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Film idea development

Screenplay story development

The idea is just the starting point. by now you should have some good "hook" ideas and have thought about your premise. Now you're going to turn them into an exciting story.

Let's go back to the template for idea testing I introduced in the previous section on testing the great idea.

(Your story name) is a (genre) about a (description of your hero) who, after (something big happens to them), wants to (what is the solution the hero seeks?) by (what is the hero's plan?). This become increasingly difficult because (what obstacles and complications happen?).

For example:

The Fugitive is a drama about an innocent doctor who after being wrongly sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife manages to escape and wants to clear himself by finding the real murderer. This becomes increasingly difficult because a determined police detective is hot on his trail.

Building the screenplay outline

Most beginning writers make a common mistake by starting to write their story beginning on page one and writing through to the end. About page 60 in they realize they're out of ideas or have written themselves into a corner and give up.

This straight through technique works for some novelists but novels are very free form compared to screenplays. The novelist can take the time to let the characters tell their own story. Screenplays on the other hand must fit into a rather strict form to meet the expectations of the audience.

Most experienced screenplay writers use a structured approach to writing their stories. I'll suggest an approach that was taught to me by several writers. It works for me. Try it and see if it works for you, then modify it to your needs as you gain experience.

Your first step is to get your basic story idea into the idea testing template shown above. When you've got it written out in this format, and are satisfied that it passes the test for sounding like an exciting story idea, move on to the next step.

The screenplay title

The next step is to give your new story a title. This will probably change over time but coming up with a working title is a good next step because it makes your screenplay seem a lot more real.

The title should be descriptive and not too long.

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The screenplay outline

Now you are going to write your story in the form of an outline, gradually building it into a treatment. A screenplay outline is a series of sentences that roughly describe the sequence of events that you want to happen in your story. A screenplay treatment is just the screenplay outline expanded to where there is a paragraph describing one or more scenes in the final screenplay. The outline and treatment are your work documents and are not intended to be shown to anyone else.

Spend a few minutes studying the description of the three-act story structure to understand how a story is put together. In the first act you introduce the characters and world of the story. Start a page in your word processor and list the characters and anything special about the world of the story and put them together into a rough outline of how you want the story to start. Include the basic who, what, when and where information.

In the second act the the characters experience conflict trying to achieve some goals. On the next page of your word processor document list some conflict situations you think of that your characters might experience.

In the third act the characters will come to some final confrontation that resolves the conflicts. Make up the events you think would make a satisfying conclusion to your story and add that to your word processor document.

A lot of writers like to write the ending of the story before they try to figure out the middle. The middle part of a screenplay is often the hardest part to keep interesting so start with the beginning and ending if that is easier.

By now you should have some rough notes on the basic plot of your story. Now it's time to get to know your characters.

The screenplay characters

A story's characters make the story happen so come up with some good characters. Write a brief biography of each character including a minimal physical description, age and sex is enough, then write out some interesting facts about each character including what it is that is the cause of the conflicts between them.

You might want to introduce some additional characters at this point to create your subplots. Subplots are the story elements that will weave in and out of your main story introducing additional complications and illustrate additional aspects of the screenplay premise.

The screenplay premise

Spend some more time thinking about what you are trying to say in your story. Write down what facts about the human condition you are trying to show. This can change a lot as you go along but it's good to start thinking about it from the beginning.

The genre you are working in will also effect the kinds of premises that are appropriate to present.

Continue the screenplay development

Keep thinking of additional ideas and variations of the steps of the plot. As much as possible they should be driven by the character's conflicts so think in terms of the character's interactions rather than just making up plot ideas.

Try reversing all your characters. Make the men into women and the women into men. Make the hero the villain and the villain the hero. Would this be more interesting in a different genre? Do any of these changes make the story more interesting? Use your imagination as you think of as many variations of your story as you can.

You want to include at least six to eight surprises and reversals--secrets or surprising events that change the course of the story and make the hero's conflict more profound and the goals more difficult to attain.

Gradually your story will get longer and richer.

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Pitch your story

When you feel you've got an interesting story coming together on paper read it to a friend or two. Listen and note their reactions. Listen for any good ideas they have that might make the story better.

Use this feedback to continue working your outline into a fairly well written short story. Set it aside for a few days while you work on something else, then come back to your story with fresh eyes and any additional ideas you've thought of while you away from it.

Expand the outline into a treatment

This step involves splitting your outline into 50 to 60 paragraphs that describe each of the scenes of the story. If you don't have that many scenes then you probably need to add some additional subplots or additional surprises and reversals or your story isn't going to have enough richness and complexity to be interesting for two hours.

Eventually you will have a document with a complete paragraph for each scene telling your entire story in sufficient detail to make an interesting novella all by itself. Keep working your story until you reach this point and are completely satisfied that your screenplay treatment is complete and makes for an exciting story.

Writing the screenplay

When you reach this point you are ready to go on to the next step which is writing the screenplay in the proper format.

The sequence of steps I have just described works for a lot of writers but not for all. If you are just getting started then give it a try. If it doesn't work, modify it until you find a work style that does work.

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