(Then Write the Screenplay…)
Book yourself an appointment with an EXEC from a studio. This will require the powers of persuasion, subtle harassment, luck, or a gun. Okay, maybe not the latter, but definitely a combination of the other three.
When the time comes, introduce yourself with a smile. Have a firm handshake. Project confidence. Then, ironing the tremor from your voice, hit the EXEC with … THE PITCH. This’ll be your concept summed up in a line or two. Make it sharp, snazzy, and engaging. These people have any number of hopefuls trying to sell them something, so this one sentence you’re hanging your livelihood on better stand out – and better make you stand out.
If it doesn’t, thank them courteously for their time, stride from their office, and catch a bus to the nearest unemployment line (if you weren’t already in it, being a writer and all). But if it does hook them, if it does enflame their imagination, the EXEC might invite you to write them a SYNOPSIS. This would be about five hundred words summing up your idea in a nutshell.
Should that go well, you may be invited to write a TREATMENT, which could be anywhere between five and fifty pages long. This, essentially, is a hybrid between short story and an outline, albeit written in present tense. Here you’ll introduce CHARACTERS, detail your PLOT, SUBPLOTS, and any other THEMES you may be aiming to explore.
Hopefully, you’ll be paid to write for your time, although it’s not guaranteed. You may be required to write ON SPEC. This means you’re working for nothing. Oh, yeah, they might pay you later, maybe on the provision of taking your project into PRODUCTION, but for now you won’t see a cent. Such is the life of many-a-writer.
Impress the EXEC with the TREATMENT, and then comes the SCREENPLAY. Ever written one before? It doesn’t matter. Get yourself some SCREENWRITING SOFTWARE, such as Final Draft or Movie Magic or the free CeltX. They’ll take care of all your formatting needs. As the Final Draft catchphrase encourages: Just add words! It really has become that simple.
Then all you need to know are a handful of screenwriting terms, the first of which being FADE IN – used to signify the beginning of our story. TITLE aside (and this may be changed by some STUDIO BEAN-COUNTER who thinks he has a catchier, more marketable name for your masterpiece), FADE IN will be the very first two words you type in your screenplay.
Now, you’re truly underway.
It’s time now to set the scene. Where does your story begin? Is it with three men sitting thoughtfully in their car, driving, when their thoughts are interrupted by a thumping from the boot (Goodfellas)? Or is it with three assassins arriving at a desert train station in the old west (Once Upon a Time in the Old West)? Or maybe it’s up amongst the stars, in space, as a Star Destroyer pursues a rebel ship (Star Wars: A New Hope)? Or maybe it’s with a group of well-dressed criminals having a meal at a diner while one of them talks about the origin of Madonna’s song ‘Like a Virgin’ (Reservoir Dogs)? The canvas is blank for you to begin painting.
Scenes are introduced with what’s called a SLUG LINE. Following that is a brief description of the setting. This may also incorporate the introduction of CHARACTERS. Don’t overwrite these descriptions. Should your screenplay ever get anywhere, it’ll fall into the hands of a DIRECTOR, who’ll want to impose his own vision. Your job is to provide the framework, theirs is to put up the walls. So don’t overdo it, because you could put them off.
An example of nice, simple screenwriting:
INT. CLASSROOM – MORNING
The class bristle in awe of the magnificence of Les Zigomanis’s work, but HELEN is guarded.
The INT. stands for INTERIOR. Obviously, the alternative is an EXTERIOR, signified with an EXT. Then we have where the scene is set: CLASSROOM. Finally, there’s the time of the scene: MORNING. Other possibilities include AFTERNOON, EVENING, and NIGHT. Usually, it’s unnecessary to set the time of the scene when dealing with an INTERIOR, but I find that it can be illuminating.
The description which follows is the ACTION: it briefly describes the setting and characters. The ‘class’ is referred to generically, as they’re really just background here. But HELEN is specified as she’s a lead character; also, capitalization of her name is used when she’s introduced, and only when she’s introduced. The ACTION also very quickly tells us what’s happening in the scene. So what do we have? The class bristling in awe at Les’s magnificence. They are not the first. (Really!)
Now, we could continue with ACTION (remembering to keep it bare – this is not a novel, after all), or introduce DIALOGUE. Further examples:
Who is this fellow with the funny name, this Zigomanis? A madman, is he?
KYRA jumps up indignantly.
He’s genius! Pure genius!
KRISTIE leaps to her feet, her chair flying.
These are the ingredients of a SCREENPLAY – SCENES, ACTIONS and DIALOGUE. Using them, we are now capable of writing our screenplay, which should run 110–120 pages long. In the film industry, the general formula is ONE PAGE=ONE MINUTE. Obviously, that may differ occasionally – a page heavy on ACTION might take longer than a minute, whereas a page littered with rapid-fire DIALOGUE could take only thirty seconds. However, it all evens out in the end.
We establish our story in ACT ONE, which usually comprises the first 15–20 pages. ACT TWO, unfolding over the next seventy or so pages, develops and explores the story, and poises the climax precariously for resolution. ACT THREE wraps things up, usually explosively.
If all this seems absurdly, if not insultingly simple, that’s because it is. Certainly, there are other mechanics, but these are the central components required. And there really are no hard and fast rules, no real conventions of formulas – not as long as you stick to the framework.
All that’s left for us then is to FADE TO BLACK.
FADE TO BLACK.