Welcome to the DOJO!
One of the aspects of independent filmmaking I get asked about quite often is on writing a screenplay. The subject is always a strange one for me to talk about because I’m not a traditionally trained screenwriter by any means — heck, I went to comic book school. I’m just happy I know how to (barely) read! Every professional writing gig I’ve had in film, television or comic books has either been something I stumbled on to or created for myself — that includes my feature film work and even the stuff for Disney TV Animation. I’ve never submitted or been hired from a spec script, the work has always come from someone I know asking me if I wanted to write something for them.
The first feature screenplay I wrote (for “Bite Me, Fanboy”) was for a film I was financing myself and the second (for “Stinger”) came from me harrassing Morris Ruskin over at Shoreline until he gave me the gig. The Disney work came from producers I’d been working on and off with since the mid-1990s.
Needless to say, in spite of my experience, when it comes to giving tips on how to write an independent or low budget screenplay, I don’t feel like the most qualified person around. So, what I’m going to do for today’s Film Sensei independent filmmaking tips post is tell you “how I” write a feature length screenplay (as opposed to tell you “how to” write a low budget screenplay). I will say in advance that my particular method of screenwriting may not work for you and may, in fact, scare the hell out of any “real” writers out there reading this post. You have been warned.
The Film Sensei’s How To Write A Feature Length Screenplay
The first thing I do when I sit down to write is decide upon a genre — well, to tell the truth, I’ve usually figured that part out well before I sit down to write. I prefer comedy over anything else, with horror being a close second…of course, even my horror screenplays are filled with comedy.
From there I figure out the basic story concept and theme. For me, those two elements go together. With “Bite Me, Fanboy,” it was about staying true to yourself. For “Stinger,” it was breaking up with someone and then having to go back and deal with the mess you left behind. “The Hog” dealt with social structure in school and what happens when the underdog comes out on top. I’ll come up with the theme right along with the basic story idea (“Bite Me, Fanboy”: boy gets dumped because he’s a comic nerd; “Stinger”: giant scorpions on a submarine; “The Hog”: killer pig on a college campus). The theme is even more important to me than the story concept — without a theme in place at the beginning, I have problems working through the rest of the story. A story without a theme driving it is just a bunch of scenes strung together.
Once I have the theme and story concept down I’ll write a short outline. Basically a bullet point style version of the story, very general and without a lot of specific story details. Here is where my method of writing a low budget screenplay starts to head off of the usual track. I’ll take that outline and plug it in to the below storytelling structure template (see bottom of article — if anyone knows where it originally came from or who the author was, please let me know so I can give them credit and/or a link back to their site). I can’t remember where it came from, but I found it online back in 2002 or so and have used it ever since. The template breaks down every single beat of a standard 3-act story — it’s detailed down to the page each beat should happen on.
Now, I know most of you will be thinking “Are you crazy? Doesn’t that take the natural flow or feeling out of the script?” Not for me or the way I write. You see, I write almost completely out of order. I’ll start with the first 10-20 pages of the screenplay and, once those are done and I’ve set a tone for the screenply, I jump around like a crazy person, writing a page here or a scene there. I like to write scenes towards the end early in the process to throw myself interesting writing problems — I may add a character having a black eye or some other little bit without any idea of how it happened. That keeps things interesting for me as a writer — and it helps keep me going during that middle part of the process that takes the longest to get through.
Having the structure/guide already stuck into my writing file, integrated in to my outline, also helps me stay on track. That way I don’t wind up writing 60 pages in the first act.
And that’s really it. Writing is as much about follow-through as “talent.” I never start editing or doing re-writes until I’ve written my first draft. I don’t go back and change anything at all until I finish. Editing and re-writing is the biggest killer of getting things done when it comes to your first draft. I have writer friends who rarely finish any of their longer form writing because of their addiction to re-writing before they are done. I don’t allow myself that privilege until I’m finished with my story. Once it’s done and I can see where everything is, then I feel like I have the best handle on my screenplay and am able to determine what needs to be reworked. The most important thing is to finish your screenplay….get it done and then you can fiddle with or tweak it as much as you want.
The only other part that I want to talk about is characters. I have problems writing a character I don’t “know,” so I wind up basing a lot of the characters I write either on people I know or on characters I “know.” For example, the majority of the marines I wrote about in “Stinger” are loosely based on guys I went to comic book school with and one of the scientist was a character I swiped from “Real Genius.” This gives me a foundation to build the characters on — it gives me a direction for them to go and a “voice” for them to speak in. If I don’t “know” the characters then I can’t make them memorable for the audience who will eventually watch the film.
Taking that one step further is something I learned from Chris Claremont (the best writer of the X-men comics and one of the greatest comic book writers of all time): if you’re going to kill a character, then you have to make them “real” and memorable in the eyes of your audience. This is what Claremont did better than anyone I’ve ever seen. He’d create these incredible complex and detailed characters over a page or two, get his audience attached to them and then have them horribly killed. This is absolutely essential for horror films because if you’re audience doesn’t care about a character getting killed, if you don’t elicit some sort of reaction (positive or negative) then the death, the scene and the movie will fall flat.
One of the things I loved hearing from everyone who read “The Hog” screenplay was “Why did you kill the two nerds? I loved those guys!” To me, that was the biggest compliment someone could give me. I had written a couple of characters who were universally loved and whose deaths produced an incredibly strong emotional reaction in my readers. Bam. I did my job as a screenwriter: I successfully connected with the emotions of my audience and was able to generate a response from them. Awesome.
For a successful writer and a successful screenplay, the thing to burn in to your brain is “Empathy instead of Apathy.” Connection with your audience or lose them.
That wraps things up for today. I hope it helps at least a little! Until next time, Keep Shooting!
-Mat Nastos, the Film Sensei
Story Structure Outline (by Unknown)
Page 1. Have you set up the setting/the location/the tone? Do we know exactly what is going on? Have you introduced the Hero?
Page 3. Do we know the Hero’s goal? What is his overriding desire?
Page 10. Has the inciting incident occurred by now? Most important point of Screenplay-structure. Master screenwriting now.
Page 12. Have we met the Opponent? Do we understand his desire line? Do we know the problem the Hero has to solve?
Pages 25-30. Have you established the event or sequence of events that will set up the second act. The Plot point, or turning Point.
Page 30. Does the end of the first act find you Hero entering a new and even more difficult arena of challenge? How does he feel about this?
Page 45. Has the Hero overcome some challenges and beaten back a few obstacles? Has he been tested a little, but not destroyed,
Page 60. The Midpoint. Is your Hero feeling defeated or confident?He must not give up now and continues onwards. This is his point of no return. He must go on. Screenplay-structure point, One most people miss.
Page 75-76. The Hero hits rock bottom. All looks hopeless and irreversible. There seems to be no way out. He must now discover a new strength, a new way of dealing with his predicament and rebuild his hope in his ability to get the goal, achieve his desire.
Pages 85-90. The build up towards the Second major plot point. What starts to set it all up? Name the events. Why these?
Page 90. The start of Act Three Plot point Two. Show how the Hero has changed. Show the growth he has made to begin the next part of the journey. Show don’t Tell. Moving Pictures! Ready for the final challenge. Nervous, afraid, insecure… but he will feel the fear and do it anyway.
Page 115. The climax. This is it. The showdown. The battle with the Opponent. The big one. Pull no punches and make sure the Hero is the one doing it. He defeats the Opponent and comes to terms with his own true self. The absolutely most important Screenplay-structure point.
Page 120. The resolution. Normal life will be resumed now. He has survived the ordeal. They are now irreversibly changed.Like this post? Buy me a beer to keep the site going!