What makes a great film? An amazing story with great characters? Powerful acting which moves you to the point of feeling the same emotions as those portrayed up on screen? Direction so expertly implemented that you actually forgot you were sitting in a theater among strangers? The right answer is all of the above. Yet none would be possible without the core element of the screenplay.
So what are the fundamentals of screenwriting? Before we begin to explore such, let us observe the fact that screenwriting is not only a craft, but an art as well. And as with any form of art, it is subjective. Many so-called gurus, for example, would have you believe that telling your story in voice-over is not only wrong, but a sign of weak writing in general. And yet some of the most beloved films of all time are heavy in voice-over, including Academy Award winners Amadeus and Forrest Gump. The truth of the matter is,for every so-called rule in screenwriting, there are countless examples of successful screenplays that have broken such rules. So how do we distinguish useful knowledge from scribe scrap? There are a few commonalities which can be found in the works of most great screenwriters.
Not to be mistaken by commandments written in stone, but rather as helpful guidelines which can serve as the fundamentals of screenwriting.
We watch films as they are happening. Therefore, screenplays are written in present-tense. Unlike the style of writing we have been conditioned with since grade school, screenwriting is far more concise, while only using description and dialogue to tell stories.
There's an old adage when it comes to writing motion pictures. Show it, don't tell it. This underlines the fact that audiences are viewers, not readers. Rarely does a character say, "I'm going to use my superb ninja skills to kill every last one of you". He just does it. That is unless he's a cliche action star spreading cheesy lines while taking out a whole army of bad guys! The bottom line is, there should be more description than dialogue. And it would be ideal if that description were no longer than four or five lines at a time. Remember, it's all about saying a lot with a little.
Another thing to keep in mind when writing description. Writers write. Directors direct. Those in the industry are real sticklers when it comes to the specific duties of each individual. The last thing a director wants is to pick up a script and find that the description is telling him how to do his job. And the same rings true for acting. An actor doesn't want to be told how to act. They want to give just the right performance, based on their interpretation of the script. So it really has to do with being clever on the writer's part. A great script will lead each of the key players to believe they are bringing something miraculous to the film, when in reality it was on the page from the beginning.
Being the screenwriter, you are the first person in the world to see the film as it plays out in your head. Therefore at this stage, you are also the actors, director, editor, etc. You just have to be skillful and not so blatant when writing it down. The best example is an actual example, so let's look at a line from a scene heavy in direction, followed by the same scene, only written in more subtle terms.
EXT. PRAIRIE - DAY
Atop his horse, Lyle is in perfect harmony with the animal as they charge toward camera and beyond while we simultaneously crane up to an extreme wide shot.
EXT. PRAIRIE - DAY
Atop his horse, Lyle is at one with the majestic stallion as they tear through the wide-open prairie.
Not only did we say more with less, but we conveyed the right shot to the director by using just the right words to help him envision such. 'At one with the majestic stallion'. We obviously need to be in close enough to see this. 'Tear through the wide-open prairie'. The wide shot is a no-brainer!
Dialogue is similar when it comes to fundamentals. Say more by not saying too much.
As far as characterization, the most important thing to keep in mind is that a great screenplay has characters who are uniquely different from one another. Being the writer, this means you need to tap into multiple personalities. How each walks, talks, acts. The traits which make each of them so interesting to watch!
From all the elements of screenwriting, basic structure is probably the simplest to grasp. Again, this is thanks to what we have learned from the all-time greats. Read or watch just about any of them and you will discover that within each there are five main plot points, which can be mapped out accordingly...
10 minutes or so into a film - Something happens within the main character's life that starts the journey we are all about to go on. (Example: Jack wins a pair of tickets to set sail on TITANIC).
30 minutes or so into the film - Having established circumstance and character, we now hit the point of full-throttle as we are propelled forward by an integral scene. (Example: RUDY finds himself closer than ever to fulfilling his dream when he makes the football team of Notre Dame's Fighting Irish).
60 minutes or so into the film - We hit a point of no return. A defining moment which fully-commits the protagonist. (As a GHOST, Sam discovers that his best friend is responsible for his murder, with the threat of danger also looming for his beloved Molly).
90 minutes or so into the film - Right on the heels of the climax, the lowest point of the story takes place. It's the worst case scenario for our main character, appearing all hope has been lost in achieving the overall goal. (Example: Physically unable to do anything, Chuck the CASTAWAY loses his best friend Wilson as he drifts towards death).
Minutes later, the build up of our journey erupts into the colossal climax we've all been waiting for! (Andy finally frees himself from SHAWSHANK).
Loose ends are now tied up as we head for FADE OUT.
So there you have it. The fundamentals of screenwriting. And you didn't even have to go to film school! But before you can call yourself a true screenwriting Jedi, you must train with some of the great masters who have come before you. In other words, read the screenplays of your favorite films, while paying attention to the fundamentals. And just as importantly, whether it be with the stroke of a pen or the stroke of a key, WRITE! EVERY DAY!