The best way to learn screenwriting is to actually write a screenplay. You will write a 5-page screenplay in proper format by the end of the course.
So often producers of content get caught in the allure of style/vision at the top of the pyramid. In other words, people sometimes get stuck on the genre they intend to explore in their story or their auteur sensibility or the way a film “should” be shot. I always guide storytellers to start at the bottom of the pyramid—character—and work their way up. Check out the breakdown on each level of the pyramid below.
We usually pay attention to stories because we’re interested in the main character. We may not always like the main characters we watch, but we can’t turn away from them either. Most often, we call the main character our protagonist.
A protagonist’s inner conflict can be thought of as the engine of a story. Inner conflict develops when a person wants one thing but needs something else. Great conflict develops when what the character wants and needs is in direct opposition. For example: I may think that I want to be alone, but I may need to accept the importance of the relationships in my life.
External Conflict exists outside of our main character but certainly affects him or her. An external conflict might develop if another character wants something different from our protagonist. That other character, often called an antagonist, may become an obstacle to our protagonist getting what he or she wants as they both struggle to achieve their objective. External conflict may also include the character’s environment. Imagine your character living on a planet with a layer of lava all over the surface!
The story is the who, what, where, when, and why of the entire happening you wish to share with the world.
Vision/Style pertains to your specific artistic sensibility. It may pertain to the genre of the piece or the tone at which you attempt to covey it. I don’t in any way intend to minimize the value of vision. Many screenwriters would benefit from thinking more about vision as they write. Film is a visual medium first and auditory medium second. Always consider how you want your film to be seen and heard.
Last but not least we must address theme. Note that some writers begin with character first when formulating their story. Others begin with theme and work toward a character that furthers that theme. The theme is that connective tissue that holds the entire story together. What is your story about in simple terms or even in a single word? I think it’s fair to say the great director Elia Kazan talked about the theme of a story when he used the word “spine.” As writers who will likely direct our own work at some point, we can learn a great deal from strong directors. As you read the passage below from Kazan’s essay Style and Spine that can be found in the book Kazan On Directing, replace “director” with “writer” in your mind. Kazan writes, “The Study of the script should result in a simple formulation that sums up the play in one phrase, a phrase that will be a guide for everything the director does. He begins with the simple words: “For me, this play is about…” The phrase should delineate the essence of the action that transpires on stage; it should reflect what is happening, what the characters are doing. It must imply, effort, progression, transition, MOVEMENT. The concept must suggest not only the events, but the play’s mood and color, its emotional landscape and form. It is to serve as the key to the production, what will give it unity.” For you, consider what the spine of your story might be? Choose active verbs rather than passive ones as you come up with your phrase.
Come up with two premises. Focus on the essentials: theme, main character’s want versus need, setting/atmosphere of the world, and pivotal external conflict. Limit yourself to only two major characters. Each premise should be no longer than one paragraph. Do not exceed more than 250 words per premise. Feel free to share your premises below. Eventually, you will select one premise to expand into a short script.
The son of a snowplow truck driver and a nurse, Kevin Del Principe grew up in Buffalo, New York. He first cut his teeth working as a schoolteacher while also producing plays and publishing poetry. He later moved to Los Angeles to pursue writing for film and to earn his MFA in Screenwriting at the University of Southern California. During his time at USC, Kevin was a finalist for Script Pipeline’s Student Screenwriting Competition. Since graduation, he continues to write, direct, produce, and teach. Kevin currently teaches screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University. He specializes in short screenplay writing, creating online content, feature writing, and rewriting.