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Screenplay Essentials
Written by: Luc Saber - April 8, 2024

If you always had ideas floating around your mind, even keeping you up some nights, if you daydream about the concept, characters, scenes, and inciting incident, but you don’t know the first thing about how to write a screenplay, you may want to take a few minutes and consider my suggestions.

 

In this article, I’ll explain the essentials of screenwriting to hopefully get you on your way to writing your first feature film screenplay or, at the very least, the opening scene.

 

First, congratulations on your desire to create worlds beyond imagination, give birth to characters bigger than life, and perhaps deliver justice or recognition to the underdog. If you desire to create, you’re a free spirit who craves a creative release, and writing is the perfect medium to do so. I speak from personal experience. For me, writing is therapeutic, relaxing, and fun. Most importantly, don’t make writing a chore or confine your writing to what you think other people may like to read or see on the big screen. Write for you. Make sure you like the story. Fall in love with your characters and immerse yourself in the world that you’re creating. Describe the world from a Birdseye view; in other words, stand outside the world and look in, but more importantly, descend into your creation and tell the reader or show the viewer what it’s like to live in the world. Experience what it’s like to live the life of the characters you created. Describe the world from within. Again, I can’t stress this point enough: make sure you love to live in this world and hang out with the characters. If you can accomplish that goal, you’ve succeeded at telling the story with honesty and passion.

 

I recommend you write something familiar. If you’re a sci-fi writer, first, you must imagine the world you’re creating and live in it for a while before you write about it.  

 

Storytelling has existed for thousands of years. Early civilizations, such as the Egyptians and Sumerians, left behind stone carvings that tell stories. Humans need to express themselves in various ways, and storytelling is an effective and entertaining medium for communicating a thought, a historical account, or a fantasy the writer dreams up.

 

Structure of a Screenplay

A screenplay is similar to a novel in that it has a beginning, middle, and end, a main character often referred to as the PROTAGONIST, and a villain or a character who stands in the way of the protagonist. This character is called the ANTAGONIST. The antagonist typically serves as an obstacle to your protagonist’s goal. 

 

SUPPORTING CHARACTERS have a purpose too. They are there to populate the world in which the protagonist and antagonist exist. Supporting characters help drive the story forward and provide opportunities for the writer to create twists and turns delivered by these imagined creatures, and they can serve as sounding boards to the protagonist and antagonist, help them solve problems, get over obstacles, and even play important roles in tying up loose ends in Act Three.

 

A film comes to mind where the supporting character morphed into the main character at the end of the film. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out “To Live and Die in L.A.” It had a brilliant twist at the end and an unexpected turn of events that you usually wouldn’t see in a formulaic story. 

 

Those are some of the similarities a screenplay and a novel have. However, a screenplay must be written in a style and format that everyone on the production crew can read quickly and understand what is needed for the particular scene.

 

For example, a gaffer, who’s the head electrician, will need to know if a particular scene takes place inside or outdoors. This information is crucial so that the gaffer, grips, and the rest of the crew know how to light the set. It’s also important to know the time the scene takes place. Is it day or night, and of course, the place where the action takes place, such as the park, a city street, a bedroom, a basement, etc? The information you provide will assist not only the gaffer, but the director, the production designer, the make-up artists, the costume designer, and the wardrobe. You get the picture. So, let’s take a look at what’s called a SLUG LINE, which provides a lot of the required information. For example, let’s say you’re setting your scene in a coffee shop, and your protagonist is sitting at a table by the window, wearing a pair of sunglasses and typing on a laptop. How would you write the slug line and DESCRIPTION for this scene?

 

INT. COFFEE SHOP - DAY

JOE, wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and dark sunglasses, sits by the window and is typing on his brand-new laptop, outlining his last will. His cell phone buzzes, and Joe picks up.

 

The slug line tells the crew that the scene will be an interior scene INT, and it will take place in a COFFEE SHOP during the DAY.

 

The description informs the wardrobe department of what clothes they’ll need for this scene, the props department will know they must have a laptop and cell phone ready, the camera crew and electrical/grip crew will know that they must light the set for daylight, keeping in mind that there will be a window there which will provide natural light, and the actor playing Joe will know that he’s writing his last will which informs him of the character’s state of mind and demeanor. 

 

A talented writer will craft the description so that it flows naturally, descriptively, and creatively while at the same time informing the cast and crew of what’s required for that scene.

 

Following the slug line and description, below and center, is the CHARACTER NAME and right beneath the character name is the DIALOGUE. It looks something like this.

 

INT. COFFEE SHOP - DAY

JOE, wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and dark sunglasses, sits by the window and is typing on his brand-new laptop, outlining his last will. His cell phone buzzes, and Joe picks up.

JOE

Hello.

JANE

I didn’t think you’d answer.

 

All this information is needed for the Unit Production Manager and Assistant Director to break down the script. Breaking down the script is important so that a schedule and budget can be produced, but that’s a lesson in production, and I’ll save it for another day.

 

Before you start writing your opening scene, my suggestion is that you gather your thoughts and write a one to three-sentence LOGLINE. The logline description is similar to what used to be a TV Guide description of a movie or TV show. It informs the reader of the premise of the episode or feature film in one, two, or three sentences.

 

These days, you might see that description when you select a film title on a digital platform. 

 

The log line will keep you focused on the primary ideas of your film.

 

After you write the log line, expand on it a little further. Imagine you select a film title on a digital platform you read the description, but it’s not enough to satisfy your curiosity, so you ask more questions about it.

 

Ask yourself questions about the direction of your story and your protagonist’s journey. Where does your protagonist fit in the story, where does the journey start, what important event takes place in act one to get the audience’s attention, what happens in the middle of act two, and how do you see the story ending? Decide on an INCITING INCIDENT. What event turns your protagonist’s life upside down at the beginning of your story—somewhere in ACT ONE? Every great story has an exciting inciting incident that changes the course of your protagonist’s life forever. It’s an irreversible event. Once it happens, it can’t be undone. Your main character’s life will never be the same again.

 

If you can accomplish this task in a few paragraphs, one to two pages double-spaced, you just wrote a SYNOPSIS.

 

Now, you have the option of going further and writing an OUTLINE of your story or a TREATMENT that would be made up of dozens of pages explaining your story, or you can jump into writing your opening scene and see where the creative juices take you.

 

My recommendation is that before you write your opening scene, draft a preliminary outline. Create a rough draft of the important elements that must be brought to light. Think of your character’s journey and the milestones you’d like your character to reach. In the outline, you might want to include the obstacles you want to sprinkle on the path your character takes to help tell your story. Also, think of the reason for telling the story. Why is it important to share your story, and how will it benefit or shape the minds, attitudes, or behavior of your viewers and readers? It may be a story that entertains, scares and excites. It doesn’t necessarily have to be thought-provoking. The idea is to share your point of view on a particular subject, whether it’s of social significance or simply told for a good laugh. 

I always told my screenwriting students that a good screenplay is just like a joke. You set up the premise, take the audience on the ride, and then twist it at the end for the punch line, a surprise, and something unexpected. Think about how you can best tell the story to convince the viewer to go on this journey with you and consider your point of view. 

 

This rough draft outline is an initial roadmap to keep your scenes focused and on track, but it’s not set in stone. You can change and adjust as you write the scenes.

 

A TREATMENT is detailed, and it feels more like a novella. Some treatments are twenty or thirty pages long, and others can be sixty to a hundred pages long. If you decide to write a treatment, be prepared to invest a significant amount of time in developing it. The benefit of writing a treatment is that when you go to screenplay, you already have the structure and most of the story elements fleshed out. The treatment may take two or three weeks to write, but your screenplay will essentially write itself. One more important element to mention about treatments. You’d do yourself a favor if you resist writing dialogue in your treatment. You can sprinkle a few dialogue lines here and there, but if you spend a couple of weeks writing your story in detailed descriptive form without much dialogue, you’ll discover more about the inner thoughts of your character and the fabric of the world you’re creating. 

 

I’ll leave it here for now. In the next article, I’ll discuss the three-act structure and the elements of creating a strong character.

 

Luciano “Luc” Saber

Author 

 

Luciano is a filmmaker (screenwriter, director & producer), a guest speaker and has a background in teaching screenwriting at the university level. 

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