Writing a screenplay about someone's life, whether a famous person, or someone special to you can be one of the most rewarding experiences a writer can have. If you have always wanted to write a biopic, here's a fast and easy way to get started:
First, find your subject then make sure the subject's life is legally available to you. I recommend that you consult with an entertainment attorney before you begin unless you are writing about your own life.
Identify which part of the subject's life you want to write about and why. If you are writing about an athlete with a world record, you may want to write about the events that led up to the moment of winning; if it's a tormented celebrity, the events that led up to their tragic death or biggest success. Follow the steps below to get your biopic in shape.
1. Write a synopsis
Write down all the events you wish to cover in the screenplay. The synopsis should be long and messy - you must tell the story as you see it before you can turn it into a good screenplay. The goal is NOT TO CENSOR yourself yet. Simply end a paragraph when you finish describing one event and begin a new one. I tell my students that there's an old Chinese proverb that says, "If you would compress, first you must expand." Your synopsis, if done properly, will have way more than can fit into a screenplay.
2. Read it aloud
Once you have written a synopsis that tells the whole story, my advice is to read it aloud to a sympathetic listener or to yourself. It's amazing how when you read your work aloud, it's easy to hear every mistake. Do this several times until you are satisfied with the story. Don't worry about it fitting into a screenplay form just yet.
By accepting that our natural style is often broader than the slim format of movies, we get to have it all: to tell our story just as we would like it, and then decide what we want to present to an audience.
3. Create an outline for your story as a film
The next step is to structure the film. Here is where you must compress. Take your synopsis and try to mold the person's life into a 3-act structure. (Movie Outline software is an ideal tool for this) being aware that it can't fit perfectly -- because life is messy! In my writing system, we use The Mythic Journey Map, a narrative technique that defines 12 clear plot steps for feature length films. The key is to get as much of the story as you can to fit into the 3-act film structure. I teach my students to look at the 3-act structure In this way: Act I sets up the main character's dream, Act II is the unfolding of the main character's nightmare and Act III is the resolution of the dream from Act I. For example, in Witness, Act I is about catching the killer, Act II is about being unable to catch the killer, and Act III is about how the villain is caught.
The key to a strong outline is that by assuming that the climactic event you have chosen will be the climax of Act III, or the resolution of the dream, you can reverse engineer Act 1, the dream, and imply Act II, the nightmare. Once you have created your outline, read it aloud several times and make sure you are satisfied. Now you are ready to write the first draft of your biopic.