Step by step instruction to write a screenplay. from an idea to a finished script
PART 1: STORY CONCEPT It all starts with the idea. And every day, I task myself to come up with strong, marketable story concepts. How? The usual suspects: newspaper articles, radio news and talk shows, books, the Internet. At one point, I had 25 magazine subscriptions. Advice columns, obituaries, Weekly World News, anywhere I could think of to look for some unusual item which I could spin into a movie idea. The not so usual suspects: Halliwells Film Guide which presents 1-line story synopses of 25,000 movies. Ive gone through it at least a half-dozen times, searching its pages for interesting ideas or movies that had been made overseas, but not in the U.S.. I take an idea and genre-bend it, that is, make a drama into a comedy, or a thriller into comedy. I also do gender-bending, change the key characters from a man to a woman or vice versa. Another thing I do is read through the Yellow Pages and compile a list of jobs septic tank disposal guy, guitar builder, driving instructor hoping a character or a story will pop to life. I even generate movie titles trying to inspire a story: One of them comes to mind FUTURE KILL. I collect all this stuff and put it into files, either actual articles, which I used to put into a set of bulging manila folders or input thoughts/ideas into my computer. Before my last relocation, I threw away all the articles, but I still remember some of them. Like the obituary about the British soldier who was stuck in Germany after WWII. He felt sorry for the local civilians, who were destitute and starving. Noticing this big factory in the middle of the city, he toured it with some of the men who had worked there. They explained that during the war, the facility had been converted into a jeep production unit. But before the war, they had built cars what Hitler called the peoples car. Turns out this Brit helped to resurrect that factory and he came to be known as the Savior of the Volkswagen. The thing is I know that a majority of the ideas I generate are not worthy of being made into a movie. But that doesnt slow me down, instead it fuels my story concept process because I figure I have to come up with a lot of ideas to find some great ones. The two most important words in the story concept process are What if? I remember reading an article about screenwriter Jim Hart, who was sitting at the
10 STEPS TO WRITE A SCREENPLAY BY SCOTT MYER
breakfast table with his family, when one of his kids suddenly asked, What if Peter Pan grew up? That was the genesis of the movie Hook. I can not emphasize enough the importance of your story concept. On some types of scripts, I would guess its worth 50% of the projects value to the studio because of what it can translate into in terms of marketing the film. Conversely if you are working with a weak or marginal story concept, I dont care if you can write like Zaillian or Sorkin, chances are that script is probably not going to sell. So the first step is a big one: Come up with a great story concept. In Part 2 of this series, well look at brainstorming, a hugely important aspect of the screenwriting process. PART 2: BRAINSTORMING Once I find a story concept I think might make a good movie, I create a Word file in my computer and start brainstorming ideas into that file. I can not emphasize enough how important brainstorming is. To begin with, this is where I discover if my concept is, indeed, good enough if ideas for the plot and characters leap into my imagination, theres a pretty good chance Ive got a decent concept. Also when I brainstorm, I start to see the movie. Key scenes emerge, characters morph into being, I hear bits of dialogue. Of course, that all represents potential story stuff, but more than that, seeing these elements fuels my passion which drives me deeper into brainstorming which gives me more story stuff which gets me more excited. And so on. Finally, and most importantly, if I do enough brainstorming and the creative stars align, this is where I uncover gold, those fantastic bits of story business that appear as if from nowhere, totally unexpected, surprising ideas and beats. The key to doing it right: no prejudgment. All ideas go into the master brainstorming file. Upon further reflection, I may choose to toss them aside fine. But any image, scene, line of dialogue, action, or theme I have as I brainstorm goes into the file. I find this process frees up that special part of my consciousness so that those wondrous gold story nuggets can reveal themselves.
10 STEPS TO WRITE A SCREENPLAY BY SCOTT MYER
I spend days, even weeks brainstorming (in connection with research, our next subject). The process is a lot like wallowing in a sea of ideas, but again, this is where a majority of the story stuff emerges and, more often than not, the Plotline and sub-plots start to show themselves, too. Many aspiring screenwriters do not spend enough time brainstorming, their impatience getting the better of them. That will almost always come back to bite you in the ass. Youll either get stuck in the writing because you didnt find your story or your story will have little, if anything special about it because you didnt brainstorm enough to surface the gold. I have a whole set of prompts Ive developed over the years to fuel my brainstorming, but there is a common dynamic to all of them: Get curious. Get curious about the plot. Get curious about the characters. Get curious about the story universe. If you keep asking questions, that help you go deeper and deeper into your brainstorming process. In Part 3 tomorrow, we look at another important part of the script-writing process: Research. PART 3: RESEARCH This generally goes hand-in-hand with brainstorming as research feeds that process. I love to go to libraries. Ive done a ton of research at the Beverly Hill library and at UCLA. But of course, theres the Internet which is absolutely indispensable. When I was researching an original screenplay Snowbirds which is set in the RV subculture, I signed up for RV email newsletters, joined RV message boards, and swapped emails with RVers from all around the country. Likewise, when I researched Tullys War which took place during the Berlin Airlift, I must have read 20 books on the subject. In both cases, anecdotes I picked up along the way ended up inspiring scenes in my scripts. Youll also find great lines and dialogue in research. In Snowbirds, I feature the bumpers of all three RVs early on, to give the reader a sense of who the respective couples are. One had a bumper sticker on their RV: Home Is Where You Park It. Got that from research. As great as books and the Internet are, there is nothing better than talking to actual human beings. For a comedy I wrote called Hand Jive, which was set at Venice High School in LA, I visited the campus just to talk with teenagers. Most of them didnt mind me taping our conversations, once I explained that I wanted to hear10 STEPS TO WRITE A SCREENPLAY BY SCOTT MYER
their lingo and catch the rhythm of their conversation. Added benefit: This is how you can generate dialogue, riffing off what you discover in interviews. Almost invariably, what you discover in your research will fuel your brainstorming. I take copious notes from books I read, and highlight anecdotes or stories which I think I can use in the script. Then I type that information into my main brainstorming file. While that may seem laborious, I find something about it that helps to get me into the story world. Word of warning: You can get lost doing research. Ive known people who would tell me theyve got this fantastic concept for a screenplay, they cant wait to get started, then see them 6 months later, only to find out, Im still doing research. Unless youre writing a 4-hour historical epic, you should need no more than 2-3 months to brainstorm and research and if you can devote full-time to the project, you can likely accomplish what you need in 4-6 weeks. But if you find yourself using research as an excuse to keep from typing FADE IN, thats time to stop hitting the books and start hitting your keyboard! An anecdote about research. At one point, I worked on a project with Howard Gottfried, who produced the Paddy Chayefsky movies The Hospital (1971), Network (1976), and Altered States (1980). I remember a conversation in which I asked Howard about how Chayefsky had researched Altered States and in particular the native hallucinatory drug rituals in Central and South America. How much time had Chayefsky spent with locals learning their ways. Howard said, None, then went on to explain that Chayefsky did most of his research using the collection of National Geographic magazines he had in his writers office. That and his imagination was all he needed. I wonder what Chayefsky would have thought of Google! Bottom line, research is a critical aspect of the script-writing process, hugely important for you to go into your story, immerse yourself in that universe, and write pages that convey a sense of verisimilitude to the reader. Its not a documentary, it doesnt have to 100% factually true, rather your goal is to make the story feel authentic. In Part 4, well look at character development.
PART 4: CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT10 STEPS TO WRITE A SCREENPLAY BY SCOTT MYER
Im compartmentalizing my creative process, which is misleading. Because as Im brainstorming and doing research, characters emerge, plot ideas pop up, themes evolve. So do not think of it like, first I do brainstorming for 2 weeks, then I move into research for another 2 weeks, then into characters. No, its best, I think, to follow ones instincts. And at some point, you will have accumulated enough story stuff that key characters will spring to life. Then its time to dig into them. I create individual files (in my computer) for the primary characters. I spend time with each of them, sitting with them, my f