December 4, 2016

How to Write a Screenplay

Casablanca Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch Based onEverybody Comes to Rick's by Murray Burnett, Joan Alison
Casablanca, Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch
Based on Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett, Joan Alison

by Robert J. Avrech

I get a fair amount of email from readers asking me about writing.

More specifically, how do I go about writing a movie?

Writing is ninety percent perspiration, ten percent inspiration. In other words do not wait to get struck with inspiration. That’s a load of romantic nonsense. In fact, that’s a sure way not to write. The biggest secret in Hollywood—at least for writers who actually work and make money—is how hard they work. Discipline is the name of the game. Organization is vital. An obsession with the minutae of a story is a requirement. G-d is in the details.

Before we get to the five basic rules, you have to know who your main character is and ask three questions of him:

  1. What does your main character want?
  2. Why can’t he get it?
  3. How does he overcome the various obstacles in his path to achieve his goal?

Once you can answer these questions, you can move on to the Five Rules of Screenwriting:

Rule #1: Start at the end. You have to know the end of your movie before you write your screenplay. It’s sort of like  Waze: you have to enter your destination to get there.
Rule #2: Keep your scenes short. Get into a scene as late as possible, then get out of the scene as quickly as possible. And remember, film is a visual medium. Don’t write a filmed radio play.
Rule #3: If a scene does not advance the plot, drop it. This usually means deleting your favorite scene. Remember, screenplays are all about structure. Thus, your structure has to be airtight or everything disintegrates. No amount of clever dialogue can save a badly structured screenplay.
Rule #4: Use simple sentence structure. Less is more.

Before I write the script, I sit down and work out a detailed outline. This is a scene by scene breakdown of the entire three act story. And yes, every story has three acts.

Act One: Exposition.

Act Two: Conflict

Art Three: Resolution

If your story doesn’t have three acts then it’s not going to be a compelling story.

I go over the outline again and again. I probe for weaknesses. I am merciless.

After the outline is done, I put it away for two or three days. I read a book that has nothing in common with my story. I screen my favorite movie, The Seven Samurai, the most perfect movie ever made. It’s a way of reminding myself that greatness is out there. It’s something to shoot for.

Okay, back to the outline, and… revisions.

But before I work on revisions I sit down and tell the story to a friend or two or three, screenwriters and civilians. I watch their body language. Are they getting bored? Is the story confusing? It’s easy to tell if someone is riveted to a story. They sit forward; they break in, ask questions. They want to know: what happens next? These sessions are usually quite valuable. I usually end up making even more adjustments to the outline.

Time to go to script. Five to eight pages a day, that’s the goal I set myself. I rip through it like a madman. Ask Karen, I ignore, well, everything. The phone rings, no way I’m going to pick it up. Garbage needs to be taken out, forget it. Here’s what my day looks like: I get up at 4AM, walk for three miles, come home and eat breakfast, write, eat lunch, write, eat dinner, write, shower, go to bed. Dream about the script. Wake up. Repeat for eight weeks.

Then I read the finished first draft and I always, always feel like jumping off the nearest skyscraper.
“Karen?”
“Yes, Robert?”
“I have no talent anymore.”
“It’s the worst movie you’ve ever written.”
“How did you know!?”
“Because you say that after every first draft.”
“But this time it’s true.”
“Try rewriting.”

My wife is soooo smart.

I sit down and rewrite for another few weeks. And that, my friends is the secret and the most important…

Rule #5: Writing is Rewriting.

You have to be willing to rip your work apart, admit it’s terrible, and start all over again. If a writer does not rewrite he is not a writer, he is a typist.

Oh, and I use Final Draft to write. Everyone in Hollywood uses this software.

P.S. Every great movie is a love story.

2 Comments

  1. Completely agree that 7 Samurai is a perfect movie.

    Sure wish Hollywood had the stones for new stories instead of robbing the past for ideas. It reminds me of how after the Roman Empire collapsed people took the exquisitely sculpted marble from crumbling Roman buildings and used it for sheep pens.

    There are more great SF universes out there besides Star Trek. There are more compelling heroes in Ancient Rome than those appearing in the latest Ben Hur retread. And comic book based movies? Seriously?

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  2. Scott:

    Studio productions have become global products in order to make a profit. Thus, the studios rely on tried and true franchises that can spin off into rides and limitless products. For innovation go to TV, cable and internet productions. We are living in the golden age of television.

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