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The Seven Steps to a Successful Screenplay (cinematography lesson)

Step One – Ideas

Ideas are the bricks and timber of a screenplay. An astute writer will carefully create a stockpile of ideas, and organize them in a way that will make retrieval easy. We are each different, and ideas come to us in different ways. Some excellent idea generation techniques are discussed in Chapter 15.
Idea storage is an important consideration. Like any organization system, retrieval is the key. Just because you have every Welsh newspaper published since 1933 doesn’t mean you have anything of value. It is only of value if you can effortlessly retrieve the newspapers published exactly one week before JFK’s assassination, if that is the story you are working on. That has value.
This is how you store ideas -you must always jot them down. To carry an idea around in your head is dangerous and unhealthy. Dangerous because you may lose it. Unhealthy, because an idea in your head will create stress that will lead to a cancerous feeling that will gnaw away at your self-confidence. An idea in your head is merely a thought. Once it is written down and stored properly, it can be retrieved at will, reassessed, juxtaposed with other ideas, and developed.
I recommend jotting the idea down on a recipe card, or on a page in a small, pocket-sized notebook. You should attempt to write the idea down in as few words as possible – three to eight words. The words should be just enough to jolt you back to the state you were in when you thought of the idea. You will then enter the mental state you were in when you thought of it – playful, sad, happy or whatever. At this later moment, you will be able to work on the idea further.
Once you have decided on a specific idea that you would like to develop for a film, then the ideas might be collated as to where they might fit in the movie. Of course, the beauty of this approach is when you have a handful of ideas, stored on index cards, you can stand the cards up on a table, flip them down one after the other, and see your entire movie from beginning to end. It is also dead simple to reorder/edit the scenes.
Hint, don’t be afraid of bad ideas. Ideas come in many forms – both good and bad. Try to be open to all of your ideas. Go with the flow.

Step Two – The basic premise

Create the basic premise. For full details see Chapter 2. Ideas are the bricks and timber, the building materials of a screenplay. Your next step is to create an architect’s sketch of what the finished building/screenplay will look like. This is an idea boiled down into a few lines. This will become your road map, to which you constantly refer, to make sure you are on course.
Write them here:

Hint: The paragraph should read as – This story is about [describe, do not name] the hero, who [what they want more than anything else in the world] but [allude to the main obstacle] and [tease us with the ending].

Step Three – Characters

So far you have a big pile of building materials (ideas) and a road map. But undertaking a huge project on your own is daunting. Characters are the people who will help you.
But you need to get to know each of the characters helping you as if you were working on a long construction project. After all, you are going to get tired together, some of you may get injured, or damaged emotionally. Some of your team of characters may try to bully, or cheat. You need to understand each character as intimately as if they were living in real life.
Get going on character research. Write those character essays. See if you can combine traits from one character with traits to create a fascinating and compelling character for the screen.
Character Name
Use more space if required

When you have finished the character essays, give yourself this quiz. You should be able to answer the following questions in one minute.

1. How old is your character?

2. Where were they born?

3. Where did they go to school?

4. What grades did they get?

5. What does their father do?

6. Who is their closest friend?

7. Which is their favourite TV programme?

8. If they were a magazine, which title would they be?

9. What would they wear to go out to the theatre?

10. What is their favourite music?

11. If they were to buy their lover a spontaneous gift, it would be

You should know the characters in your movie so well that you can answer these questions immediately. If you take longer than sixty seconds to answer these questions, it would probably indicate that you do not know your characters well enough.
Go back to your character essays and write some more! The writing part is fun, because it is in this stage that you are meeting new people.
Here are the first few lines of my ten-page character essay:
Larry Raine is tired of hearing everybody saying What a loser every time he steps out of his office. Out of money, but not out of his dream, Larry is determined to get his movie ‘The Big One’ made.

The plan

This section may look deceptively simple. And it isn’t simple at all. If you figure this section out, you are pretty much finished. I have devised a few questions, which I hope will make your journey easier. Only use my ideas if they help. Remember the instinctive storyteller inside you.
What is your hero’s goal?

Hint: A goal is something that we can see when the hero achieves it, or fails to achieve it. A goal must be specific.
How does your hero plan to achieve the goal?

Hint: A plan is not a goal. The plan is the method by which your hero believes he or she will achieve the goal.

Who opposes the plan?

How does your hero protect himself or herself?

How does the opponent counter the hero’s plan?

How does your hero protect himself or herself?

How does the opponent counter the hero’s plan?

The plan is the set of guidelines the hero uses to overcome the opponent and win the goal. Since the opponent is the main obstacle to the hero’s goal, we also need to see what the opponent’s plan is.
Next, try to list the reaction and action between the hero and opponent as each character tries to achieve their goal.
Hero’s Plan -> is opposed by Opponent’s Plan

Use more space if necessary.

Step Four – Scene outline (structure)

Structure is the way your hero’s plan unfolds. It is an organic process, and not one that fits easily into the traditional three-act story paradigm. You may find it helpful to use the nine-point paradigm I outlined on page 37.
Only use a paradigm if you find it helpful.
Some writers use index cards and write their ideas for each scene on a card. Others elaborate this by using a variety of colour-coded cards – blue for the opening (and emotionally less tense) through yellow and pink for the emotionally charged climax. If you are writing on a script program like Final Draft, it will allow you to write the scenes on a computer, and then print them out as index cards, which you can then use to make notes, rearrange the order etc.
Remember that you do not write dialogue at this point! If you think of a line of dialogue, write it on the back of the card so you can come back to it later. Try to keep your initial thoughts to a few words. Later, when you start writing the scene, you will find these words jog you back to the moment when you first thought of the scene.
Another advantage of writing cards is the ease that you can reshuffle scenes.

Step Five – Scene writing

Use a scene analysis sheet to plan each scene.
Scene no: .
Previous endpoint
Cast members in scene
Point of scene
Goal of main character
Write the scene, what happens, without dialogue

Use more space if necessary

Step Six – Dialogue

Write the three tracks of dialogue – story, moral argument, and keywords. Then balance them. Do a table reading and rewrite.
When you have got your screenplay as good as you can, you are ready to market your script. But before you do that, who is going to try to rip you off, and how can you prevent it?

Step Seven – Troubleshooting

Chapter 17 is a useful troubleshooting guide, which may assist you in analysing your script. When you look at this guide, try to see if anything leaps out as a possible problem with your script.
Most difficulties in the script can be found in the first few pages. If the movie starts at the right place, it usually flows from there.
To get the right start, go to the ending. How do you want your movie to end? Did she really die? Did he kill him?
They robbed the bank and got away? Pick your ending, then go to the beginning. Then have a dose look at Chapter 17.
This is also the day that you should start writing your next screenplay.


1. Know your basic premise inside out.
2. Know your characters inside out.
3. Play and replay your movie at card stage, before you start writing. When you have your scenes and scene order completely firm, write the screenplay.

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