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 TWO of a 2-part series about how to write a screenplay effectively. You can find PART ONE here.
What you will learn:
- Defining the overall premise of your story
- Developing subplots and supporting characters
- Understanding the hero’s journey
- The 3 act structure of every screenplay format
The Premise Establishes Your Three Acts
Your Central Theme
As you outline your plot, always keep in mind what it is you are trying to convey. This is your main premise, the backbone of your story that motivates you to write. It’s important to organize all the themes in your story under one main premise/theme. This main premise sets the focus of your story and gives you a clear goal to write each scene.
To establish your main theme, it’s important to repeat it during important scenes throughout your story to reiterate the overall message you are trying to convey to the audience.
Organizing Turning Points
As a general rule of thumb, there are several key turning points within your script writing and they go as follows:
- End of each act (3 in total)
- An inciting incident
- Mid-point of the story
- The setup (beginning of act 1)
- The resolution (end of act 3)
It’s important to win over the audience as early as possible by setting up the pacing early in act one. Then, you’ll want to introduce an inciting incident that hooks the audience in by shaking up the “normal” reality that was set up at the beginning of your story. This helps move the story along and creates a sense of urgency for the protagonist to confront the problem.
The next turning point occurs at the end of act one, typically around 30 pages of a 100 page script. Act one’s turning point involves a critical moment or scene in your story that gets the audience excited and intrigued to continue watching into the second act.
You will continue building upon this critical moment and the audience’s interest as it reflects on the protagonist’s journey to control the initial problem introduced in act one.
Typically, act two is the writer’s and protagonist’s danger zone. Around 50 pages in, mid-way of a 100 page script, the writer has to maintain the action and further advance the story established in act one. Otherwise the audience will rather be lost or become uninterested in the story if the momentum of the story begins to decline.
The writer’s ultimate goal is to keep an audience’s focus and keep them on the edge of their seats at all times. As the audience follows the protagonist’s every move and hanging on every word that leads the protagonist to more problems, complications and overwhelming odds of ever solving the main problem. Creating anxiety among your audience builds suspense and intrigue as the audience wonders what will happen next and if their protagonist will ever reach their goal.
Often, in the mid-point of the story, the protagonist has hit rock bottom, feeling of defeat, self-pity and a sense of failure to complete their journey. Leaving the audience with thoughts of how the protagonist will come out of this on top.
The second half of act two is where the protagonist reveals their true spirit and determination to overcome all the odds against them. As an audience, we watch how the protagonist gets back on their feet and heads toward danger in spite of the overwhelming odds of his success to solve the initial problem.
Act three follows the protagonist as they go head on with their problem, known as the “climax”. The climax demonstrates how the protagonist finally solves or partially solves the main problem of the story. It’s important to illustrate how the protagonist changed in order to prevail and conquer their problem.
The story ends with a resolution, typically a few minutes long at the end of the movie. The resolution ultimately closes the protagonist’s journey.
At the end, the audience understands how the inciting incident and the main problem were initiated that brought upon the number of events that followed till the conclusion of the story. The writer has to lead the audience with the protagonist on a journey towards a climactic conclusion. Even if the protagonist didn’t resolve the issue entirely, it was at least dealt with that left the audience satisfied the problem has been rectified. The main questions that were brought up throughout the story or in the minds of the audience should have been addressed before the end.
The resolution is designed to allow the protagonist to reflect back on the beginning of their journey and how much they changed in order to overcome a problem in their life. Typically, the resolution proves, or confirms the main premise the writer was focusing on.
To reiterate, here are the seven turning points within your overall story:
- The set-up
- The inciting incident
- Act one turning point
- The mid-point
- Act two turning point
- The climax
- The resolution
Subplots and Supporting Characters
A typical screenplay format follows the main plotline, which is known as A-line or A-plot. There may be areas within your plot that deviate away from your main plotline which are known as subplots. Normally, there may be more than one subplot which can be called B- or C-lines. These additional subplots move alongside the main plotline and typically correspond to other key roles within your story such as the antagonist, partners and so on. Including subplots to your main plot adds a lot of layers and depth to your script writing.
The main plotline (A-line) focuses on the protagonist’s journey to solving the main problem. Whereas the subplot’s focus on other aspects around the protagonist’s journey that may affect their journey directly or indirectly.
Think of each subplot and the supporting roles that go along with them as having their own unique goals, problems and climaxes. These subplots are woven into the main plotline at critical moments of the protagonist’s story to create more action, suspense, anxiety and anticipation for the audience.
Additional characters surrounding the protagonist adds a lot of color and contrast to the world. It’s important that these additional characters have an important role with the main plotline of the protagonist. Their existence in the story needs to make sense that will ultimately complete the story you are trying to tell.
Some questions to help you develop strong supporting characters:
- What does the character need from the protagonist or vice versa?
- Does the character tell the audience anything new about the protagonist?
- How does this character move the story forward?