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The ABC’s of Writing a Screenplay

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The most important thing that any screenplay needs is a point of view. It needs a clearly thought out story with characters that are well developed to help carry out the goals, conflicts and motives within that story. Outside the characters there are story arcs that have to be created in order to move the purpose along and to help the story unfold. As this is not a book, a story unfolds through a series of conflicts and various developments and emotional expressions through dialogue, action and exposition, which lead to the ending where the story invariably wraps up.

Every scene within a script has to have a purpose. Every scene MUST move the story or a character’s arc forward. This means that within that scene there is movement made or information given. If there is comedy, jokes can be made that enhance characters or plot. None of this is possible unless the story has a clear beginning, middle and end; hence the three act structure. While the three-act structure does not always need to be adhered to to a tee, it is usually the best way to convey the introduction, the conflict and then the resolution of a story.

Within a script there need to be several stories that are continuously told in order to layer the script and keep the reader’s interest. Therefore, a protagonist or main character is created with purpose that needs to be fulfilled (hopefully) by the end of the script and supporting characters that might aid the main character and/or have stories of their own so that the reader is able to divert focus from the main story for a while and be entertained by something and someone else. These characters often add to conflict, help with conflict or add to background and humor.

Every character has to have a purpose from the lead to a supporting character that is not just a passer-by. Within the script, this purpose is the most important thing for the reader to be told. It needs to be laid out so we understand the script we are going to be reading and so that we connect to the characters and become involved in the telling of the story. If the character or script’s largest arc, i.e. its main purpose is not clearly conveyed, then the reader stumbles through the script without truly understanding what is going on.

With screenplays that are science fiction or fantasy related the writer has a slightly more difficult task. However, because the world that the writer has created is from their own imagination, it is up to them to express the goal of the characters that may or may not have human powers, may have other world powers and may not act like regular human beings. It is an added responsibility to introduce their world carefully and concisely so we can understand how they exist in that world. With this there must be a clear consistency in what the characters can and cannot do and what we can expect from them.

Character development is a huge part of any script. It is important that characters go through several arcs and engage and resolve conflicts so that we can see how they grow, handle events and have relationships. Each of these arcs, though they may not be from human life or clear to the normal readers eye, has to make sense and they have to be clearly explained by the writer. All of these arcs have to eventually culminate in the characters having learned something, changed for the worse or better and in turn affected other characters in a way, usually emotionally.

Many times, writers who write sci-fi or fantasy write as if they are starting in the middle of a sentence. Just because a world has been created that is not the norm, doesn’t mean that it cannot make sense or have order. In fact, as mentioned, there is an added pressure for the writer to explain the order of this new world to the reader and continue to do that as the characters, if they act differently than human beings, deal with various events that come their way.

Every script must have a theme, which is usually tied to something emotional. Characters need emotional connections that readers can actually feel on the page. It’s not enough to say a character feels a certain way; it must be shown through action, dialogue and exposition. Scenes must be created that have depth and that have purpose towards the three-dimensional growth of the character. If a character does not have emotional growth there must be a reason why. All of this is to say that dialogue has to be clear and it has to help the story be told and not just be there for the sake of it. Some dialogue can be used as substance to help create the character but mostly, after the initial introduction, whatever the character says has to have purpose towards the scripts largest arc – i.e. the plot of larger story being told. Everything else is a small story that contributes to the larger one and through those interludes and actions we then have the script in front of us.

Themes, especially in stories that have bigger ideas like fantasy or sci-fi are extra instrumental to the emotional depth of the script and to the characters development. In every script something is accomplished and a moral must be learned or a lesson given. It can be small or large but it has to be there. As mentioned, this is often an emotional way into the script. With fantasy scripts the theme needs to be even bigger because we are dealing with subjects and characters that do not do things the way humans do in places that don’t act like Earth or places we’re familiar with. Therefore, the theme has to be extra strong in order for us to relate. An example of this is the film ET, where, though the kids had never seen an alien before and didn’t know how to communicate with him at first, the universal theme of needing to go home to his people and be with his family was prevalent. It didn’t matter if this was an alien, the theme was universal and it worked like a charm.

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