Lights, Camera, Distraction: An introduction to screenwriting
Lights, Camera, Distraction
An introduction to screenwriting
Gaz J Johnson
PhD Researcher & Lecturer, Media & Communications, Nottingham Trent University
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Introduce concepts of the screenwriting process
Consider the importance of clean concepts and
Examine the cinematic narrative structure
Explore the importance of characterisation, plot and
Experiment with the form
7 Ways A Screenplay isn’t a Novel
1. Format and layout
2. Dialogue really REALLY matters
3. White space
4. Enter late and leave early
6. Audience, audience, audience
7. Turning points are always right where you expect them to be…
The golden rule - Show. Don’t tell.
Words and pictures – only write what appears on screen
Narrative exposition a common flaw
Films ideally should have one core concept
Don’t write a film you wouldn’t want to see
A burning passion is better than a lukewarm idea
Concept encapsulated in 25 words or less
Used to pitch to studios, The Money, The Man with the Plan etc
Exercise 1: Concept to Pitch
Generate your story ideas (3-4)
Recycle a short story idea or adapt something longer
Or something fresh
Consider the audience – who is this movie for?
Distil them down to a 25 word pitch
As small groups pitch your ideas
Agree on one to develop further
Layout & Format
FADE IN: / FADE OUT:
Top and tail a script, opening and closing your narrative
Also CUT TO, DISSOLVE TO, FADE TO BLACK between scenes
INT/EXT. LOCATION – DAY/NIGHT
The scene/setting - Inside or outside, location, time of day
Key objects, sounds or actions should be capitalised (e.g. a LOUD KNOCKING at the door)
Character names CAPITALISED as well first time they appear
Brief character bios can be included
The dialogue speaker’s name
(CONT’D) indicates new dialogue by same speaker after action
A note to the actor, for a pause, a beat, an emphasis
And So It Begins
The opening 10
The hook(s) - opening line and establishing shot
Script readers only read ten pages
Setting up your store
Establish tone, pace, setting and milieu
Show the audience what they’re in for
Establish the protagonist(s) and their world
The Inciting Incident
The protagonist’s journey begins…
The Shawshank Redemption
Act I (32 mins)
The hook: Andy’s Wife is killed by…?
Instigating incident: Andy in court – goes to prison
Key plot point – asks Red for a rock hammer
Act II (~80 mins)
Andy and Red develop a friendship
Obstacles: Andy and The Sisters, failure to be paroled, crushing futility of prison life
Andy gains the trust of the warden and the prisoners
Midpoint: Warden shoots the man who could prove Andy’s innocence
Key plot point: Andy escapes
The Shawshank Redemption
Act III (~30 mins)
Andy’s escape is discovered
Red is released into the real world
The Warden and corrupt chief guard are punished
Key plot point: Red finds Andy’s box under the tree
Red finds Andy in Mexico
Fearsome Plot Engines
Grand narrative can be driven forward in different ways
Character led -> their decisions shapes the narrative
Event led -> circumstances force the characters to respond
Conflict is the essence of drama
Individual against Individual (external)
Individual against the environment (external)
Individual against the self (internal)
Outer conflicts personalised as character relationships
Inner conflicts externalised in physical manifestations
Or through subtle signals to the audience
Plotting a Narrative
Events in chronological order
Script can rearrange these to suit the narrative
Visual thumbnails of actions and events
Commonly used for the shooting script
Spider-diagram of events, impact and consequence
WHERE is it?
WHO is there?
WHAT is going to happen?
WHY does it matter?
OUTCOME of the events?
PROPS/SFX needed (if any)?
EXT LIQUOR STORE- Night
A liquor store in downtown Detroit at the dead
A jittery sales clerk, and scruffy armed thug.
And thence the protagonist enters
Thug intends to rob, and will be stopped by
Demonstrates the superior power of the
protagonist, and the weakness of the
“common criminal” against him. Establishes
them as a “hero”
One (very) dead thug, about 10 shot gun
shells, a whole lot of smashed groceries
A whole lot of things that go BANG!
Exercise 2: Plotting
Draft out your plot
Storyboard, timeline etc
Include the main scenes
Remember to include
Key plot points and climaxes
Obstacles and character growth
Think about shoot practicalities
Think of locations, situations and actors
Think about narrative arcs
Character + Obstacle => Growth + Narrative progression
Character and structure are symbiotic
Story and Character Arcs
Protagonist/antagonist’s journey from and to equilibrium
Changes they experience and embody
Turning points & especially the point of no return
Motivation and goals are key
What do they want and what drives them?
Why should they meet and overcome the obstacle(s)?
Text and subtext – never say what a character is thinking/feeling
Ensure each character has a unique tone
Small well defined cast more powerful than assemblage of cyphers
Mannerisms, catchphrases, attitudes and thumbnail backstory
Can include in scene descriptions briefly
Provides the actors with guidance on how to inhabit the role
2o and 3o characters
Do not need to be as well drawn as primaries
Enough characterisation to avoid being ciphers
Location as character
JOE is a dishevelled pudgy 35 going on 50, and could easily pass for one of the
homeless if only he smartened up a little. He’s lived and worked his whole adult
life on the streets of New York and it’s left him bitter, cynical and world weary.
He greets each morning with a snarl, hacking cough and 1,000 yard stare. One
of these mornings he’s going to hand in his badge, climb in his beaten up old
Corvette and head west. Today, might just be that day.
MARI-ANN is the girl you’d take home to your parents, if only you could get her
to sit still long enough. 21 years young, she’s just the kinda girl who just exudes
self-confidence, making even a thrown-together ensemble look chic. A ball of
constantly distracted energy, she’s the one who makes every head turn as she
flicks back her long blonde hair and giggles. It’s only when she’s alone that she
dares to let the façade slip away.
Exercise 3: Character Sketches
Create a biographical sketch of your lead character
Try and consider
Who are they?
What do they want?
What is their lifeworld?
How will they become involved in the plot?
What will change for them?
What are 3 key character traits?
Give voice to your characters
Authenticity comes from understanding
Roleplay how they would respond to a situation
Most dialogue is between two actors
More voices harder to script, harder to differentiate
Dialogue should set the tone and define expectations
Interplay is important
Conversation is about turn taking, dialogue is about the narrative
Interruptions, over-speaking and action all play a part
Opening (hook) and closing (punch) lines count
Catchphrases or repeated lines as leitmotifs
Less is more
Brevity and punch give effective dynamism (e.g. Aaron Sorkin)
Question and answer interplay
Make use of silences & pauses (C’Era Una Volta Il West)
Different film milieus use different tonal structures
e.g. thriller, comedy, romance, psychodrama etc
Clever scripts subvert these expectations
Movement brings an additional dimension to scripts
Silences can be powerful storytelling tools
Montages can build up a narrative picture
NVC - all actions, no words can tell an entire story in mime
SFX and music
Define music where a piece is essential
Important sounds in CAPS
Don’t dictate to the Director
Avoid camera angles and instructions unless essential
But be descriptive (e.g. “struts” is not the same as “walks”)
Editing and Polishing
Read your script aloud
Use the characters’ inflections and tones
What looks good on paper…might not sound right
Perform it for a critical friend
Writing is rewriting
Structure and plot
Visuals and dialogue
Emotion and style
Exercise 4: Beginnings and Ends
Putting it all together
Draft the opening page of the script (1 page/min)
Include scene descriptions, character bios and dialogue as appropriate
Remember the hook!
If you can…script the final (punch) lines dialogue in your film
Then be ready to:
Share your (winning) movie pitch
The lead character’s bio
A brief overview of plot
Download and read a few scripts for style, layout, tone and approach
Watch a movie and follow along with the script
Go audience watching!
Show. Don’t tell.
Character and structure
Hook and punch
A particular slide catching your eye?
Clipping is a handy way to collect important slides you want to go back to later.