The biggest mistake novices can make is writing a screenplay before they know the story they want to tell. Screenplays written this way tend to ramble with no sense of urgency or foreshadowing because the writer is just making up the story as they go along.
While this may be fine for novelists, screenwriters must plan their story in advance because they have far fewer pages to tell a story and they must make every second count.
Before writing a screenplay, start off with a log line, which is a simple one or two sentence description of your story. When you can create a compelling and interesting log line, you’ll know you have the start of a good story.
The log line for “Star Wars” might look like this: “A farm boy must rescue a princess and stop a planet-killing weapon to preserve freedom in the galaxy.”
The log line for “Miss Congeniality” might look like this: “A tomboy FBI agent must go undercover in a beauty pageant to stop a terrorist from killing the beauty pageant winner.”
The main elements of a log line is that it defines who the hero is and what challenges they must overcome. Log lines must grab someone’s interest and hint at what the story is about.
Once you’ve created a log line, the next step is to flesh out your idea into a condensed story known as a synopsis. This synopsis simply describes your story from start to finish as simply as possible. This lets anyone read your overall story to see if it seems interesting.
A synopsis must tell your story with ups and downs. That means every time your hero does something, an obstacle comes up to maintain suspense and make us want to know what happens next. For example, a synopsis of “Star Wars” might be as follows:
- A farm boy, bored of working on his uncle’s farm, discovers a hidden message from a princess buried inside a droid, but then the droid disappears.
- Chasing after the droid, the farm boy finds it, but then he’s attacked by hostile natives.
- Just as the hostile natives are about to steal everything the farm boy owns, a mysterious figure scares them away and rescues the farm boy, but they have to leave before the hostile natives come back.
- The droid plays the message from the princess and the mysterious figure asks the farm boy to join him, but he doesn’t want to.
Notice that by just adding the word “but” in the middle of the action, you can create a mini-twist in the story. Your synopsis needs these mini-twists at the end of each action because that’s what keeps the story moving forward.
Here’s the beginning of a synopsis for “Die Hard”:
- A man has flown from New York to Los Angeles to reunite with his wife at her corporate Christmas party, but terrorists take over the skyscraper and he barely escapes.
- To get help, the man pulls a fire alarm, but the terrorists convince the fire department that it was a false alarm and they leave.
- Now that the terrorists know someone pulled a fire alarm, they hunt down the man, but he manages to kill them.
The magical word of “but” constantly changes the story. One moment something good is happening, “but” then something awful happens and we want to know what the hero will do next. As soon as we find out what the hero will do, another “but” arrives and now we want to know what the hero will do now, and so on.
That’s the way to write a compelling synopsis by constantly twisting your story direction just by using the simple word of “but.” So plot out the broad strokes of your story and make sure you constantly twist the story around using the word “but” each time. The word “but” can keep your story changing direction constantly, and that’s what will keep an audience’s interest up from beginning to end.