Here’s how most people write a screenplay. They come up with an interesting idea and start writing. Then they run out of gas less than halfway through and have no idea how to finish it. The end result is an uncompleted screenplay. If they do manage to finish it, the end result is a mediocre screenplay.
Before you start writing, create a pitch first. The pitch summarizes your story in one sentence. If your story doesn’t sound interesting in one sentence, chances are good it won’t sound any better fleshed out into a 120-page screenplay. If you can’t make your story sound interesting in one sentence, chances are good nobody will even consider it for a movie.
Start by answering these questions:
- Impossible Goal: What impossible goal will my hero need to achieve?
- Unlikely Hero: Who is the weakest, least likely hero I can think of who couldn’t achieve this impossible goal?
- Tough World: What kind of environment (setting) can I place my hero to make achieving this impossible goal even tougher?
- Invincible Villain: What kind of villain can want the same goal as the hero?
- Save the World: How will the hero save the world?
Now combine your answers to form a pitch that follows this structure: An unlikely hero in a tough world has to achieve an impossible goal against an invincible villain to save the world.
Look at how this pitch works in “The Hunger Games”:
- Impossible Goal: Survive in a death arena.
- Unlikely Hero: A teenage girl from a poor family.
- Tough World: The death arena is run by a dictatorship.
- Invincible Villain: The dictatorship wants to see everyone get killed but one person.
- Save the World: The teenage girl needs survive and bring hope to the world.
Putting this together and you get a pitch like this: A teenage girl from a poor family is forced into a death arena run by a dictatorship where she needs to survive in the death arena against a dictatorship that wants to see everyone get killed but one person so she can survive and bring hope to the world.
Notice how the pitch basically explains the basics of the story, the conflict, and the hero’s ultimate goal? Just refine this pitch to tighten up the language and you’ll have a simple description to pitch to studios about what your story is about.
Remember, it’s not about how well you can write because you can write a boring screenplay if the story is boring. However, if you can come up with an interesting story, then chances are good you can come up with an interesting screenplay. If your pitch is boring, your story will likely be boring too.
Your pitch is the first step to defining the story in your head. Once you know the main structure of your story, then you can start working on the details. Defining a pitch ahead of time prevents you from running around with a half-completed idea that you think will make a great movie, but will only make an interesting scene. One screenwriter has spent years trying to pitch a story like this, “My screenplay is about the doomed American torpedo bombers who got shot down during the Battle of Midway.”
Notice that this pitch doesn’t describe a movie; it describes a single scene. There’s no hint of a villain, no goal for the audience to root for (unless you know what the Battle of Midway is about), no hero, and no hint of how this will save the world. As a result, this is an example of a pitch that mistakes a single idea for an entire movie.
In defining your pitch, pay particular attention to the Save the World portion. In action movies, this usually translates into saving innocent people from some horror, such as “Mad Max: Fury Road” where the hero is trying to save poor people oppressed by a dictator. In romance or comedy movies, this Save the World point is more about saving the hero’s world from its dead end beginning.
If the hero fails in “Liar Liar,” he’ll never find true love and will never be close to his son. If the hero fails in WALL-E, he’ll never find a companion to love. If the hero fails in “Sleepless in Seattle,” both he and she will never find the right person to love. If the hero fails in “Captain Phillips,” he’ll be taken hostage in Somalia. If the hero fails in “Frozen,” the two sisters will never reunite.
What makes stories compelling is when the hero has to save the world somehow. Make this part of your pitch and your whole idea about your story will become much clearer so you can see the real story you need to tell in your screenplay.