Specs & The City: How to Write a Screenplay – Building Your Script Like a House

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: Writing a great screenplay is hard work. Damn hard. Actually, when you get down to it, it’s the “great” part that tends to trip people up the most. If you aren’t worried about it being good, writing a screenplay is actually pretty easy. But let’s assume, since you’re here at Script, that “great” is indeed what you’re shooting for.  With that settled, let’s focus on how to set yourself up so that you’ve got the best chance of achieving that goal.

Think of Your Script as a House

You read that right, and it’s not as hokey as it might sound at first. Try thinking about writing your script like you’re building a house. You wouldn’t head out to a construction site without a plan and the right tools in place, and you shouldn’t sit down to write without them either. So how does it all breakdown?

A Solid Foundation: Your Concept

A house built without a solid foundation will end up collapsing under its own weight, and the same is true with your script. Think about your concept. Is it REALLY a movie? There’s no shame in the answer being no. Some ideas simply work better as a novel, a short story, or even a graphic novel. So put in some thought now to make sure that a film really is the best way to tell your particular story. Trust me, if it’s not, it will show in the final product.

Let's build something great!

Let’s build something great!

Know Your Blueprint – Outline, Outline, Outline

There are a lot of opinions on the value and validity of outlining before you start to write. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m on the “pro” side of that debate, but the point of this step isn’t to box you in with a process you may not believe in. It’s to make sure you’re prepared and know your story inside and out before you sit down to write. A full bullet point-filled list of plot points, character bios, a short summary of your story; all of these are forms out outlining. Which method you choose is a matter of preference, but you should do something. One of the great things about outlines is that they’re flexible. Of course your story will grow and change as you write depending on what’s working and what’s not – that’s part of the fun – but to start writing without a clear idea of what’s going to happen in your script is just making the process harder on you than it needs to be.

The Four Walls – Characters, Plot, Dialogue, Theme

Now that you have a general idea of what you want to do, it’s time to write. Build the walls on top of your solid foundation by crafting dynamic, fleshed out characters, an engaging and well-structured plot, realistic dialogue (I’ll do another column on this topic, as it’s often misunderstood and can spoil an otherwise engaging script), and a consistent theme that  will resonate with your audience.

This is how your audience feels when your third act doesn't work.

This is how your audience feels when your third act doesn’t work.

Put a Roof on it – Your Third Act

This is common sense, but it’s where a lot of screenplays fail (and it can usually be traced back to a lack of outlining and pre-writing prep). Know how your story ends, and execute it in a way that resolves both plotlines and character arcs in a realistic (for the world of your script) and emotionally satisfying manner.  It doesn’t matter how amazing the house you built is, if the roof leaks, that’s all you’ll remember. It’s the same with your script. Nail the ending or the rest was just a writing exercise.

Time for Some Interior Design – Subtext, Subplots, and Your Voice

So now we have a house and it’s… okay. It’s functional but it doesn’t pop. That’s because we need to go back in and paint the walls, pick out furniture, and hang some family photos on the wall. This is where a house becomes a home, and a good script can be elevated to a great one. Go back through your script as you’re rewriting and insert subtext, develop subplots for your characters, and make sure that your personal voice is coming through. Did the development process leave the script flat? Dive back in and rewrite so that you’re telling the story in the way that only you can.

Keep at it with round after round of rewriting and eventually, you’ll have a script you can be proud of. Now it’s time, to continue the analogy, to put the house on the market and see if you can’t get an offer.

Good luck, and until next time, keep writing.

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