How to Write a Screenplay Effectively Part 2

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 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:

  1. The set-up
  2. The inciting incident
  3. Act one turning point
  4. The mid-point
  5. Act two turning point
  6. The climax
  7. The resolution

Subplots and Supporting Characters

Subplots

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.

Supporting Characters

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?

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

The Hero’s Journey

In, The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Volger identifies 12 stages of a hero’s journey that may help writers structure the journey of their own protagonist.

  1. The Normal World

Most stories develop a story around the “fish out of water” concept. The idea where the hero is taken out of their comfort zone, their normal world. Before presenting the problem the hero must challenge is establishing this normal world first.

  1. The Call to Adventure

When the hero is introduced to their challenge, this begins the second stage of the story. Where the hero must take up the challenge and accept the call to adventure. Leaving their normal world and taking on this new quest, journey or goal.

  1. The Refusal of the Call

At the start of the adventure, the hero may doubt their abilities of overcoming the problem or challenge that lay ahead. Or the hero hasn’t fully accepted the adventure and is encouraged or motivated by another third party or circumstance that get them past this first obstacle towards solving the problem.

  1. Mentor

The fourth stage of the hero’s journey may introduce a mentor that may act as a teacher, parent or guardian to help the hero through his journey to overcome the problem.

  1. Crossing the First Threshold

A point in the hero’s journey where they have accepted the adventure completely with no turning back. This stage becomes one of the key turning points within your plot between act’s one and two.

  1. Tests, Allies and Enemies

After accepting the journey, the hero is faced with new problems, challenges, and obstacles to understand this new world they’ve ventured into. These new challenges act as tests that the hero must pass in order for them to learn and understand how to overcome their main problem.

  1. Approach to the Inmost Cave

At this point, the hero has crossed the second major threshold by entering into the most dangerous place their problem lies. Typically, the hero must overcome the fear of death and danger in order to confront their main problem.

  1. The Supreme Ordeal

This point becomes the hero’s lowest point in their journey. The hero suffers great loss, pain, grief, misfortune and their future bleak. Leaving the audience in great suspense, wondering if the hero will come out of this alive and how they will do it, if at all.

This major setback for the hero is an important moment in the hero’s journey where it appears as though the hero has been defeated, but is reborn. The audience is relieved and filled with joy as they see their hero back on their feet, stronger than ever, charging forward towards solving their problem.

Volger suggests that every great story involving a hero, is faced with some form of life or death situation. This becomes the mid-way point of the story.

  1. The Reward

As the hero has cheated death, defeated their enemy giving the audience a moment to applaud their hero. The hero can now claim their reward that may be in the form of knowledge, treasure, an item or a love interest.

  1. The Road Back

This becomes the third and final act of the hero’s journey as they begin their return home back to their normal life as it once was. Only to find themselves being chased by the remaining forces of their defeated enemy. The hero now must decide to return home and leave the dangerous new world behind.

  1. Resurrection

Before the hero can return home, they are faced with one final ordeal that puts the hero’s new found knowledge, wisdom and strength to the test. At this point, the hero is transformed into a higher-self with new found insights.

  1. The Hero Returns

As the hero finally returns back from their challenging journey, they bring back with them some form of treasure, wisdom or lesson into their normal world.

Act One Structure

The Set-up

Establish the world and the protagonist that describe who they are, what they do, where they are and their major needs, goals or problems.

The Inciting Incident

Define how the protagonist reacts to the new problem and how they accept the challenge of overcoming and solving the problem affecting their normal reality.

Act One Turning Point

The protagonist is confronted by new challenges and obstacles that heat up their journey to address their main problem.

Act Two Structure

The Mid-Point

Act two becomes the most challenging act for the protagonist as they deal with moments that place them in mortal danger. Placing the protagonist in challenging situations will make the audience feel more sympathetic towards the hero and their journey.

Raising the Stakes

Research your genre to predict what your audience will be expecting during certain moments of your story. For example, during an action story, the protagonist may need to device a clever escape to evade certain death. Egging on your audience in thinking the hero has finally come out alive at last only to be thrown another curve ball that puts the hero back in danger.

Obstacles, Difficulty and Reversals

Placing constant barriers in front of the hero’s journey allows act two to continue forward. These barriers are elements that are designed to stop the hero in their tracks. However, a good story is not established by creating barriers but by keeping the story moving forward, by seeing the hero constantly taking action towards achieving their goal.

One of the strongest turning points of how to write a script can be a reversal that takes the story 180 degrees to the opposite direction. This can be used to great effect on an emotional or physical level that continues to push the story forward.

Act Two Turning Point

The first half of act two is largely spent with the hero submerged in self-doubt, pity, pain and failure to achieve their goal. While the second half of act two is dealing with lifting the hero out of this pitfall and overcoming the barriers to their goal.

As your hero tries to overcome these obstacles during the mid-point of the story, it’s important they line up with what you had setup in Act One where you had established their fears and weaknesses. This should directly align with your overall theme and premise of the story you are trying to tell.

Act Three Structure

The Climax – Act Three Turning Point

At this point, the protagonist and their main problem are brought together in a final confrontation.

It’s important that you have established all of the protagonist’s goals, fears and weaknesses and the changes they developed in their character in order for them to confront their main problem.

The primary goal you set forth upon your hero’s journey must be answered during this final act in order for everything to come together and be resolved.

The Resolution

This is the point where all the loose ends are tied up, all the questions have been answered and all or most of the problems have been solved. Leaving your audience elated and over joyed for the hero’s victory.

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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