If you wanted to build a house, would you rush out and buy some wood and bricks, and start slapping the whole thing together? Probably not. What you would do first is plan the design of your house, identify the materials you need, and then draw a plan for how to make that house.
Yet what many people do is get an idea for a story and rush right into writing dialogue, scenes, and characters. This works for about 20 pages before you run out of steam, have no idea what to do next, and either continue writing a sloppy screenplay or abandon the whole thing altogether.
Just as you wouldn’t try slapping a house together without a plan, so you shouldn’t try writing a screenplay until you have a basic idea what your story is about. Two tools for doing this is to create a log line and a treatment.
A log line is essentially a one or two sentence description of what your story is about. If your log line can’t summarize your story in an interesting way, then writing 120 pages of a screenplay won’t make your idea any better either and will likely waste a lot of your time in the process.
Consider this simple log line: A down and out boxer is giving the chance of al lifetime to fight the heavyweight champion of the world and prove to the world that he’s not a bum after all.
That’s the story of “Rocky” and notice how it tells an interesting story that makes people want to know more. Here’s another log line:
A teenager, living in a dystopian future, saves her little sister by volunteering to fight in a brutal death match on TV where only one person can survive.
That’s the story of “The Hunger Games”. Notice that a log line highlights the conflict, the setting, and the hero. While no log line will ever appeal to everyone, you want to create a log line that can grab the interest of as many people as possible.
Once you have created a log line, then expand your story by describing it in series of paragraphs known as a treatment. A treatment can be as simple as one page or as detailed as several pages, but initially, stick to a one page treatment. You can get an idea of what treatments are like by simply looking up the Wikipedia entry for your favorite movies such as this one for “Snow White”:
Snow White is a lonely princess living with her stepmother, a vain Queen. The Queen worries that Snow White will be more beautiful than her, so she forces Snow White to work as a scullery maid and asks her Magic Mirror daily “who is the fairest one of all”. For years the mirror always answers that the Queen is, pleasing her.
One day, the Magic Mirror informs the Queen that Snow White is now “the fairest” in the land; on that same day, Snow White meets and falls in love with a prince who overhears her singing. The jealous Queen orders her Huntsman to take Snow White into the forest and kill her. She further demands that the huntsman return with Snow White’s heart in a jeweled box as proof of the deed. However, the Huntsman cannot bring himself to kill Snow White. He tearfully begs for her forgiveness, revealing the Queen wants her dead and urges her to flee into the woods and never look back. Lost and frightened, the princess is befriended by woodland creatures who lead her to a cottage deep in the woods. Finding seven small chairs in the cottage’s dining room, Snow White assumes the cottage is the untidy home of seven orphaned children.
In reality, the cottage belongs to seven adult dwarfs—named Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey—who work in a nearby mine. Returning home, they are alarmed to find their cottage clean and suspect that an intruder has invaded their home. The dwarfs find Snow White upstairs, asleep across three of their beds. Snow White awakes to find the dwarfs at her bedside and introduces herself, and all of the dwarfs eventually welcome her into their home after she offers to clean and cook for them. Snow White keeps house for the dwarfs while they mine for jewels during the day, and at night they all sing, play music and dance.
Meanwhile, the Queen discovers that Snow White is still alive when the mirror again answers that Snow White is the fairest in the land and reveals that the heart in the jeweled box is actually that of a pig. Using a potion to disguise herself as an old hag, the Queen creates a poisoned apple that will put whoever eats it into the “Sleeping Death”, a curse she learns can only be broken by “love’s first kiss”, but is certain Snow White will be buried alive. While the Queen goes to the cottage while the dwarfs are away, the animals are wary of her and rush off to find the dwarfs. Faking a potential heart attack, the Queen tricks Snow White into bringing her into the cottage to rest. The Queen fools Snow White into biting into the poisoned apple under the pretense that it is a magic apple that grants wishes. As Snow White falls asleep, the Queen proclaims that she is now the fairest of the land. The dwarfs return with the animals as the Queen leaves the cottage and give chase, trapping her on a cliff. She tries to roll a boulder over them, but before she can do so, lightning strikes the cliff, causing her to fall to her death.
The dwarfs return to their cottage and find Snow White seemingly dead, being kept in a deathlike slumber by the poison. Unwilling to bury her out of sight in the ground, they instead place her in a glass coffin trimmed with gold in a clearing in the forest. Together with the woodland creatures, they keep watch over her. A year later, the prince from the beginning of the movie learns of her eternal sleep and visits her coffin. Saddened by her apparent death, he kisses her, which breaks the spell and awakens her. The dwarfs and animals all rejoice as the Prince takes Snow White to his castle.
By focusing on a log line and a treatment first before you start writing, you can save yourself months of writing a screenplay that’s flawed from the start.
Plan ahead. Create a compelling log line and when you have that down, focus on writing a treatment. When you’re happy with your treatment, then you can use that treatment and log line to help you write the details as a screenplay.