The most common mistake people make is to start writing before they know what their story is all about. That’s like hopping into a car and start driving before you know where you want to go. You may get somewhere, but it will rarely be the place you really want to go.
The beginning and end of your story is most important. I’m not just talking about the beginning and end of your story, but the beginning and end of your process of writing your screenplay.
In the beginning, identify the one emotion or lesson you want an audience to come away with after seeing your movie. Do you want them sad, happy, laughing and feeling good, melancholy, thoughtful, concerned?
The better movies promote two messages, an emotion and a thought. At the end of “WALL-E,” we’re happy that the robots finally got together and we’re also concerned about how to take better care of the planet. The emotion always comes first because if you’re aren’t emotionally involved, you won’t care about the lesson buried within the story.
Even seemingly silly comedies can leave you with both an emotion and a lesson. “Shallow Hal” is a romantic comedy that leaves you feeling happy that the couple finally got together again, but also leaves you with the more important lesson that looks mean nothing if the person inside is rotten.
Mediocre movies typically go for simple emotion and miss out on the hidden lesson that could strengthen the story. “Bolt” was a good movie, but it probably could have strengthened the idea on the importance of friendship. “Kung Fu Panda” was also a good story, which did a decent job of making us feel good and making us feel like everyone is special if you only tap into your own hidden powers, sort of like an ugly duckling story.
Now think of movies that simply rely on special effects to keep you amused with no underlying lesson or theme behind it. “Terminator” and “Terminator 2” taught us that humanity can survive for the better, despite creating the hell that the machines have brought on.
So before you begin your screenplay, ask yourself what emotion you want an audience to feel and tape those words someplace where you can see it all the time. Then ask yourself what type of lesson you want an audience to learn at the end, and put that someplace where you can see it too.
Knowing the feeling and lesson your story will tell can be the twin guiderails that keep your story focused and on track.