How do I write something akin to my favorite movie screenplay?

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Answered by: Damian, An Expert in the Movies Category
How do I write a favorite movie screenplay or how do I write a script as good as some of my favorite movies not an easy question to answer. A movie screenplay is a unique art form and like any medium it takes time and dedication to master. Many people, myself once included, believe writing emails -- even witty and erudite ones -- coupled with a love of movies is enough justification to embark upon what is at times an arduous odyssey, a quest for screenplay Oscar gold. Often a movie lover will tackle the screenplay writing challenge and get thirty pages in only to be utterly stumped. Their level of how a movie works, which can be often quite high, has run into their level of screenplay writing craft, which is often almost always low. Even so-called 'overnight sensation' Quentin Tarantino tells of how he wrote a screenplay for his mother on her birthday when he was aged 15! But still he struggled for decades before his level of screenplay craftsmanship caught up with his profound movie knowledge.



Most would-be screenplay writers are intimidated by the blank page. Indeed, one of my favorite definitions of art is 'Creating something from nothing and selling it' but I want you to know that the blank page is dangerous. DO NOT LOOK AT IT. "Stay away from the light" as the funny medium in 'Poltergeist' exhorts. And I say this because you have more to start your screenplay with than the starkness of that blank page screams. Even if it's just a dopey movie title your mom came up with like "How Frankenstein Fell In Love" you can cut and paste that like Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining' and hey presto your blank page no longer resembles meaningless oblivion. Okay so now all it says is your title repeatedly but at least youve gone from nothing to gibberish. But what you should really do if you seriously want to know how to write a movie screenplay is to follow some time honored steps that generally work well. I say 'generally' because my old history teacher used to say "All generalizations are false including this one." But I can tell you this: every screenplay that becomes a movie starts not with the screenplay's blank page but with the screenplay's author having an idea and thinking that idea through in such depth that he souldn't even turn on the computer until he is certain that the idea in his head is in fact a viable movie screenplay idea. Start by writing down your fifty or one hundred fave movies (read as many of the movie's screenplays as you can!) and try to describe them in one sentence. 'Cheat' by going to imdb.com or the book Halliwell's Movie Guide and copy and paste the 'one-liners' (as the sentence that describes a movie is known as in Hollywood) alongside the film, so THE FUGITIVE should say next to it something like "A doctor, unjustly accused of killing his wife, must find the real one-armed killer while avoiding a dogged US Marshal." Keep going with all your movies. You'll find the best movies, the ones that work, can be boiled down to one sentence. Next, try scrutinizing your favorite movies' titles; you'll notice how the movie's title often says the story! From 'The Fugitive' to 'Wedding Crashers' movies are essentially a simple, deicate thing, not completely unlike a poem. A movie is only an hour and a half, maybe two hours... not an enternity... A novel they say lasts typically eight hours to read. And a screenplay's length averages 120 pages (how they calculate it in Hollywood is roughly one page of a screenplay equates to one minute of movie time, a loose but entrenched tradition) and then there's Warner Bros.' unique screenplay format which intentionally limits the amount of words you can use... a 120 page screenplay on normal format is more like 150 pps for WB. The mentality goes that this is a cost-cutting method. But interestingly enough, Alfred Hitchcock, the man of whom Brian de Palma said "Anything that has been done in movies was done by Hitchcock first," was known for spending a lot of devotion to the screenplay development process. It is said he retained control of his 'cut' because he would only include in the official screenplay scenes he was 100% confident he would shoot. So there was no excess in what he shot, which meant the studios or financiers of his movies couldn't add or subtract much of what he filmed, becuase he didn't shoot what he believed to be superfluous. The same mentality goes for screenwriting. 120 pages is short (even though it may seem long at first) and most movies have a finite number of scenes, say anywhere from 40-60 scenes. So if you think you have a bona fida movie idea, that is to say, if it has all the ingredients of what you believe goes into a succesful movie, it is a visual narrative that can build slowly but excitingly over 120 pages and when perfected will be a screenplay crying out to be filmed then you are ready to fire up the laptop and proceed to the OUTLINE stage of your screenplay.

My favorite movie screenplay is possibly 'Network'. Which is yours?



But back to how to ...

Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Your screenplay idea should have that so there you have three scenes already! Now the question is, 'How do I flesh this title and three scenes out into a movie story?' You'll need to think about how what might happen in between the start and the middle and about how what might occur between the middle and your exciting ending. Even if it is just a couple of 'movie-like' moments don't hesitate to jot them down! You will need to populate your screenplay with characters. Most movies work well when there is a single hero or anti-hero, a protagonist who can act as a surrogate audience member, a guide for us through the maze of your movie story. Look at all your favorite movie heroes. They usually have a problem to deal with. More than one. And the best problems for movies are problems between people and within people. Ideally, your screenplay hero or heroine will have both an internal problem to wrestle with (commitment say) and at least one 'external' problem (like unrequited love). As soon as you imagine your hero and who he might be having problems with and how he might be going about solving them (wrongly at first?) you are well onto your way to imagining the scenes you'll need to tell your movie's story, the building blocks that will take you from beginning to middle to end, with lots of exciting twists and turns along the way. When you have written down a certain number of scenes, even just a dozen so, you will have a document and can get yourself fired up by cutting and pasting your rough outline into a movie screenplay writing software like Final Draft and begin organizing your scenes with the provided automatic scene headings of INT or EXT and where the scene takes place and whether or not it is DAY or NIGHT. Even typing the title page and draft date and FADE IN can be encouragng and often exciting! Once you have a handful of character names you can start putting some lines into their mouths and really start expanding your scenes. Each scene needs to be carefully structured with, ideally, a begining, middle and end itself. Remember the maxim "Enter late and leave early" which means start the scene at the most exciting, drama-filled moment imaginable and end it so your audience (or before your screenplay is a movie, your 'reader') is dying to get to the next scene. You have to get a stranger to want to turn the page and read your script as much as you do. That is what it is all about. Fade out. Hope that helps answer the question of 'How do I write a movie screenplay?'

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