Continuing from the previous post, let's delve into the actual writing process and learn how to create a schedule to complete your screenplay. In the earlier post, we covered three crucial elements - the logline, the dramatic question, and character profiling - that serve as a strong foundation for your script. We also discussed the three-act structure and identified key moments that shape the film's pacing. From a page count perspective, a typical feature film screenplay should have the first and third acts around 30 pages each, with the second act taking up about 50 pages, resulting in a total of around 110 pages.
Now that we have these structural elements in place, we can begin developing the story and fleshing out the scenes.
The Perfect Writing Strategy
To tackle this massive undertaking, it's important to approach the writing process one section at a time, with each section being about 10 pages long. The process starts with outlining a section, and then writing the screenplay for it. At the end of each act, a table reading session is necessary to ensure the story is on track and the dialogue feels realistic. Here's a possible breakdown of a schedule to help you write your screenplay over the course of 3-4 months -
Outlining a section is an essential step in the screenplay writing process. It helps ensure that your story stays on track and that you have a clear idea of what needs to happen in each section. To start, identify the key events and actions that need to take place in the section. This can include character development and plot twists. Next, organize these events into a clear and concise outline in less than one page, making sure to include any important details that are necessary for the story. This is not yet script writing; this is prose. Don't worry about the format as yet.
An important aspect of outlining a section is to keep in mind the overall story structure. As talked about before, the three-act structure as a concept gets extended to the smallest unit of your writing. Each act itself can be further broken down into three sections. In fact, every paragraph, every sentence invariably will have its own beginning, middle, and end.
The same way, plan a clear beginning, middle, and end, for each of these 10 page sections.
Once you have your outline for a section, it's time to expand it into a full-fledged screenplay in the right format. The outline will give you a roadmap for what needs to happen in each scene, but now you need to bring those scenes to life. Start by fleshing out the characters and their dialogue. Think about what they would say and how they would say it. Remember that dialogue is a key element of any screenplay, and it should reveal something about the characters or move the plot forward. Use your outline as a guide, but don't be afraid to deviate from it if the story calls for it.
As you develop each section, you can also refer back to your logline, dramatic question, and character profiling to ensure that you are staying true to the story you set out to tell. With a clear outline in place, you can write with confidence, knowing that you have a solid foundation for your screenplay.
The goal is to write the outline for a section in 1 day, and subsequently close the 10-page section in the next 4-5 days, with a simple target of 2 pages per day.
This is an essential part of the process, where you gather a few of your friends to sit around a table, each with their own copy of the script and character assigned, to read through the dialogues aloud. It's best if you are not one of the readers, so that you can listen and pay attention to details. This is a very important step and you need to invoke your best critical thinking skills. Don't interrupt the flow till it finishes; then discuss the script with your friends and take note of their feedback. Just listen to the sound of your words with a critical eye towards the dialogue.
Consider the following questions: How do the characters sound, do they sound like individuals, or do they sound too much like each other? Do they sound like actual people or is their dialogue unrealistic? Do your characters have distinctive voices? Do you like the way they sound? Does the dialogue flow between characters? Are their words predictable or do they sometimes surprise? Your critical thinking skills are developing, getting better with each reading, and you are more able to look at your own work with a critical eye. Sit back and make notes as you listen.
The idea is to do a session of table reading at the end of every act to identify any flaws in the screenplay's structure, characters, pacing, or dialogue, and then course-correct accordingly to ensure a more cohesive and compelling screenplay.
Approaching Each Act
To reiterate the importance of structure, every act should ideally have a beginning, middle, and end.
Here is a possible approach for the first 30 pages of your screenplay -
The first 10 pages make up the beginning of the first act and should end with something intriguing and compelling, perhaps a twist. In short, it should have something that provides a good introduction to the next ten pages, which is the middle.
The middle 10 pages propel the first act towards the intriguing end that will leave your readers dying to get to the next act. Start with something fresh and unexpected, like the introduction of a new character or a new location.
The last 10 pages of the first act contain the plot twist, the intrigue, the dynamic piece of writing that will make your readers trip hard. This dynamic writing is essential for any script, whether it's an action-filled superhero blockbuster, a horror-laced thriller, a rom-com, or a tragic love story. This is the catalyst for everything that happens in the movie. It gives birth to the second act, the heart of your story, and sets up your audience to demand to know what happens in the end. This is also where the dramatic question comes to the forefront.
Here is a possible approach for the next 50 pages of your screenplay -
The first 10 pages of this act should have a rewarding payoff for going beyond the first act. This is the scene that will push the audience into the heart of your story.
The next 30 pages form the essential heart of the screenplay. Give your readers a sense of wonder as to how this is all going to unfold. Keeping them intrigued for so long is no easy task. You need to continually surprise your readers with the nuances of the story, but don't stray away from the organic flow of your script. Don't try to force something that doesn't actually fit, like an unnecessary car chase or the death of a character out of the blue. The idea is to put your characters in a position where they are focused on dealing with the life-changing events you threw at them at the end of the first act.
The last 10 pages of the second act is possibly the most crucial section of the story so far. Sometimes it's referred to as the "all is lost" moment of your story. Pain and emotion are key elements to the end of the act. After having pushed the story almost to the point of conclusion and spending most of the second act trying to solve the conundrum that ended the first act, your characters are ever so close to overcoming all the obstacles you hurled at them. But now, you're going to wreck it all. Snatch victory from their hands and put them in a very dark place, further away from the resolution than they were at the beginning of the journey. Just when it seems that happiness is in their grasp, do something awful to dash all hope of achieving that goal. Remember to keep the suffering organic; it cannot come out of nowhere. It has to be logical, plausible, and absolutely integral to the story that you've created so far. Heartless and brutal, yes, but that’s what you signed up for when you decided to write this film screenplay. :P
Here is a possible approach for the last 30 pages of your screenplay -
In these 10 pages, follow up the pain you inflicted on your characters at the end of the second act with just a touch of hope at the beginning of the third act. A tiny light that will give the viewers an inkling of hope that your characters just might find a way out of this mess you've left them in.
With the next 10 pages, it’s time to bring back your streak of sadism. Unfortunately, it’s time to lay some hurt on your characters one last time and do something nasty to them to kill their spirits, and set them far back from the light of redemption that appeared in the previous 10 pages of this act. By the end of this middle section of the third act, your characters are going to hate you because of the pits you've thrown them into. Granted it sounds heavy but it doesn't have to be. In a comedy, the misery can be funny. In a romance, it might be sad and melancholy. In an action movie, it might be a matter of life or death, with death taking the lead.
And finally, with the last 10 pages, it's time to give the audience what they deserve - redemption for your characters and resolution to your story. It’s time to make it all right in these last 10 minutes of screen time. It can't happen too easily; in fact, the more difficult and less likely for success, the better. Make it memorable. Make it a conversation point for readers and viewers. Make it special.
After you've finished your script, the final piece that's left is the cold open. Though it's commonly associated with television shows, it can also be a powerful tool in feature films as well.
A cold open is essentially a brief scene that runs before the title sequence, and can even be a variation of an existing scene. It gives viewers a taste of what's to come and sets the tone for the rest of the story.
If you got through all of that, then congratulations! You now have a full feature film screenplay ready to go. While these posts took an objective look at the writing process, it's important to remember that writing should be something you enjoy. Basically, forget all this 'gyaan' if that's what it takes to find a writing process that you love, and stick with it. All the best and happy writing!