One of the biggest problems with most novice screenplays is that the screenwriter buys an expensive screenwriting program like Final Draft or Movie Magic and starts typing away. Buying and using a screenwriting word processor won’t make a decent screenplay any more than buying an expensive bottle of wine will make you knowledgeable about liquor. Instead of writing a script as your first step, make sure writing your script is your last step.
The first step you should follow before writing is plotting. Plotting means laying out the basic story flow and making it interesting. Many novice screenplays get bogged down describing trivial scenes like people eating breakfast (which has no bearing on the story) or people walking to their car (which has no bearing on the story).
To successfully plot a story, you need scenes where each scene serves a specific purpose. Then to make that scene interesting, you need four elements in that scene:
- An attention-grabbing opener that promises conflict
- A setup disguised as nothing special
- A conflict
- A payoff to the setup that creates a cliffhanger
In the first “Avengers” movie, there’s a scene where Tony Stark flies to his building where Loki has set up a beam to open a portal to another dimension. The purpose of the scene is really for Tony Stark to get into a new Iron Man suit, but Loki (and the audience) doesn’t know that. This scene is structured as follows:
- Tony Stark lands and spots Loki. Surprisingly, Tony Stark takes off his Iron Man suit which seems to make no sense whatsoever.
- Tony Stark offers Loki a drink and puts on a bracelet (a setup). Loki and Tony Stark chat.
- Loki tries to take over Tony Stark by tapping his heart with his staff, but it doesn’t work. Enraged, Loki throws Tony Stark out the skyscraper window where he’ll appear to fall to his death.
- The bracelet that Tony Stark put on earlier calls a new Iron Man suit out that flies out and saves him.
That scene has a purpose (Tony Stark needs a new Iron Man suit) and four elements that grab our attention, lull it into complacency, hit us with conflict, and pays off the earlier setup to create a cliffhanger in the end, which is now that Tony Stark has a new Iron Man suit, what will he do now?
In “Wild,” the hero is a woman hiking alone in the wilderness. After realizing she packed the wrong fuel and can’t cook her supplies, she finds a farmer who can help her get to a store. The purpose of this scene is for the hero to get new supplies and this is how this scene is structured:
- The hero confronts a farmer on his tractor and asks for help, but he says she’ll need to wait until he’s done working.
- The farmer gets in the car with the hero and acts suspiciously as if he might attack her. The hero claims her husband is hiking ahead of her as a way to protect herself.
- The farmer takes the hero home to his wife so she can get a good meal and then he takes her to pick up her supplies.
- The farmer drops the hero off and says he knew she was lying about having a husband up ahead and she admits it. They part as friends and we’re left hoping that the hero will make it to the end of her journey safely with new supplies.
What makes scenes interesting is when they have a purpose. In “Wild,” this scene shows how the hero gets new supplies to overcome her problem of packing the wrong fuel to cook her food. Every scene either creates a problem or resolves a problem. If a scene doesn’t create a problem or resolve an earlier problem, it’s worthless.
In “The Avengers,” Tony Stark needs a new Iron Man suit, so he has to confront Loki to get it. In “Wild,” the hero needs new supplies and needs to confront a potential attacker to get it. Every time your hero needs something, there must be conflict to overcome to make that scene interesting.
What happens if you remove conflict? You get a boring scene. How exciting would it be to watch Tony Stark land on his building, step into a new Iron Man suit, and then fly away? Boring. How exciting would it be in “Wild” if the hero strolled up to a store and bought new supplies? Dull. Conflict is the heart of every scene, but every scene needs to create a problem for the hero or resolve a problem for the hero.
Before writing a script, plot out your scenes focusing on creating problems for your hero and resolving them. In “Die Hard,” the plot structure for the first few scenes might look like this:
- The hero wants to get back with his wife. (Problem)
- The hero is going to his wife’s corporate Christmas party (Solution)
- The hero and his wife argue (Problem)
- Terrorists take over the building and the hero flees (Cliffhanger but ultimately the solution for how the hero will get back with his wife)
These four basic scenes plot out Act I of “Die Hard” without writing a single script. Once you know how your story will flow, then you can get creative filling in details for each specific scene. In “Die Hard,” we learn that the hero is getting back with is wife through the airplane scene and the ride in the limousine to the Christmas party. Once at the party, the hero and his wife argue. Then the terrorists take over and the hero flees barefoot.
The purpose of the airplane scene is to introduce the hero as a cop with a gun. the purpose of the limousine scene is to tell us what his goal is, which is to get back with his wife. The purpose of the argument scene is to make the hero\’s quest seem in doubt. The purpose of terrorist takeover scene is to actually show the hero the way to achieve his goal and set up the conflict for the rest of the story where the hero constantly battles terrorists.
All scenes have a purpose and all scenes have tension, setups, conflict, and cliffhangers. Novices often write scenes that lack purpose, tension, setups, conflict, and cliffhangers, and then wonder why their screenplays seem so dull.
Focus on the big picture first (plot your story out with only scenes that have a purpose) and then turn each scene into a mini-story in itself. That will go a long way towards avoiding writing rambling, incoherent, and boring screenplays whether you use a typewriter or the most expensive screenplay word processor on the market.