Industry veteran Raúl daSilva outlines the basics of script writing to help filmmakers assess the framework on which their film will be built.
Filmmakers with feature ambitions are urged to take note of
what many were told in film school, depending upon the caliber of the school,
often repetitively to ad nauseam: “The script is the most important aspect of
The reason for this imperative urging is reflected in the
failures of feature projects to even locate distribution much less box office
success in the marketplace. This failure is seen mostly in indie films but is
also clearly perceived in major studio projects where the script was either
incompetently written to begin with or had been a good or superior work by a sage
writer but went into stew as directors, producers, and studio executives with
little or no true comprehension of script, story, or scenario structure began to
dip in their ego-tainted pens.
The script is the blueprint or template of the film. Like
a blueprint for a physical construction, such as a house or multiple level
building, if it’s faulty the building will fail.
This was mentioned in a similar article I wrote for
NewEnglandFilm.com some years ago. Since then it’s been my misfortune to
continue to see several new independent film projects developed and produced to
the detriment of hopeful investors who simply trusted that the filmmakers knew
what they were doing.
Too many directors and producers believe that a screenplay
is a simple construction and easily created. It is not. Beyond the mistaken
notion of a script being of little or no real value is the unfounded excuse that
the cost is too high. If a good script means nearly automatic success, is any
cost too high? Beyond that invalid argument is the plain truth. The fact is,
that well-written scripts are nearly always accessible at almost any cost if the
filmmaker is willing to deal with Writer’s Guild signatory agencies. It’s a
Alfred Hitchcock, who was highly successful during his
entire career, emphasized this repeatedly and spent 90 percent of his time
searching and locating good scripts. That is, 90 percent of all the time he
ever expended in the process of filmmaking was spent in the pursuit of the
script. Keep in mind that he worked in one genre and one genre alone, the crime
drama. If the filmmaker is interested in multiple genres then there is that
much more work to do. For this reason, it’s often suggested to feature film
people to select one genre and go with that.
Secondly, if you are professional enough and objective
enough to know that you are not a great screenwriter, do you then know exactly
how to read a script? Don’t laugh. Most of us do not really understand that
reading a script is also a craft. At Paramount Pictures (where my career began
decades ago) there was a dedicated creative department. The head of the
creative department, a
veteran of the Golden Age of Hollywood and a celebrated scenarist in his own
right, disdained those who would hire unemployed actors to write “cover” or to
read and “analyze” scripts. Screenplay analysis is an art form.
A good scenarist can write a tome on analysis but NewEnglandFilm.com
prefers a 1,000 to 1,500 word article. So what
I will do is abbreviate the process of script creation in the next few paragraphs. This is not meant
to replace a course or study in analysis but to point out the elements and steps
of how a screenplay should properly be written (and analyzed). Not all
professional writers use this technique and there are other approaches but this
is the logical, no-nonsense, time-proven approach.
The Step-by-Step Process of Script Writing
We begin with a Rationale. What is the reason for
the existence of the screenplay? Why does it exist? The seemingly obvious
answer, “to make a feature film” is not the right answer. Your answer has to be
founded in the next step, the concept.
What is the Concept of your screenplay? What is the
idea? Make a list of 10 movies that you felt were successful. You not only
enjoyed them but they brought in at least 3x budget grosses so you assume that
this means profit for someone. It is, after all, a business despite what the
silly chief entertainment editor of The New York Times once kept telling
me, that it is an art form. Feature films constructed by a number of talented
craftsmen does not constitute art in my vernacular.
From this list, come up with the Log Lines of each
of the 10 films, or the essence of the concept in one sentence. If you have
trouble conceiving log lines, go to Leonard Maltin or some other reference book
and look up the blurbs for each film. Often they are nothing but log lines.
For example, here’s an acceptable log line for the movie Gladiator: “In
ancient Rome, a general betrayed by his emperor eventually finds revenge in the
Roman gladiatorial arena.”
Once you have the log line, then go on to write a Brief
Synopsis. A brief synopsis is the basic story in one or two
paragraphs. Again, refer to Maltin if you have trouble with this. Eventually
with practice it will become easier to write log lines and brief synopses or
Next write a One Page Synopsis. This is literally
the story or scenario on one sheet of paper, which clearly depicts all three
acts of the eventual script. This phase is often called a “one sheet” or
"one page" and is
the primary selling tool used to secure seed or development funds.
After your one sheet is written, the story is pulled out to
a full Outline. The length differs in the opinions of some, but in my
view, 15-20 pages separated by three acts -- scenes numbered scenes in sequence
-- is a fairly good outline.
The well-practiced screenwriter knows that the outline will
easily write itself (as the feeling goes) into a Script. This is
the screenplay fleshed out to a full property of roughly 75-120 pages. The
length of features ebbs and flows depending upon the changes in the industry.
The current films have been running long but this might change again.
Write a natural script but keep in within those parameters to be safe.
Now we might get into a bit of argument with some
professionals who feel that the Treatment should come before the script.
I do not. The treatment should be a selling tool due to the simple fact that
some studio suits do not want to read a full script, so as such it’s usually
easier developed after the first draft script is completed. The treatment is a
10-20 page scenario with some of the more salient dialog that indicates some measure
of characterization. This is the secondary selling tool. (The primary is the
As for formatting, consult various books on screenwriting
to determine the script heft and look or appearance. Different sources will
disagree on typeface, for example, but generally the old typewriter face of
Courier is your best bet and is also used by the top selling script writing
software program, Final Draft.
The more you know about the craft of screenwriting and the
critical importance of the screenplay in the entire process of feature
filmmaking the better are your chances of success.
Raúl daSilva is
the author of six books on film, including The World of Animation. In
semi-retirement now, he is focused on fiction writing and has recently completed
a salute to his late friend and co-worker, Rod Serling, and his timeless TV
series, The Twilight Zone. daSilva's collection of 17 short stories
in the Twilight Zone genre, The Corner Where Night Begins, is forthcoming. Learn
more about his work