VCES Writing for the Screen 7-8 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).

Housekeeping

This page is for teachers and students who have registered or been registered for this program.

The program will run like this:

Lesson 1: This lesson is all about coming up with ideas. Do at home or school before March 17, 2021

Lesson 2, online lesson with ACMI: March 17, 2021. This lesson will be about plot and premise, as well as characters.

Lesson 3: Do at home or school before 24 March. This lesson will be all about plotting and finding the key 'beats' of your story

Lesson 4, online lesson with ACMI: 24 March. In this lesson we'll focus more how to write a screenplay.

Lesson 5: This is where you'll put your work together and send it through to us. Please send Thursday 1 April (last day of Term 1!)

If you need more time and want to work on your piece during school holidays, then please send before Tuesday 20 April.

If you haven't read or received your Writing for the Screen introduction document, download or open it below.

The lessons

We've laid out all the lessons on this page, including some of the content and activities we'll go through during our online lessons (lessons 2 and 4).

You can look ahead if you really like, but don't get too far ahead of us! Some of it might not make heaps of sense if we haven't had a chance to explain it to you.

After each online lesson, we will post copies of our presentations on this page so you can look back over them.

Lesson 1

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. 

Lesson 2

Prose vs. script

Film scripts look quite different from prose, or 'normal' writing.

But all the documents writers prepare before they write their script is usually written in prose. This is because it's all about getting your ideas out of your head. Later, when you're happy, you turn all those ideas into a film script.

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 do they want?

What do they need? (this is something they don’t really about themselves yet- it’s what they need to learn)

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.

Having a dramatic plot question

As well as introducing the problem, your premise should setup a dramatic plot question. The dramatic 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 intrigues 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 dramatic 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 dramatic 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 hints at a life before being in captivity. So let's add our character question to our dramatic 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.

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.

Lesson 3

Ok, quick check list. We’re hoping by now you have the following info sketched out:

Your original idea: always good to have this handy to see where you started and to see how far your idea has progressed and grown!

Basic premise: so setup (character + their world) plus problem/complication in a sentence or two.

Your antagonist or antagonistic force: you might not have this yet, that’s fine, come back to it a little later

Character diamond: so wants, needs, strengths, weaknesses, fears, special skill

A dramatic plot question: our stories might have several dramatic plot questions, but for now focus on the main one, usually the question that will be answered towards the end of the film

A character question: this might still be a work in progress, don’t stress, but this question is often tied up with character’s wants or needs

Ideas for obstacles: things that will slow your character down, what they’ll need to overcome to achieve their goal, get past their problem they face

Stakes: consequence(s) for your character if they fail

Synopsis: this is your premise but expanded a bit to include or hint at things like plot and character question, obstacles, stakes, and added character information.

Remember, 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.

For now, though, let’s move on with what we have and flesh out the structure of your story.

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.

Identifying the 'beats'

Before we start writing, it’s important to chart important moments in the story. These are called beats.

Beats are like little markers or street signs to keep your story on track. It’s a great place to start structuring your story and can help you deliver the most emotional impact for your audience.

By keeping it to 5 beats, these will help you recognise and mark the most important moments in relation to your character’s journey.

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

This is where the brilliant character work comes in that you did last lesson!

SETUP – Character and their world

BEAT 1 - Inciting incident and introducing the problem

This is the moment the protagonist is faced with a problem and must make a choice.

So with Tim the Turtle, let’s say we’ve introduced Tim and his world, but the inciting incident, the thing that makes him decide he needs to get escape the Turner’s is the moment when he’s treated really poorly by them, and this is the breaking point for Tim – this incident has sparked the idea that he will escape.

BEAT 2 – Obstacle #1

The character sets out and encounters their first obstacle, but things are going well and this obstacle is pretty easy.

Tim’s first obstacles is to draw up his escape plan, which involves reconnaissance, map making – he just has to not get seen.

BEAT 3 Obstacle #2 (roughly the middle of your story)

The next obstacle poses more difficulty, the character is challenged more and their task becomes more complicated – they might have to change their approach, devise a new plan, or alter their goal. The stakes might become higher as well.

To actually start putting the plan in place, Tim has to take greater risks stealing items from the family – greatly increasing his chances of getting found out.

BEAT 4 - Obstacle #3

The greatest obstacle of all, confronted with their worst fear and the stakes!

Tim’s treasure trove of stolen items is discovered, and he thinks he’s been found out and will be punished, but thankfully it’s just a setback.

BEAT 5 Climax

The plot question is answered, and they finally overcome the problem (or do they?)

Tim escapes the Turner family home and encounters the huge fence – but he’s been working on his upper-body strength and is able to escape.

RESOLUTION: Now the problem has been resolved, we want to answer the character question as well.

Tim has escaped, he’s free BUT he’s alone. But he manages to find his way home to the wetlands and here he finds a community of Turtles.

Your turn

Use the template below to fill in your own 5 beats. 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.

Lesson 4

Summarising your story

We recommend preparing three 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 all three will help a lot when you get round to writing your script.

One liner (one sentence)

Similar to your original premise, but more refined now you know more about your story, characters, etc.

A synopsis (a paragraph)

More detailed and longer - will include character + their world, stakes, plot question, character question, and possibly more.

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.

Lesson 5

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.

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 most common screenwriting software used in the film industry is Final Draft, but we recommend using the free ones for now.

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

Screenwriting Shorthand

Now you have the basics and tense sorted, you might like to add some shorthand techniques to your script.

Parenthetical

Parentheses are used when a character needs to make a small action during their dialogue, or if the writer wants to indicate how the line is being spoken. Use parentheses sparingly, and keep it short. For example, let’s take the dialogue from above and add parentheses:

Script line example 2

Voice over (V.O)

This is a voice that is heard but not seen. It may be the inner voice of a character or someone on a phone call.

Script line example 3

Off-screen (O.S)

With off-screen, the character is still in the scene, just not on camera at that exact moment. So if one character was talking to another who was in another room, you could use (O.S) for the character that's in the other room. Or maybe with a phone conversation, the character on the other end of the line could be heard but not seen.

Script line example 4

WRITING (AND REWRITING!)

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
  • 5 key beats
  • plotting
  • synopses

Scene Questions

When writing a scene, think of it as having its own structure. Scenes have their own beginning middle and end.

Keep these questions in mind as you write, so you can really captivate your reader and keep your characters and story on track.

  • Whose scene is it?
  • What do they want? (this can be a smaller goal that relates to their overall ‘want’)
  • What gets in the way? (conflict or a force of antagonism)
  • Moment of change (character decides to...)
  • Rhythm: a chance to pause, slow down, speed up or change
  • Show or tell: visuals convey meaning, not just dialogue. Think of using one or the other at a time, but never both.

Writing is re-writing

As you go, you’ll know more about your story and characters. It’s totally ok to change course. It’s all part of the process.

Once you have written your first scene, see if you can write another. Step away, and come back to it later or read it aloud. You’ll see what is working and what might need some more tweaking.

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!

Moodboard

Reference images help people visualise the film. Drawings, photos, collage. Make a mood board of whatever you think best shows the visual look and feel of your film.

The key word here is feel . It's not about aesthetics or things looking nice, but how you want the audience to feel.

You might have one mood board, or several.

So you could have a mood board for:

  • The world of your story
  • Your protagonist
  • Individual locations/settings
  • General inspiration
Mood board basic

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-liner
  • 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.

Optional (submit if you'd like to)

  • Your one-page outline/treatment
  • Your mood board

Please submit your work by Thursday 1 April (the last day of Term 1). If you need more time, let us know, and we can push back the deadline to Tuesday 20 April.