VCES Writing for the Screen 4-6 resources

You’re going to learn about how to tell stories for the screen. We’re going to help you come up with an original idea, and then develop that idea into a story fit for a short film or animation.  

‘Short’ in this case means a live-action film or animation that might go for 3-7 minutes, (not 90+ minutes like a feature-length film).

Part 1A

Where do ideas come from? 

Ideation and creative tasks for coming up with ideas 

Premise and problem 

Ideas 

Before we write scripts, we do a lot of planning. This means that when you go to write your scripts you’ll know so much more about your characters and the world of the film that the worlds will just flow out. 

Let’s start at the very beginning. How do you even think of an idea?? 

We’re going to show you some ways to get started. 

The main thing to remember is, that not all these methods will work for you. You may be drawn to one method or another. 

This is a process, which is basically a fancy word for patience. You’re not expected to have it all figured out yet. So keep playing around and remember that we are only at the beginning. Even Oscar-winning screenwriters come back to this same brain-busting place every new movie that they write. 

Ideas: what if? 

Sometimes ‘what-if?’ questions can help you come up with some cool ideas. 

If you haven’t seen Toy Story and Jurassic Park you might know about them. Both are feature-length films, but they started out with ‘what-if....’ questions. 

What if toys were alive.  

What if someone cloned Dinosaurs. 

Now, these ideas wouldn’t have come out of the blue. They were probably questions prompted by the real world. Perhaps the author of Jurassic Park was reading about Dinosaurs or cloning and got this bright idea. Or with Toy Story, the writer might have been watching their kids playing with and making up voices for their toys, and thought “what if toys could walk and talk when no one is around?” 

So be ready for the things around you to inspire these 'what if' type questions, or, you can try sitting and thinking and imagining stories around ‘what if’ questions you might think up. 

✏️Activity: write down three ‘what if....’ questions you think of. If you have more than three, great. If you think you’re onto a winner and want to keep working with an idea go for it, otherwise, you can park them for now. 

Ideas: visual prompts 

The good news is you can also prompt yourself to think of ideas. It can help get your imagination and creativity firing. 

These start with visual prompts. 

Here you just look at a picture and ask a bunch of who, what, where, when and how questions. 

Take this turtle for example. 

turtle fence.jpg

So, some questions we ask immediately include: 

- Who is this turtle? What’s their story? 

- Where is the turtle going? Is it escaping or breaking in? 

- When did this turtle start climbing this fence? Hours ago? 

- What could be motivating it to climb this fence?! 

- How did it get up that fence? 

We can come up with multiple answers and pick and choose the answers that we like best, the ones that start to form a story. 

- This is Tim. Tim the turtle. You heard me. Tim the turtle 

- Tim is escaping his cruel owners 

- He wants to go back to the wild where he was taken from 

- He managed to get up that fence through months of intense, upper body strength training. Or something. 

Ok great, we have the beginnings of a story. Let’s return to Tim the Turtle a little later. 

💻  ✏️ Activity: go to this random picture generator and do yourself what we just did with the image of the turtle for three images. Try and think for a few moments at least before generating a new image. https://randomwordgenerator.com/picture.php

Sometimes just one image isn’t enough, so we can take two random images, put them side by side and apply the same questions to both images, and find ways to connect them with a story. 

So, change the number of images generated to two, and apply the same method of questions to both images but with a view to connecting these images into the one story idea. 

Premise and problems 

A premise is the story in its simplest form, but it advances the story a bit further beyond just being an idea. It’s where the idea starts to take shape as a story. Sometimes this might only be a sentence or two 

Here’s the premise for the Pixar film Coco

Despite his family’s baffling generations-old ban on music, Mexican boy Miguel dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz. Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself trapped in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead following a mysterious chain of events. 

So, a premise should give us a few pieces of important information. It should give us the setup. 

The setup includes information on the character. It should tell us a little bit about them and their world.  

In the synopsis for Coco, we are introduced to Miguel and told some important information about him, including his nationality, his dreams (musician), the fact he has an idol in Ernesto de la Cruz. We learn where the story takes place (Mexico, and in the Land of the Dead), and a little bit about his world, including some information on his family dynamic (the baffling ban on music). 

So, the setup = character + their world. 

The problem is the thing that upsets the character and turns their world upside down. It sets the characters off on a journey to overcome that problem or achieve that goal. We often call this the problem but it can also be known as a complication

In Coco, this problem is Miguel is ‘trapped’ in the Land of the Dead. We can also see some other more personal problems, like Miguel's desire to prove his musical talent. 

So the premise should give us the setup (character + world), the problem and bit more information about where the story is going. 

In terms of how much of the story it gives away, it gives us the beginning, teases the middle, but it never gives us the ending! But, as you can probably guess from the Coco example, the synopsis sets up questions the audience will expect to be answered by the end of the film. These might include with Coco

  • Why the ‘baffling generations-old ban on music’? 
  • Will Miguel prove his musical talent? 
  • Will Miguel escape the Land of the Dead? 

Tim the Turtle 

Let’s come back to Tim the Turtle and turn the questions we came up with to form a premise that includes the setup and the problem/complication. 

Tim the Turtle can barely remember his life before becoming the Turner family’s pet. But he dreams about it. A lot. One day, after the Turner’s are particularly mean to Tim, he decides enough is enough – and decides to escape. But how will a turtle escape this suburban fortress of a home? 

Notice we have a question in there. That’s totally fine. You don’t have to have a question but sometimes they work. It’s a promise to the audience that you will answer this question when they read or see the whole story. They’ll want to know the answer. 

🤔 Activity: think about a film you saw recently that you really enjoyed. 

✏️ Write a synopsis for that film yourself, including the setup and the problem/complication that sets the story in motion. 

Your ideas 

Hopefully, you have a handful of story ideas from these different brainstorming activities. Go through them now and find your favourite, the one you think has the most potential. Usually, this is the one that you feel further sets off further possibilities zinging around your mind! 

✏️ Take that idea, and turn it into a short premise. So setup (character + their world) and problem/complication (the thing that sets the story in motion). You can do this for as many of your ideas as you like if you can’t decide on one. 

Have your premise handy for our first online lesson. 

Part 1B

Premise and problems

Way before we get to our script, we identify our characters, their world, and their problem. Then we can form our premise, which is basically your story idea in a nutshell.

Here are some story equations of sorts!

Setup = character(s) and their world

Problem = the thing that turns the character’s world upside down

Premise = setup + problem

The Protagonist

The character that the audience follow throughout your story.

The one we care about and whose journey we follow.

The protagonist is the character that goes through the most change.

They won’t be the same person they were at the start

The Antagonist

In opposition to your protagonist. Can also be a character who is forced together with the protagonist - think buddy cop films!

The antagonist is often there to force change in the protagonis, and doesn’t always have to be an ‘evil’ character

The protagonist and antagonist could be feuding best friends, or even the love interest in a romantic comedy (opposites attract)!

You might also have an antagonist force instead of an antagonist - so think natural disaster movies, or monster movies.

Creating your character

Say you're starting to form your character, or you have a bit of an idea for a character but right now, they're a bit of a blank canvas. If an audience can't identify with a character, or at least get a sense of who they are and what makes them tick, then chances are the audience won't engage with that character, or care about them.

A nice easy way to start fleshing out your character is answering a series of questions about them.

What is the problem they face?

What is their goal?

What is their weakness?

What is their strength? (they will need to call on this some point)

What is their biggest fear?

Do they have a hidden talent or special skill?

You can draw your responses up in a character diamond.

So draw a diamond, have want and need on opposite points, strength and weakness on the other opposite points. With fear in between 'need' and 'weakness', and special skill in-between want and strength.

Stakes and obstacles

Obstacles

The obstacles are the things that get in the way of the protagonist achieving their goals, or at least make it harder for them to get there.

Stakes

The stakes are what the protagonist risks to lose if they don’t succeed in their goal. A good film always has high stakes for the characters. It’s what keeps us watching.

Having a plot question

As well as introducing the problem, your premise should setup a dramatic plot question. The plot question is a question that will be answered by the end of your film, so they are often 'what will happen?' type questions that intrigue the audience without giving away the ending!

Here's the premise for Disney Pixar's Coco:

Despite his family’s baffling generations-old ban on music, Mexican boy Miguel dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz. Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself trapped in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead following a mysterious chain of events.

Even though we don't see a question mark, there is a plot question here.

Here's our example from Tim the Turtle which might be a bit more obvious:

Tim the Turtle can barely remember his life before becoming the Turner family’s pet. But he dreams about it. A lot. One day, after the Turner’s are particularly mean to Tim, he decides enough is enough – and plans his escape. But how will a turtle escape this suburban fortress of a home?

Hopefully, you can see the plot question here!

Adding a character question

We can make things even more interesting if we include a character question. With Tim the Turtle, the premise we have hinted at a life before being in captivity. So let's add our character question to our plot question, because they are linked:

And does true freedom lay on the other side of the fence?

So now it's not just a question of will Tim escape or not, but now we have a character question that's all about whether Tim will actually find freedom or happiness once he escapes.

Your turn

Have a think, and see if you can think of a plot question for your story, and a character question for your protagonist.

It's ok if both questions relate the protagonist! Just remember, the plot question is about what will happen, the character question is more personal and should relate to your protagonist's emotions, mind set, or personal situation by the conclusion of the story.

You might like to start your questions in one of these ways if you like:

'Will my character.....?' "How will my character....?' 'What will my character....?"

Plot question:

Character question:

CHECKLIST

First of all, well done keeping up so far. Don't stress if your head is spinning and if you didn't have enough time to get through every activity.

Take the time between now and the next session to dive deeper.

Here is a checklist (in order) of what you can work on to be ready for the next session:

  1. Have your original, basic premise written out
  2. Identify your protagonist, and create a character diamond for them. You can do the same for your antagonist if you like
  3. Brainstorm some obstacles for your protagonist, and identify the stakes (so what they risk if they can't achieve their goal or overcome the problem)
  4. Identify a plot question
  5. Identify a character question for your protagonist
  6. Rewrite your original premise, and turn it into more of a detailed synopsis now that you have more information about stakes, obstacles, your characters, and questions. Just have a go for now.

IMPORTANT: Things will change as you go, nothing is set in stone as you might change things up, have better ideas etc later. But try and complete everything on the checklist as best you can so you've got plenty to work with. You can always add, change, edit things as you go!

After all, writing isn’t an exact science, but the more information you provide yourself with in regards to story, character, plot points etc – the more easily things start to fall into place. You might make a decision later to change some things, leave other things out, or scrap something altogether - and that’s all fine.

Part 2A

Beginning, middle and end

We know how stories are structured, it’s something we learn very early on – something we know even if we can’t remember who told us it or how we learnt it!

So stories have a beginning, middle and end.

To relate this back to the work you’ve been doing, our beginning is like our setup, which includes character and their world. Sometimes this is called exposition as well, don’t be thrown by the different terms as it all means the same thing.

So in film, we call beginning, middle and end a three-act structure.

ACT 1 (beginning): set up the world, characters and a problem

ACT 2 (middle): obstacles to solving the problem, twists and turns

ACT 3 (end): a climax and a resolution to the problem (or perhaps unresolved- a cliff hanger)

ACT 1 and ACT 3 are going to be shorter than ACT 2.

ACT 1 needs to get us going into the story. In ACT 3 the film will start to be resolved after the climax.

So, ACT 2 is where most of the story happens.

Story mapping

Before we start writing, it’s important to chart important moments in the story through a story map.

It’s a great way to structure your story and can help you deliver the most emotional impact for your audience.

Use your obstacles, stakes for your character, and your plot and character questions to help you map out your story.

The character will only be forced to change by events that happen in your plot.

Your turn

Use the template below to fill in your own story map. Keep them simple and clear. You'll notice there is a space for you to write in your plot and character questions. Also, see if you can pop a few dot points in for the set up and the resolution, so you know how it starts and ends.

Do you think the line in the template looks a bit like a mountain?

This is a tension graph. This means that as the story unfolds, the character (and the audience!) will be going on this journey up and over the mountain. The highest point marks the peak of the tension so it's no surprise that this would be at the climax of your film, before the tension releases as the story reaches the resolution.

Part 2B

Summarising your story

We recommend preparing two different summaries of your story. This way you know your story inside and out, and have a really short version if you want to quickly grab someone's attention, or you have the long version you can tell someone if they're interested.

Having both will help a lot when you get around to writing your script.

A synopsis (a paragraph)

More detailed and longer - will include character + their world, stakes, plot question, character question, and possibly more. You may have already had a go at this in-between lessons, but now it's time to refine it a bit.

Outline/treatment (a page or more)

Might be a page of prose, where you flesh out the details of your story. For this you’re relying on your beat sheet a bit more as you’re telling the story as it would unfold on screen.

Your beat sheet will help, especially when it comes to writing your 1 page outline.

Screenwriting

Scripts / screenplays have their own special layout and formatting.

Layout and formatting easy to pick up.

They still contain all the essential info (setting, character, action, dialogue) but it’s set out differently to a novel.

They detail the story, and provide a blueprint for cast and crew to work with, and interpret. Novels/short stories are more descriptive because they tell the story, and describe the story world directly to the reader. Scripts need to speak to cast and crew, who interpret the story and story world, and relate that to the audience visually.

This doesn't mean scripts can't be descriptive, it's just they might not be as descriptive as a book. They are more economical when it comes to how they describe something.

SCRIPT FORMATTING

Why are scripts presented differently to books and plays?

When we read a book, it’s written for one reader. It’s just for you to enjoy the uninterrupted flow of a story.

The story in a stage play is formatted in a way that the actors know when it’s time to speak, and when to come on and off the stage. Like a set of instructions.

When it comes to screenplays, the main difference is that film is a visual medium. Much of the story is told through the camera, rather than described in words or spoken by actors. A screenplay is also formatted in a way to give information and instructions to everyone working on the film.

Screenplays are blueprints

A screen play needs to be engaging as a story, but unlike a book, it’s important to be brief, because it’s going to be going on a life of its own once it leaves your computer. The script will act as a blueprint or plan for the film.

As we mentioned, film is a screen medium so it is packed with visual clues. The action can happen in multiple places and times too. The formatting helps make this information clear, so that everyone who works on a film can understand an interpret it, including but not limited to, cinematographers, art department, costumes, location scouts, makeup artists, actors and directors.

Scriptwriting software

Luckily there is a range of software to help us format scripts. Celtx is free and easy to use, or you could try WriterDuet.

The font that we use when formatting is Courier New. But don’t worry too much about this- your software will do it for you.

Let’s go through each section of the screenplay format.  You’ll pick it up in no time!

Scene heading

A scene heading, or 'slug line' is where you set the scene.  In a scene heading we need to know:

  • If it is taking place indoors or outdoors (interior or exterior? INT. for interior and EXT. for exterior)
  • Where it is (in a living room? A city street?)
  • Time of day (day or night?)

EXT. SCHOOL YARD - DAY

Action or ‘Big Print’

The action describes where the characters are, what is happening, and what you want the audience to see.

Using the present tense

The tense is really important in formatting your script. When writing a script, we use the present tense. This makes the story immediate and active. It’s happening as we read it.

To keep the story exciting, it’s important to keep the action clear and short. This makes it easy for the reader to follow. If there is too much description, the reader will lose interest.

Heat rises from the asphalt, promising a hot day. Megan joins the rush of students walking through the gate. She notices a younger, timid girl, EVA, who looks up at the school building.

Character and dialogue

When you first introduce a character in action or see them for the first time, you write their name in capitals so it stands out. Every time after this you write it normally.

Once you have set up the scene, the action and your main character, you can introduce your character’s dialogue. You start by writing their name.

The dialogue is fitted neatly under the character's name, so it’s easy for the actors to know when they have to say something, as opposed to doing something. Notice too that when characters have dialogue, their name is in bold and centred on the page.

Script line example 1
Script line example 4

WRITING YOUR SCRIPT

Keep your story documents handy

You’ve done all the background work, so this is where you get to bring your story to the page. Keep your story documents next to you as you will need to refer to them to keep on track. So, that’s your:

  • character diamond
  • plot and character questions
  • story map
  • synopses

Read aloud

Once you have a draft, gather a group of classmates or ask some family and friends to read the scene for you. We call this a ‘table read’. You can do this in person or it works just fine on Zoom or your preferred video conferencing software.

Sharing and workshopping is very helpful for a screenwriter. You’ll be able to see what’s working and what needs tweaking.

Your voice

Doubts are always present in the creative process, but remember that only you can tell your story.

It’s important to give yourself time to let ideas flow. You’ll refine as you go, so give yourself time to experiment and follow your gut instinct.

There’s a reason why it takes several drafts to refine a script. It’s all part of the process, so don’t worry about it being perfect. It takes time to master a new skill!

Submit your work

We want to read what you've been working on! We will provide personalised feedback to every student registered for the program who submits work.

What to submit

  • Your one-paragraph synopsis
  • A script sample (at least one page of the script)

Your script sample can be a single scene for your film where you practice your formatting.

You might want to write the opening scene, or you might choose a moment in your story that you feel excited about. Just let us know when you submit your work, where the scene is taking place within your story.

Optional (submit if you'd like to)

  • Your one-page outline/treatment

Email it directly or get your teacher to send it through to:

writingforscreen@acmi.net.au

Good luck!