How to Write a Script

River2It begins and ends with a great script.  There are many books out there that will give you information on script formatting and obviously the script software programs will  take care of formatting for you so won’t cover that part of it. The three keys to a great script are: a compelling story, interesting multi-dimensional characters and strong dialogue. Also it is easy to talk about what it takes but hard to execute.

Compelling Story:

A story people will want to hear about. The Logline, which is a one sentence summary of the script, is a great way to see if you have a unique story. For example:

Tootsie: a man dresses up as a woman in order to get more work as an actor.

 Jaws: a great white shark terrorizes a New England Town.

Sixth Sense: A child psychologist decides to help a young boy who claims he sees dead people.

Multi-dimensional characters:

Pure villains or pure good guys are not as interesting as flawed people. Also what is on the surface is not always who they really are.

Star Wars – Hans Solo is a good guy but was all about the money in the beginning. Not a pure hero.

Legally Blonde – Elle Woods is bubbly and appears to be an airhead but she showed she was intelligent and resourceful.

Pirates of the Carribean - Captain Jack Sparrow is by all accounts a bad man. However, Johnny Depp infuses him with such charm and wit, that he we can’t help but like him.

Strong Dialogue:

Every word and sentence has meaning. The dialogue is true to the character. Find a clever way to say the more obvious statement.

 The basic script structure is the Three Act Structure:

 Act 1:

  • Occupies ¼ of the script. 
  • Introduces the lead characters. Can we identify with them? Will we root for them? Will we root against them. They  should be multi-dimensional, which can be accomplished via sub-text. So think about Rocky, we root for him because he is a bum or really an everyday guy that gets a chance at the champ. Not about the fight really. It is about an everyday man getting a chance to succeed. In the Lord of the Ring movies, obvious who is good and who is bad and we root accordingly. Working Girl, girl from Staten Island fighting to make it on Wall St. 
  • Shows where the film is taking place. In many films, the location can be a character, Crocodile Dundee from Australia to NY. Would that work if set in Idaho. If you say it takes place in Alaska or Bahamas, you get an image. 
  • Tells us what is going to happen. 
  • At the end of the Act 1, something will happen that will guide us through to Act 2.

For example:

  • A lone marshal rides into a Texas bordertown. (imaginary as you can see the dusty bordertown and the shiny badge on him, you know he is the good guy) 
  • He is searching for a fugitive. 
  • Two gunmen warn him off. The marshal finds out that the fugitive is the son of a local land baron. The land baron turns out to be an old friend. (a twist here and sets up the conflict) Know a battle is looming and when it turns out the baron is an old friend, the conflict just skyrocketed. 

Act 2:

  • Occupies ½ of the script. 
  • Series of conflicts that leads us to Act 3 and the showdown. In your script, try to have conflicts in every scene where somebody wants something and somebody else wants something else. This is hard to do but try to. 
  • Have 3-5 scenes where the protagonist (central character) faces obstacles and conflicts in achieving his goal. 
  • The conflicts should have escalating levels of difficulty and twists. So if think  about a graph chart, the line rises as conflict increases and builds to a resolution. When we find out the fugitive is the son of an old friend, the stakes went up and conflict increased. 
  • The protagonist should be challenged severely. 
  • The stakes get raised. 
  • At the end of the Act 2, something will happen that will point us to the climax and resolution. In this scene, the protagonist might make a choice under which there is no turning back.

For example:

  • The marshal goes to talk to his old friend, the land baron. 
  • The land baron refuses to surrender his son and actually has his men beat up the marshal. Maybe it actually turns out that the baron is actually the most generous guy in town but the son is a bum. Now the bad baron is not all bad and we can feel for him because everyone can relate to protecting a son or daughter at all cost. 
  • A local woman heals and takes care of the marshal. They fall for each other. 
  • The marshal gets into a gunfight and kills two of the land baron’s men. 
  • The marshal captures the baron’s son. 
  • The land baron’s men kidnaps the local woman that healed the marshal. Series of conflicts that escalates and the stakes are raised as the woman and then the son are taken 
  • A swap is called for in a canyon. Set up for the third act and the final conflict and resolution. 

Act 3

  • Occupies ¼ of the script. 
  • The climax of the film is here where all the key characters converge to resolve the conflict. Goals will be achieved or not. 
  • The characters will learn something about themselves, especially the protagonist. 
  • The protagonist will be changed once this is over. This is the completion of his character arc, which is how he is different from when the film began.   

For example:

  • The swap goes wrong as a gunfight breaks out. 
  • The marshal kills the land baron during the fight and rescues the woman. 
  • Tired of all the killing, the marshal releases the son and rides off with the woman. The marshal, who was always about the law, walks away because too much killing to enforce. The protagonist changes where he was all about being pure with the law but now he abandons it because doing the right thing took too many lives including his friend.

Some Misc Points on the Script:

  • For low budget especially, keep script to 90 pages. One page written in Courier New 12 pt font usually equates to one minute of a film. The less to shoot, the cheaper it will be. 
  • Is the script original or least provides a twist to an older theme. 
  • Review every scene and look for conflict within the scene. 
  • For low budget, write in locations that you know you will access to (apartments, cars, parks, etc.). 
  • Have a reading of your script with actors or at least friends to make sure the dialogue sounds real and  see if they understand the script. 
  • Use index cards maybe. If you assume 2 mins equate to 2 pages a scene then 45 scenes to get to a 90 min film. Can move cards around to see how script plays out. Using cards is a method that works for some.  This is an easy way of re-ordering visually. 
  • A word on romantic comedies and why it is hard to do a successful one if you don’t have stars. All concepts have been done so people come to see stars. Original comedies are unique.  
  • Reveals and twists, you don’t want it to be predictable. As you are writing, ask yourself what does the reader expect to happen next and then choose the opposite of that.  
  • Write visually: for example, you can write “Joe stabbed Bob and Bob fell, bleeding all over the place”. Or you can write “the point of the knife plunged through Bob’s white shirt. Blood gushed  to the floor.  Bob crashes to the ground. His leg twitches”. Visually this is better and you are in effect directing the director on this scene. Another example: “Beth cooked a great meal for Joe as she seduced him”. “The olive oil poured into the sizzling pan creating a smoky haze as Beth smiled seductively at Joe”.


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