Writing for a film requires a different approach to the writing process than writing a novel. Because a screenplay is a uniquely formatted document that’s designed to visually describe the scenes that will be filmed for a movie, it could be compared to a combination between a blueprint and a prose narrative.
Writing a screenplay can be fun when you first start and write the first scene, but after a few pages in, the frustration of trying to figure out where the story should go next can begin to drain your motivation.
Screenplays often trip writers up somewhere in the middle, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
The Unique Nature of a Screenplay
Ultimately, a screenplay tells a story that is intended to be filmed. It’s a way of communicating a story, but it isn’t the story itself. In other words, a screenplay contains the story, but the story could be communicated through a different medium. You could write the scenes of the story out as a novel or split them up into a series of blog posts.
Whenever I have a new story I want to write, I know the story itself could be shaped into a novel, short story, or screenplay. Depending on the story I’m trying to tell, I have to decide which medium will fit the story best.
The blueprint nature of a screenplay isn’t very conducive to designing a story. Each scene requires you to think about location, description, character names, dialogue, and parentheticals. It’s a visual medium, and a you’re constantly thinking about what the scene will look like on the big screen.
All this focus on the formatting elements of a screenplay and the visual nature of it all can slow you down in the process of creating a story. Your brain’s storytelling engine may come up with ideas faster than you can churn them out while writing a screenplay.
The Story Takes Precedence
The story takes precedence over everything else. If the story isn’t good, the screenplay isn’t going to make it better.
If a screenplay is a way to communicate a story visually, then you want to have a complete story already mapped out and ready to describe visually and through dialogue on paper.
Many writers dread the idea of outlining, feeling that it stifles their creativity. But as I mentioned above, the nature of a screenplay document itself has the potential to stifle your creativity if you get stuck on individual actions and lines of dialogue. Of course, some writers prefer to work that way, and it works brilliantly for them.
But if you find yourself staring at a screen, trying to come up with the next action to type out in a scene while your mind is wandering four or five scenes later into your story, mapping out your story beforehand might be the way to go.
Story ideas often begin to take shape in my mind long before I put any words to page. Since the story is king and already exists in partial form in my mind already, the best approach for me is almost always to map it out first. That way I’m not struggling over individual actions and lines of dialogue that slow my story development down.
Story Planning Methods
The actual shape of story planning depends on the preference of the writer. Some writers prefer a basic one-sentence scene-by-scene outline. One visual way to do this is to outline the content of each scene on an index card and lay the cards out in the order that they occur in the story.
Others like to work with a beat sheet that outlines the story in broad brushstrokes, covering the most important events of the story.
Still others prefer to write a treatment of the story, which is a scene-by-scene prose narrative of the story without any dialogue. Treatments take longer, but it’s by far my favorite way to write a screenplay because I get to work out the intricacies of my story before I commit it to screenplay form.
Where Story Planning Pays Off
Once you know what is going to occur in your story because you’ve already mapped it out, then the actual writing of the screenplay becomes much more fun. Instead of trying to figure out what happens next, you get to ask yourself how to best visualize the scene you’ve already planned and write it. Knowing what happens later on the story also helps you to plant clues, subtext, and foreshadowing throughout your story.
Planning your story out on the front end will go a long way in helping you to write a tight solid script.