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Scriptwriting For Beginners: Learning The Basics Of Screenwriting

By Danek S. Kaus

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1. How To Begin A Screenplay

The first few pages of your screenplay are critical. Most execs, or Readers (people who want to become execs) will only give you about 10 pages to get them interested. That is why your screenplay must have a great beginning.

Here are some of the best, time-tested screenwriting techniques to begin your story.

ACTION, ACTION, ACTION - All of the James Bond movies start with action, which might or might not be related to the main plot.

A police detective tries to arrest a pair of drug dealers. A gunfight erupts. One drug dealer is killed, the other drives off. The detective chases him in his own car, driving fast, dodging obstacles and shooting his gun. You get the picture.

A REAL BEGINNING

The hero or heroine arrives at the airport or train station in a new town. They begin their first day of work at a new company. A creepy person moves in next door. The protagonist meets someone who will be very influential - a love interest, mentor or nemesis.

A DAY IN THE LIFE

Show us the hero or heroine going about their normal routine. A single mother makes breakfast before sending the kids off to school and then going to work.

A lawyer might argue a case before a jury.

A doctor in an emergency room saves the life of a traffic accident victim. But the main plot may be about stopping a deadly epidemic. You might then choose to begin with that same doctor treating someone who has a strange, unknown disease that turns out to be related to the epidemic.

An inner-city teacher helps a disadvantaged child to learn how to read. Then we discover that she will fight an uncaring bureaucracy that wants to shut down a youth center to put in a shopping center. Or we may learn that her marriage might break up because she has given birth to a learning-disabled child.

The trick to making this opening work is not to let it get boring. Quickly give us a reason to root for the main character. Perhaps show them as an underdog in some way or introduce some conflict in their life. It can be related to the main story or not, but quickly give the reader a reason to care.

These are a few of the screenwriting techniques to get your movie off to a great start. Consider using them when you begin your next screenplay or perhaps do a rewrite on an existing one to give it a better beginning.

2. The Critical Elements of the First Act

The great writer and director Billy Wilder offers this piece of advice on screenwriting and movie making: “Grab ‘em by the throat and never let go.”

This is what your first act, indeed, your first few pages must accomplish. The first act has several functions. It establishes who your main characters are, the setting, the time period, the theme, mood and the genre. It is in this act that we meet the protagonist and the antagonist.

In some movies we may not meet the antagonist directly, but we are at least introduced to them, with hints at an ultimate revelation, such as is often the case in mysteries. Although we may not see them yet, we are made well aware of their presence and the negative, sometimes devastating impact they will have on other characters in the story.

The first act establishes the premise of the story: a cynical saloon owner is shocked to see the woman he loves walk back into his life during World War II: Casablanca. A huge shark menaces a beach community at the opening of the summer tourist season: Jaws. A young fighter pilot must rescue a kidnapped princess and destroy an evil empire: Star Wars.

The first act must really grab the Hollywood Reader by the throat within 10 pages or they will stop reading and move on to the next script in their pile.

The first act of a screenplay is usually longer than 10 pages, but that is all the time and space you have to convince someone to keep reading.

The majority of screenwriting teachers believe that the first act should be about one-fourth of the screenplay. But many first acts are much shorter. All first acts end with the inciting incident, which is an event that happens that either encourages or forces the protagonist to take his or her path in a new direction.

The first act, coupled with the inciting incident, establishes the central question of the story: what does your protagonist want to do, be or have and what or who stands in their way?

3. Use Archetypes For Compelling Stories

In your screenwriting efforts, be sure to make use of Archetypes. They are not to be confused with stereotypes, which are one-dimensional characters we've seen in too many movies.

Archetypes represent elements of our personalities on a deep level -- the mother, father, artist, teacher, king, etc. They've appeared in countless stories for thousands of years. They reach us on a subconscious level, which is perhaps why they have endured and still have the power to touch our emotions.

The archetype can be the skeleton upon which you build a fully-fleshed three dimensional character. Some of the common archetypes in movies and literature are: the mentor, the villain, the shape-changer, the fool, the wise old man or woman and the hero, to name a few.

Avoid the temptation to turn an archetype into a stereotype by giving them only one, very obvious, characteristic. For example, the mentor is often portrayed as a wiser, older person, such as Gandolf, in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

But a mentor archetype can also be an older sibling who teaches a brother or sister how to tie their shoes, a boss on the job, a superior officer in the police department or military, a young boy on a tropical island who teaches the newcomer where to find the best fruit trees in the jungle or the customs of his people, and so on.

You can make your archetypal character richer by mixing personality traits that can seem contrary to their main role in your story or the society they live in. Shakespeare often used a Fool character for social or historical commentary, making them wiser, on that level, than the characters who believe themselves smarter than the Fool.

The Wise Old Man or Woman archetype could have a great sense of humor and tell bawdy jokes. Perhaps he or she could be a practical joker, dispensing sage advice with some exploding cigars.

For even greater depth and increased options in telling your story, you could mix and match archetypes. One of the archetypes described by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces is the Herald, who brings news or information that the Hero needs.

The Herald might also offer portents of things to come. What if you mixed the Herald with a joke telling Fool? How might that affect your story? Would it make the Hero discount the information? Or still act on it, but with wariness?

The choices you make are up to you. Use Archetypes wisely and they will enrich your screenwriting.

4. Avoid These Novice Mistakes

Screenwriting is vastly different from writing a novel or true-story book. It is a different medium and needs to be treated as such. It is a difficult form that even few authors are able to master.

With this in mind, here are a few of common mistakes of new screenwriters:

STARTING TOO LATE

Novels can and often do begin at a leisurely pace, with scene descriptions, character backgrounds, etc, but because screenplays generally run a maximum of 120 pages, much of it white space -- a screenplay has to get moving sooner.

UNNECESSARY DESCRIPTION

Screenplay description is minimalist, just enough to tell the reader where we are and a general tone of the place. Leave the rest up to the director and/or art director.

STATING THE OBVIOUS

One tendency of novice screenwriters is to have characters tell us what we just witnessed on the screen. For example, if we are watching a track meet and John crosses the finish line first, it is unnecessary and boring to have a character say "John won the race."

FORMAT

Screenplays follow a strict format. The first thing a producer or Hollywood Reader (whose job it is to read scripts for their bosses) does is check the format. If it's wrong, even a little, they throw away the script without further attention.

LENGTH

Feature Film scripts are usually 90 - 120 pages, though close to 100 is usually preferred. The reason is that one page of a screenplay is considered to translate into one minute of screen time. Industry execs will generally not read a script that is of improper length.

TOO MUCH DIALOGUE

One big newbie mistake is to write page after page of dialogue. Movies are primarily a visual medium. There should be a good balance of dialogue and physical action, favoring action. Action does not necessarily mean gun fights and car chases. It means the characters are doing something.

 

About Danek S. Kaus

Danek S. Kaus is a produced writer of an award-winning feature. He has two films in development and three more of his screenplays have been optioned. Recently, he has been hired by authors to adapt their books for the big screen. He is also the National Screenwriting Examiner for Examiner.com.  Visit his website for more information or email him at dkaus@sbcglobal.net.

Screenwriting Article by Danek S. Kaus

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