Now that you’ve completed your character biography and expanded your premise into a treatment, it’s the time to consider/reconsider the structure of your screenplay before you write it. This will be a great time to make adjustments in character, story, and plot as needed.
Please see the screenplay structure graphic below. You can use it for your short screenplay that your are about to write as well for a feature or other longer work you write down the line.
Status Quo: Your character in his or her regular life at the beginning of Act I.
Point of Attack: An event that disrupts your character’s status quo.
Set-up: The build-up to the collision.
Collision: A significant event that forces your character to take action. The character is unable to remain in his or her status quo. The collision causes the main tension/question for your character. The character must set out on his or her journey in Act II to resolve that tension/answer that question.
1st Culmination/Midpoint: A large event in the middle of Act II. This event will have polarity with the 2nd Culmination at the end of Act II. Polarity, in this context, means that the character will have an opposite experience pertaining to the main tension. In terms of obtaining his/her objective, he/she will often win at one culmination and lose at the other.
Typically… If your character wins at the end of your script, he/she will win at the 1st Culmination and lose at the 2nd Culmination.
If your character loses at the end of the script, he/she will typically lose at the 1st Culmination and win at the 2nd Culmination.
Many times the main tension/question is resolved/answered at the 2nd Culmination.
When this occurs, a 2nd Tension/Question is then created for Act III. It’s pretty natural when you think about it. If your character has just lost, how will he/she respond? If your character has just won, how will he/she respond? This is your second question.
Often times there will be a False Resolution in screenplays. This is where you trick the audience to think the script is going to end. Then, you hit them with the Twist—some plot turn that they hopefully enjoy—that leads the script toward the true resolution. The True Resolution is as it sounds—the real way your script ends. Now, you’re all done and ready to write the sequel!
I’m going to offer you some very quick basics on screenwriting format. My recommendation for writing your first draft is to insert your treatment into your screenwriting software document. This way you are no longer staring at the blank page and your working treatment can serve as a map to guide you through the completion of your first draft. There are two types of scripts that are written: spec scripts or shooting scripts. Spec scripts are written on speculation. In other words, they are written in the hope that someone will read it and buy it. Shooting scripts are written with the production team in mind. They are intended to quickly convey camera movement, etc. I suggest that you write the script more as a spec script for now. Avoid overt camera movements and strive to convey them through your description.
Use a formatting guide or one of the many online sources to make sure you are following standard formatting. When I look at your work, I will be focusing more on storytelling and not on correcting formatting issues.
[INT. or EXT. LOCATION – DAY or NIGHT]
There’s no way around it, screenwriting is a bastardized form of writing. We’re attempting to convey action and movement more than we are concerned with proper sentence structure. That said, there’s still no excuse for shoddy grammar. When writing action, stick with active, present tense verbs (Susie runs, jumps, skips, kicks). There are different ideas on how to write the best action. Some people prefer one line per each action and many bits of white space on the page. Other people prefer short paragraphs or bursts of connected action. You have to find your own way on this one. I suggest reading a lot of scripts, writing a lot, and finding what works best for you. I do suggest that you allow yourself flexibility to adapt your writing style as the specific screenplay and the action demands. I also suggest that you never write a bit of action that is over four lines long on the page. Longer bits of single-spaced action tend to be hard for people to read.
-Dialogue supports picture. Picture doesn’t support dialogue. Remember we are a working primarily in a visual medium. Therefore, self-restraint is the key to writing good dialogue. Whenever possible, show us what is happening rather than allowing characters to tell us.
-Remember that every character/person talks in a unique manner. Refer to the character biography to formulate a way of speaking that is authentic and specific to the character.
1A.Subtext vs. Exposition
-Exposition is death. Brevity is life. Let me let you in on a little secret. Sometimes we do need a bit of exposition in our dialogue to clue the audience in. Bury exposition in character and in action, and the audience won’t as easily see our straining to provide critical information.
-Utilize subtext. People rarely talk in a straightforward manner and tell others exactly what they are thinking. In other words, conflict often appears to be about one activity but is really about another. Hint: Bury conflict in an activity different from the actual conflict. Then allow the conflict to build and ultimately rise to the surface in a climactic moment in the scene.
2. Plants and Payoffs
A plant is anytime a screenwriter puts something in the script that then pays off later upon its repetition. A plant pays off when it is it is seen in a new light or provides some new information in its repetition. Plants can be objects or even lines of dialogue. Try to plant an object or a bit of dialogue.
Example: First we see a character watering a flower. Then we see the character cut up the flower’s leaves and place it in a cup of tea. Then we see the character give the tea to her lover and the lover dies. Poison! You see, the flower keeps paying off as each repetition provides the viewer new meaning.
*As you are writing your script this next week, try your hand at using at least one plant and payoff.
Write your five-page first draft in standard screenplay format and upload it as a PDF or Final Draft document to the forum.
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.