must have a full set of fears, goals, problems, passions, dreams and weaknesses in order to fully grasp their actions on screen by your audience.

Problem

As a screenwriter, it’s your job to create a unique problem that attracts an audience to your story. This problem is directly connected to the protagonist who will inevitably drive the plot forward. The problem is devised by a set of obstacles and challenges the protagonist must face and overcome.

Plot

The plot essentially follows the protagonist’s journey to solve the problem. The plot helps the audience understand the physical and emotional challenges and changes of the protagonist. Think of the plot as the spine, the backbone of your story that is usually structured with a three act system, a beginning (act one), middle (act two) and end (act three).

Premise

This is the overarching theme of your story, plot and what drives your protagonist to overcome the problem. You will want to repeat this theme over and over again into the minds of your audience so they understand the purpose of the protagonist’s journey, the problems and the plot.

Think of the plot, the protagonist and the problem as a vehicle to illustrate your premise or viewpoint.

It’s beneficial to identify your premise as early as possible in your story, so your audience understands the general theme from the get-go. They’ll become much more invested as they watch the protagonist face all these challenges throughout the plot.

Sometimes you may develop more than one theme in your story. It’s important to surround these themes around one relatable theme that acts as the main premise of your story to keep things consistent. You don’t want to confuse your audience with multiple themes that don’t relate to one another.

Some screenwriters like to develop a story by constructing a premise or theme they want to write about. Whereas other writers may start writing the story and develop a theme along the way.

Fun Exercise

You can download screenplays of your favorite movies online. Read as many as you can and note down the screenplay format we have already discussed and in the following sections. Understanding how these screenplays use these structures and use them as a template on how to write a screenplay.

The Protagonist

In the first act, the primary job of the writer is to establish the protagonist, the setting and understand the general rules or laws of this setting/world. Once that is established to the audience, this is considered the “normal” environment of the protagonist. Then, you introduce the problem that will challenge the protagonist’s “normal” reality that will create a conflict they must overcome.

In the second act, you want to follow-up on the problems introduced to your story and the protagonist’s journey to confront them. The protagonist struggles to solve the problem and may be faced with new problems, obstacles or barriers.

Finally, in the third act, you will want to continue building up the plot, placing the protagonist into a final conflict that becomes the climax of your story. The problem introduced in the first act is finally resolved or partially resolved. This is followed up with a resolution where the protagonist successfully overcomes the main problem and how they have changed for the better (or worse). The resolution can also leave the audience with where the protagonist may go next in a new journey before ending the story.

Backstory

When developing the history of your protagonist, you’ll want to consider many moments in their life that defined who they are, that ultimately motivates their actions and decisions in the story. Consider the following:

  • Important events or scenes that happened in the past, present and future.
  • Basic human needs such as, survival, bonding, success, health, self-esteem, etc.
  • Unique characteristics and personality traits – what they eat for lunch, experiences in school, interests, their parents.

Motivation

When determining your characters backstory, psychology or motivations, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are their main values, attitudes, and beliefs?
  • What are their main desires, needs and goals?
  • What are their main fears, vanities, delusions and doubts?

In order to create a believable character, focus on what the protagonist is truly after, instead of what they believe they need or desire. This will help create a more layered and dimensional character that will help you answer the questions above by getting a better grasp of human psychology.

Understanding Time

Plot Chronology

There are two distinct time frames that your plot is structured around.

  1. The time of the tale – which follows the time of your protagonist’s on-screen journey. This may transcend over a day, weeks, months or even years of the overall story you are trying to convey.
  2. The time of the telling – the amount of time an audience watches your movie. A typical feature-length movie is around 90 minutes.

As a screenwriter, you want to make sure there is a good balance between these two time frames, so the audience is always aware of how much time has passed between scenes. An unbalanced time frame may cause confusion for your audience.

Plot Logic

One page of screenplay is considered one minute of screen-time. This is a good rule of thumb to go by as you construct your plot.

Plot Settings

A great screenwriter paints a picture in the reader’s mind of the psychological change or the passage of time rather than simply stating it.

End of Part 1 of 2

This marks the end of part 1 of Writing Your Screenplay by Lisa Dethridge. To continue reading, click here to begin part 2.

References

If you found this article helpful, I highly recommend checking out the following books that goes into more detail on how to write a screenplay.

Writing Your Screenplay by Lisa Dethridge

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers

Recommended Resources

Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need (#1 Best Seller)

Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Final Draft 9 (#1 Screenwriting Software)

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