Writers have all sorts of different ways of writing their screenplays. Some simply have a good idea and sit down and start writing it. Others spend years – literally – agonizing over every little detail before actually starting to write their script.
Which is best? I think the secret lies somewhere in the middle. Personally I find that taking the time to plan a script properly makes the actual writing process much easier, and ensures that I never suffer from the dreaded writer’s block.
The steps below are what I have developed over more than ten years of writing, and have been used by many of my students to help them write their first screenplay.
Stage One: Story Synopsis: This is the starting point, usually something I type up in the middle of the night or when I’ve leaped from the shower, dripping wet, with a great story idea in my head. The story synopsis is a brief telling of your story, from one to three pages, that includes the main characters, and has a beginning, a middle and an end.
Stage Two: Structural Outline: This is the crucial step in my opinion, taking your basic story synopsis and turning it into a clear structural outline. The structural outline is the frame of your screenplay, performing the same function as the frame of a house.
The structural outline includes all of the following:
- The Inciting Incident
- The Set-up
- The First Turning Point (End of Act One)
- The Mid-Point
- The Second Turning Point (End of Act Two)
It is crucial that all of these structural elements are strong – like a chain, your story will only be as strong as the weakest of these key elements.
Stage Three: Scene Outline: The scene outline should have a brief description of each scene – you need to include what happens, who says what, the key beats of each scene. It should, of course, include all the key structural elements.
Stage Four: Character development. Developing characters is crucial to producing a script that people will want to read. The perfect character is the one who is the perfect fit for the story, which is why I like to develop my story before working on the characters.
Stage Five: Scene cards: Finally, you need to write out a plan for each scene – the order of events, who’s there, what happens, what is said, etc. I also like to add three other things to my scene cards: A note of the conflict in the scene – a scene without conflict is likely to be a dull scene – what techniques I will use in this scene (surprise, dramatic irony, etc.), and finally, a note on the scene arc. Good scenes should offer a range of emotion – typically they either start up and finish down, or vice versa.
Only once I have all of the above do I allow myself to start writing. The beauty of this is that by the time I’ve fully developed the outline, I’m itching to write. In addition, because I have planned each scene individually, there are no “filler” or “transition” scenes, and no writer’s block – with all the scenes planned individually, there is always a scene I’m in the mood to write!