Writing a Screenplay: Three Acts

Writing a Screenplay: Three Acts

The first step of writing a screenplay is finding a storyline. All the storylines have been told before—you need to find a new and interesting way to tell your story.

Create a one-sentence concept that sums up your story. This is called a logline. Don’t underestimate the importance of your logline—this can make or break a screenplay sale.

Then, create an outline. This serves as a path for the story. It will help you write the screenplay. Many writers use index cards. Write a scene on each card. This allows you to shuffle the scenes around until they make the most sense and flow the best. This also helps prevent you from running into dead ends for your characters or story flaws when you’re ready to write.

Screenplays have a unique structure meant to systematize the drama and conflicts in an organized fashion. Each of three acts has a purpose it serves in a general amount of time (page count).

Act 1: (pages 1-30)
Establish your characters and situation. You have to grab the audience’s attention right away. You have to get them interested in the story so they want to follow through the rest of the action and the resolution. There’s a mini crisis at mid-act that leads us to a dilemma.

In Wedding Crashers, John and Jeremy attend several weddings they aren’t invited to for the free food and drink and easy access to women. In the first act, the friends decide to abandon the territory they know best, wedding receptions, and follow the Cleary family to their Maryland homestead for a weekend. John becomes interested in the bride’s sister and wants to spend more time with her.

In Mr. & Mrs. Smith, married couple John and Jane each find out that the other has been living a lie and is actually a paid assassin.

In both movies, the main characters find themselves in unfamiliar situations. This drives the action and makes the audience interested to see how they will handle themselves when out of their comfort zone.

Act 2: (pages 30-90)
Develop the story in the second act. For the first half, the main character accumulates exploits, reacting to the established dilemma, and it seems like nothing can stop him.

John and Jeremy go through several humorous experiences at the Cleary home while they try to maintain their cover as brothers distantly related to the family. John and Jane Smith go through several attempts to kill each other until they finally realize that they are in love.

In the middle of the second act, also the midpoint of the movie, the story changes gear. Passive characters become active.

Jeremy realizes that he has fallen for wacky sister Gloria. Meanwhile, Claire’s evil fiancé has discovered who they really are and they are kicked out of the Cleary house. John embarks on an effort to show Claire who he really is and that her fiancé is not the right guy for her.

John and Jane have missed the deadline to kill each other and now there is a hit out on each of them. They must kill or be killed.

Act 3: (pages 90-120)
Resolve all the conflicts are resolved and show how the characters are changed due to the events they’ve just gone through.

Jeremy marries Gloria and John gets the girl. John and Jane escape from their killers and have a reinvigorated marriage.

Writing a Screenplay: The Three Ps

A screenplay has three main parts: the premise, the people, and the plot—the three Ps. Each “P” should carry equal weight, even to the point of using up about the same number of words in the script. The premise is the element upon which the other two are laid, but people and plot are equally important. Picture the three parts as circles that slightly overlap each other.

Premise is the situation, the hook or the concept. If someone asks what your story is about, you should be able to answer with the premise. Premise often asks the central question of a movie: “Can men and women be friends?”, “What would happen if you found a genie who granted you three wishes?” Premise also is the setting the audience enters for the story. It’s the what, where and when. It could be outer space, a war zone, a school or a crime scene.

The premise should be the driving force behind every event in your screenplay. A good premise is derived from emotions–love, hate, fear, jealousy, desire, etc.–and revolves around a character, a conflict and a conclusion. In James Cameron’s film Titanic (1997), the premise is that love conquers death, physically and spiritually. Rose is the character, the sinking ship and Rose’s unhappy engagement are the conflict and the conclusion is that Jack’s love helps her survive and free herself from her fiancé.

If your story does not have a clear premise, it will lack focus and drive. For example, if a story is more “illustrative” than dramatic, presenting ideas rather than conflict, it may not maintain an audience’s interest. If a story has more than one premise, or if the premise changes along the way, the audience will become confused or bored.

People are the characters. There are major characters and minor characters who serve a variety of purposes. Some represent things, some are love interests, some help tell the story, some provide comedic relief and others fill in the gaps. The audience needs to relate to the characters and their relationships. Good characters must have a past history to really resonate with the audience.

Just as you need a clear premise, you need each character to consistently view their world through their own private view. Their view and beliefs should determine how they behave. In fact a story is driven by the personalities of the main characters as they behave in the way they must due to their own private view of the world.

The basic behavior of the characters should not change during the story until something the characters learn during the story changes their beliefs. This basic change in the beliefs of the hero is ultimately the point of all good stories. The audience, who is emphasizing with the hero, gets to share in the emotions and enlightenment of learning what the hero learns.

Plot is the unfolding of events. It is the basis of a story. What happens? What should be done about it? Plot is not only the events but the how and why of the events. Once you’ve established your premise, you need to determine all the obstacles the main character will face during the story – the plot points. What events will dramatize the conflict?

Writing a Screenplay: Getting Started

Everyone loves the movies! And if you’re anything like other aspiring screenwriters, you leave the theater thinking about how you could have just as a good a story if not better. You might dream about receiving an Academy Award for your screenplay.

Hang on. The reality isn’t quite that rosy. More than 10,000 scripts are registered with The Writers Guild of America a year, and less than 1 percent of them are made into motion pictures. Over 90 percent of screenplays never make it past a first read. And, although you’ve surely heard of the occasional screenwriter who rakes in an impressive payment for one script, the average working screenwriter earns about $50,000 a year.

The movie industry is seductive, however. If these numbers don’t discourage you and you want the best chances of writing a good screenplay that will be purchased and produced, read on.

A script is a document that outlines every aural, visual, behavioral, and lingual element required to tell a story. Making a movie is a collaborative process with the director, cast, editor, and production crew all interpreting the story as it is filmed. Chances are good that if you sell your screenplay, by the time it is made into a film, you will no longer be involved in the storyline. Another screenwriter might even be brought in to rewrite parts or even the entire screenplay. So, keep that in mind as you write.

Before you get started on your own screenplay, it’s worth spending some time on others. Watch a lot of movies. Hollywood produces roughly 500 feature films a year. That means that even the worst film of the year beat impressive odds to make it to the big screen. You can learn something from almost every movie out there.

Read a lot of screenplays. You can download screenplays off the internet from sites like www.iscriptdb.com or you can buy them from www.scriptshack.com.

Read a screenplay while you watch the movie. Notice how a well-written screenplay follows the presiding principle of screenwriting: “Show, Don’t Tell.” Even though you’re reading words on paper, a well-written script shows you the movie in your mind. Remember that film is a visual medium. Include what the audience will see and hear in your screenplay. You might know what your characters are thinking but successful screenwriting requires that you write to show that on screen.

Try to write the screenplay for a favorite movie. Before you read the screenplay for a favorite movie, watch a few scenes. Then try to write that screenplay. Obviously, the dialogue will be verbatim but try writing the scene headings and action lines. Compare what you came up with to the actual screenplay.

Learn the business. This is an aspect of screenwriting that too many writers overlook. The problem is that a screenplay comes from the solitary nature of screenwriting and goes into a process that may involve hundreds of people. Understand how you fit in the filmmaking process.

Selling a screenplay: Separated Rights

Once you or your agent has sold your screenplay to a producer, that’s the end of it, right? Not necessarily. The studio is now the de jure author of a screenplay, essentially holding all rights that come along with copyright ownership. However, writers have managed to carve out a few of those rights to keep for themselves. These are known as separated rights.

To receive your separated rights, you need to do one of the following:

1. Write an original story (treatment) or screenplay and story, and receive “story by” or “written by” credit for doing so.
2. Write a story (treatment) or screenplay based on underlying material (novels, plays, etc.), but create a substantially different story than the one contained in the underlying material, and receive “screen story” or “written by” credit for doing so.
3. Write a story (treatment) or screenplay based on underlying material that you do not have access to (e.g. an out-of-print book).

Clearly, the most typical way a writer receives separated rights is by being a credited writer on an original. Another important point is that separated rights are assigned for story authorship, not screenplay authorship. “Screenplay by” isn’t enough to get you separated rights. You need to either receive “story by” for an original or “screen story by” for an adaptation. Since the “written by” credit includes a credit for story authorship, that also qualifies.

Now that you know what qualifies you for separated rights, let’s look at what they actually are.

1. Publication Rights: You control the right to publish the screenplay and books based on the screenplay. The studios still have the right to employ a writer to create a novelization of the screenplay, but they must offer that job to you first, and even if you decline to write the novelization, they must still pay you a minimum fee.
2. Dramatic Stage Rights: After the release of the film, the company has two years in which to produce a stage version of the screenplay. If they fail to do so, the writer now controls the right to produce a stage version.
3. Sequel Payments & Credit: If the company produces a sequel to the screenplay (for theatrical or television), the writers with separated rights receive WGA minimums for those sequels. In addition, the writers get a “Based on Characters Created By” credit for theatrical sequels.
4. Mandatory Rewrite: If you sell or option a spec, you must be offered the first rewrite. This separated right is obtained prior to the awarding of credit. Obviously, it ceases to be relevant once the first rewrite is complete.
5. Meeting With A Production Executive: Works on the same basis as Mandatory Rewrite. If you sell or option a spec and then do your rewrite, the company must let you meet with an executive before they fire you. Basically, this gives you the right to grovel.
6. Reacquisition: If original material (in the case of reacquisitions, material not based on any pre-existing material) has not been produced within five years, the writer has a two-year window within which to buy back the literary material, and may do so as long as the material is not then in active development. “Active development” includes when a writer is employed on the project and/or when other above-the-line players are employed on a pay-or-play basis. The writer’s two-year window starts five years after the completion of the original writer’s services or five years from acquisition, whichever is later. That time may be extended if the material is sold or optioned to another company. After the two-year period, the writer’s right to reacquire expires under the Separation of Rights provisions, and the writer must negotiate directly with the Company. To reacquire the material, generally the writer must buy it back for the amount the writer was paid for the purchase and/or writing services.

Writing a Screenplay: Securing the Rights

Not all good screenplays come of a screenwriter’s imagination. Some are based on novels or someone’s real-life experience and some on a famous person’s life story.
Unless your story is a completely original idea, you need to consider story rights.

Keep in mind that no legitimate producing entity will get involved in a project unless the rights are secured. If you find someone interested in your story who doesn’t inquire about the rights, you are wasting your time. So, how do you determine what rights are necessary?

If your idea is original, that is, it originated with you, then you own the rights.

If your idea is from a book, or a magazine or newspaper article, you will need to secure the rights. As a general rule, all written works published before 1923 are in the public domain, which means you do not have to seek permission from the copyright owner. Works published after 1923, but before 1978 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication. Works published after 1978 are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. Be sure about the material—contact the U.S. Copyright Office to see if a copyright exists. If it does, approach the author to see if they are open to an agreement allowing you to write a screenplay. You can find author contact information through their publisher and journalist information through their publication. A lot of the time you’ll find that the rights have already been sold. But, a good idea is worth a shot. Contact a copyright attorney if you decide to take this route so you’re sure you’re not violating the law.

If your idea is based on someone’s life story, then they are probably a private individual, a public figure or an historical figure. For a private person, approach them or their heirs to reach an agreement for the film rights to their life story. This is not always required by law, but it’s certainly better that they are aware and supportive of the project ahead of time. It may also reveal whether exclusive rights have been granted to someone else and if not, then a whole wealth of information could become available to you, giving you a unique personal story. Contact an attorney—you want a secure document so that your time and effort on the screenplay isn’t wasted.

When writing about public figures, you cannot write any defamatory material or reveal any intimate details of their life that would be considered an invasion of privacy. You can write the story, but you have to be very careful what you write. Again, it’s wise to contact an attorney.

You can’t copyright historical facts so it’s easier to use an historical figure than a current public figure in your work. Just make it unique by telling the story in your own unique way.

Go to www.whatiscopyright.org or www.benedict.com for more basic information on copyright.

Go to www.lawsmart.com/main.html to access sample creative rights contracts.

Writing a Screenplay: Resources

Most people need training of some kind before they can successfully complete a task. The same goes for screenwriting. You might be a natural storyteller but in the highly competitive field of moviemaking, everyone can benefit by furthering their education. Due to that competition, there are resources covering virtually every medium and every type of screenplay and every type of screenwriter out there.

Resources for screenwriters range from college and graduate programs at Yale Drama School and University of Southern California film school down to a book you can check out at your local library and everything in between. There is a resource that addresses virtually any question, concern or issue related to screenwriting that could come up as you venture into this field.

You can invest in classes, attend screenwriting retreats or conferences. You can join a screenwriters group to share your writing with other aspiring screenwriters and get their feedback and offer your own. These kinds of resources are collaborative and interpersonal. They are good for less disciplined writers who benefit from a regular writing schedule and regular interaction. Bear in mind that filmmaking is a collaborative process so these types of events and programs will help you get in that mindset.

You could invest your time and money in more individual training, such as self-study CD-ROMs, e-learning courses, or reading one of numerous screenwriting magazines or newsletters. These resources are better for more disciplined writers who aren’t looking for collaboration or the camaraderie of other writers. Perhaps you’re just getting started and want to spend time on your writing until you become more comfortable having it critiqued by an instructor or classmates.

There is a world of information for screenwriters available on the internet, from websites that list agents to websites that list retreats, conferences, and courses. Try http://dmoz.org/Arts/Writers_Resources/Screenwriting/ as a starting point. The site lists dozens of websites geared to all aspects of screenwriting, from contests to script consultants. Script Nurse (http://scriptnurse.com/wcms/index.php) is another site that offers numerous links, articles on screenwriting, product reviews, and discussion forums.

There are numerous resources at your local library or bookstore. Magazines geared to screenwriters publish interviews with screenwriters, producers and agents. They also publish information about contests and networking events. Writers and story analysts offer information on how you can improve your writing, from increasing the action to improving the development of your characters. Consider the two major magazines for screenwriters: Creative Screenwriting (www.creativescreenwriting.com) and scr(i)pt (www.scriptmag.com). There are numerous step-by-step books available which may serve as a good resource for you to keep on your bookshelf as you plug away at your first scripts.

Whatever type of resource is best for you, there is surely something appropriate. Consider what you want to get out of it and the amount you’re willing to spend in money and time. Simply enter your resource type (i.e., screenwriting retreats, screenwriting newsletter) into an internet search engine and you’ll get pages of results. Mix and match your resources to get the most benefit.

Selling your Screenplay: The Query

Once you’ve made a list of agencies that handle screenplays, it’s time to write a compelling query letter. A good query letter catches the agent’s attention and gets him interested in your screenplay.

Keep your query letter to one page. Be succinct and professional but make sure you present your story as an interesting premise. Include the logline, the genre and a brief synopsis. Keep the logline to one or two sentences and keep the synopsis short and sweet. You want explain why the story should be told and leave the reader wanting more. Keep in mind that the story either sells itself or it doesn’t. If you start explaining why it’s a good story, it probably isn’t.

Also keep in mind that how you write your query letter gives the reader an idea of how you wrote your screenplay. If it isn’t interesting and easy to read, the reader won’t relish the thought of reading a longer screenplay by the same writer.

In most letters, you would conclude with the conclusion of your story. However, you want to entice the reader to request your screenplay. Grab their attention, get their interest and then let them know that you would be happy to send them a copy of your screenplay.

Follow directions when they are provided. Many agencies and production companies provide submission guidelines on their website. These guidelines can tell you if the company accepts unsolicited queries, the preferred submission method, who to contact and the kind of material they are interested in. Most of the big studios do not accept unsolicited materials. They get scripts from agents so don’t waste your time.

Be sure to include your current contact information. Include any awards or competitions you have won or done well in. Only share information about yourself that directly relates to the screenplay or your abilities as a screenwriter. Let the reader know that you were an overseas war correspondent for ten years if you are presenting a war movie. Also let the reader know if you have written other screenplays that have been produced or optioned.

If you’re a natural-born salesperson, you can try calling your agent candidates. You may not get past the receptionist, but he or she might be willing to tell you which agent is most likely to consider a query. And, in smaller agencies, the receptionist just might be a junior agent or even a principal.

Be very careful about making calls after you’ve sent in a screenplay. For the most part, if the agent didn’t like your screenplay enough to contact you already, he or she probably won’t take kindly to a follow-up phone call. However, the receptionist may be able to tell you which agent is most likely to be open to a mail query–and in the smaller agencies, the receptionist may turn out to be a junior agent or even one of the agency principals.

Many agents may prefer e-mail queries over snail mail these days. If so, do not send your letter as an attachment. Just put it in the body of the e-mail message. This keeps all your information together and prevents any worries about computer viruses that are most often spread via attached documents.

Writing a Screenplay: Protecting Your Work

In the big-money business of moviemaking, a good idea can be worth millions. So, you want to take the necessary steps to protect your work. Here are several ways you can do that:

• File for a copyright with the Library of Congress. This costs $30, but it’s good for a long time, even after you die. This gives you the most protection in a court trial, should anyone steal your script.

• Register it with the Writers Guild of America (WGA). You don’t have to be a member to register your material with them. For the WGAw, it’s $20 for non-members, and it’s good for five years (see: http://www.wga.org/subpage_register.aspx?id=1189). You might be able to register with the WGAe, though, where it’s $22 for ten years (see: https://www.wgaeast.org/script_registration/). Most writers do not protect their work until they have at least a first draft but know that you can protect your work with the WGA even at the treatment stage. They will hold it as a sealed document for you. In the event of a dispute, the WGA will provide evidence of your work and when you registered it with them. Protect your final work by registering it with the WGA. Although this might not be the final version of your screenplay that you go out with to sell, the idea is to protect it before everyone starts reading it. Never send out unprotected work. The $20 is well worth the protection of your original work.

• Mail a copy to yourself, certified, and never open it. This is called a poor man’s copyright but it works.

• Consider online registration. Check out some of these for price differences and length of protection:

http://dmoz.org/Society/Law/Services/Intellectual_Property/Copyright_Services/. Choose a registry that keeps track of who looks at your synopsis. Many registries require that the interested buyer email you for permission to read the script. Keep track of all correspondence.

• Give a copy to an attorney friend. This shouldn’t cost you anything, and it fixes your work in time in a homemade legal way. I don’t know if it’d hold up in court, but when I went through a trial about something else, my lawyer said that if I had something in writing, even a note to myself, and the opposing side didn’t have anything in writing about the same issue, then “my writing” has the status of a legal fact.

• In the United States, your work is copyrighted the minute you fix it in written form. You don’t need to do anything. It’s just that you have the right to claim monetary damages should somebody steal your script if you complete the official copyright process with the Library of Congress. If you protect your work in any other way, you have the right to make somebody stop stealing your work, but you can’t collect money damages.

• Keep a paper trail. When you give someone a copy of your actual screenplay or even a query or synopsis, write it down in a log. Keep the person’s name, production company or agency, date, etc. This “proves” that you shared your creative work with them. Be very careful about sending your screenplay to the anonymous e-mail address of an unnamed production company. Also, even if a production company requests full screenplays, send only a query first. Then if they request the script, you have a paper trail that they asked for it and you didn’t just send it off to them without it being requested.

• Try to get an agent or a manager. That provides one more layer of evidence that you wrote a certain screenplay and submitted it to a certain company.

Writing a Screenplay: Polish your Draft

The business of screenwriting is all about writing and rewriting. The first step is writing a first draft. Then, step away from your script for at least a couple of days. Come back and read your screenplay all the way through. Read it again and take notes on anything that needs work. Are there any loose strings? Note any and all problems, from problems with the storyline to spelling and formatting mistakes.

Incorporate all of your changes.

Now it’s time to have someone new to your story have a look at your screenplay. You need to find someone who is unbiased and can be brutally honest with you. Give them a reasonable amount of time to review the script without questioning them about it. Once you get their feedback, remember that you don’t have to do anything with their feedback. Everyone will have something different to say. But, did any of the feedback resonate with you? Those are the issues you want to address in another rewrite.

By now your screenplay should be a tight read, interesting and well paced. Analyze each scene to make sure each moves the story along and contributes something to that story.

One of the trickiest parts of screenwriting for new writers is good dialogue. You’ll probably spend more time rewriting these parts of your script than anything else.

It’s not easy to make characters sound natural rather than stilted. Examine each block of dialogue. If it is longer than four lines on the page, you run the risk of boring the reader. Make sure your dialogue is not “on the nose.” The characters shouldn’t say exactly what they mean; their dialogue should be more calculating.

Imagine describing your story and characters to a friend, and then erasing all the character’s names in your script so that they wouldn’t immediately recognize who was speaking. Have you made the characters unique enough that your friend could guess who was speaking by their slang and the way they phrased their conversation?

Reread each block of dialogue and ask yourself if it sounds believable. Does the conversation sound like something you’d really hear on the street?

Listen to different types of conversations between different types of people. Spend time observing. You want your characters to sound real but if you really listen to people, you’ll notice that few of us speak in complete, formal sentences. Notice the differences in the ways people talk. Try to ignore the content while listening for slang, cadence and tone. Who is more dominant in the conversation and how do they convey that dominance? Imagine a friend or family member who’s something like your character speaking their words. If it works, keep it. If not, rewrite.

Remember that real people don’t have a conflict that they need to resolve in the next 90 minutes. Every word your characters speak must have a purpose. They should move the story forward as well as reveal subtle nuance of their character and backstory.

Examining your storyline and dialogue like this is a valuable step in polishing your screenplay.

Selling your Screenplay: The Pitch

There are books, DVDs, tutorials, coaching business and much more devoted to advising screenwriters how to pitch their screenplay. Pitching is a verbal presentation of your idea. Your goal is to sell your idea to a production executive or agent so that they want to hire you to write a screenplay and pay you to do so.

A typical pitch meeting gives you about 15 minutes to explain your story and characters and why an audience would be interested in them. You must display energy, passion, confidence and commitment to your idea. You should arrive early and be prepared to wait. You should know the key elements from beginning to end, backward and forward. You don’t want to show up and read your logline and plot points from index cards. You should look and act professional. Remember that you want this meeting to establish a business relationship. Prepare a one or two sentence description of yourself. Be aware of time constraints. Don’t ramble. Watch your audience to make sure they are staying interested.

Practice your pitch. Don’t think you can show up for your meeting and wing it. Practice pitching to a friend. Practice pitching a movie you’ve already seen before practicing with your screenplay. The goal is to leave your audience feeling like they’ve seen a great trailer for your story.

Your pitch should be about ten minutes long. You should address who the movie is about (the main character) and what happens to that character during the course of the movie. That includes the character’s situation at the beginning, during and after the movie’s climax as well as what that character has to overcome during the movie.

Be sure to cover your story’s genre. Movies are sold as comedies, thrillers, or dramas. The genre helps convey how marketable your screenplay is. Be sure you are pitching your script to the right people. Producers and production companies that specialize in action picture won’t be interested in a romantic comedy. Do your homework and learn the right players for your genre.

Spend some time studying sales techniques. Salespeople essentially “pitch” products or ideas all the time. It’s worth your time to learn about their best selling methods. You also might consider a coaching session. Selling or pitching coaches can help you perfect your presentation and build your confidence.

Speaking of sales, don’t underestimate financial considerations. You want to create confidence that the film can be produced within defined dollar limits. Addressing this issue upfront will probably separate you from others pitching their scripts to the same people. Be familiar with the costs of producing your script so that you can defend it. You need to sell the commercial viability of your idea.

Know whom you’re pitching to. Research the people you’re pitching to—what are their past movie credits? Also know your intended audience and past successes in this genre. Be ready to provide background on your story, topic, and characters. Brainstorm a list of questions potential buyers might have for you about your script. They might want to know what sparked your interest in the topic.

Try to get a follow-up phone call, email or meeting scheduled before the meeting ends. If you got all the way up to a pitch meeting, chances are good the people you met with are interested in you enough to maintain contact.

Pitching is an art. Your success depends on your idea and how well you present it.