VCES Writing for the Screen 9-11 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.
The program will run like this:
Lesson 1: do at home/school by 17 March. This lesson is all about ideas and ideation.
Lesson 2: Online lesson with ACMI 18 March
Lesson 3: do at home/school by 23 March
Lesson 4: Online lesson with ACMI 24 March
Lesson 5: pull all your work together and submit to the ACMI team by Tuesday 20 April, 2021.
If you haven't read or received your Writing for the Screen introduction document, download or open it below.
Otherwise, if you're ready, get started on Lesson 1. Before you do, make sure you have a document on your device open, or a workbook/journal to keep track of your ideas and your work.
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 I even think of an idea??
Some of you might already have some ideas jotted down. But if not, we’re going to show you some ways to get started.
The main thing to remember is, that not all of these methods will work for you. You may be drawn to one method and not others.
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.
A premise is the essence of your film idea. Think of it as having three parts. A character: the person whose story we follow, a conflict or problem: something that happens to force change in the character, and a resolution: what happens as a result of the conflict or problem.
There are a number of ways to find a premise. We'll show you two ways so you can try them both and see if either work for you.
The first part you have already done without realising it- you are human, you live in the world and you observe what happens around you.
Ideation: starting with theme
If you keep a notebook of ideas or random thoughts, you’re well on your way. Ideas can start with the smallest seed. The theme might start with one of these seeds in your notebook.
A theme is what stories are really about, they go beyond the plot of a story and into the meaning of the story. Themes are about finding ideas or a point of view that means something to you.
Start by brainstorming some statements around these questions:
What's going on in the news that I care about?
What social or cultural issues do I feel strongly about?
What am I affected by in the world?
What are my values?
What do I believe in?
In what ways do I wish people, or the world, was better?
Take one or more responses of yours, and develop a statement. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can find what you are trying to say. Let’s use an example:
After brainstorming about our film idea, we came up with an idea that relates to our values: I believe it's important to care about your friends and they will care about you in return.
So, then we made a simple statement out of this theme. What would happen if someone didn’t care about their friends? Here’s what we came up with:
“Selfishness leads to loneliness”.
See how I used the words leads to. This helps link a problem to its consequences.
Now, let’s bring in a character. What sort of character would best illustrate my theme?
This is what we came up with:
A selfish and self-obsessed character, who thinks only about themselves, so much so they stop thinking about others and therefore risk losing their friends and becoming lonely.
So here we have:
A character: The self-obsessed person
A problem or conflict: They start losing their friends because of their actions.
Resolution or consequence: the character learns that they will be lonely if they keep acting selfishly.
Stories have three parts- a beginning, middle and end. So, you can see that a simple structure can be created from this statement. You’re well on your way!
Your turn: if you haven't already, take one of the themes you brainstormed, and develop a character to explore that theme, problem or conflict the character might face, and a resolution or consequence for that character.
How to turn your thematic statement into a premise
Now see if you can brainstorm further by fleshing out the three parts...here’s what we came up with:
The character: Who are they? What led them to be a self-absorbed person? Were they always like this? Maybe this person is good at heart, but they think that being noticed more important.
The problem: They spend all their time looking for validation on social media instead of the friends they already have.
Resolution: So, the journey of this character is about realising that making genuine connections with people is more meaningful.
You’ll see that each time we added to this, we’re getting more of a picture of the character and what might happen. It's starting to shift and change, even from my first thematic statement. Remember it’s not set in stone, so play around and think big.
Your turn: expand upon your simple premise, flesh out more information about the character, their problem, and the possible resolution.
Ideation: using visual stimulus
Ideas can come from visual prompts too. If you’re more of a visual person, this method might work better for you.
💻 Find two images side by side. They can be completely unrelated, or one image might lead you to find another. To get started you can go to https://randomwordgenerator.com/picture.php and select generate two images.
We found these two unrelated images and put them side by side:
By looking at the pictures, ask a bunch of who, what, where, when and how questions. Here’s what I came up with:
Who: A girl with a musical instrument and a girl taking a photo with a phone on a selfie stick
Where: The girl with the mandolin is in a room and the selfie stick photo is being taken outside. Is it a particular place in the world? Are they from different places?
When: One image appears to be from the past and the other seems like present time
What: What’s the connection between them?
Why: Why is one playing an instrument and the other taking a photo?
How: How does an iphone and selfie stick relate to the past? How might the two characters or worlds meet?
Your turn: You can try as many versions of this until you feel happy with your answers. Jot down every possibility- you never know what unexpected ideas might come to you.
Ideation: using the Pixar method
The third method is one that Pixar animation studio often use to create the premise of their films. It’s a really handy way of sketching out the key building blocks of your premise and story.
There was once a character called ____________ Each day __________ until one day__________.
Because of that, this happened_________________ And then, this happened_________________
Until finally _____________.
'There once was' relates to the setting and set up of the story.
'Every day' shows us what the character is like in their world day-to-day. Sometimes we call this the ‘status quo’.
'One day': something or someone comes along to prompt a change, or set up a problem.
'Because of that': this is our cause and effect- because of one thing, another thing occurs. These are events, obstacles or challenges that the character must overcome on their journey.
'Until finally': This is the resolution. The character returns, but is changed because of their experience
Let's expand on the idea we brainstormed using the who, where, when, what and how, and combine it with the Pixar method.
There once was a phone-obsessed girl from modern times. Every day she would spend all her time on her phone. One day she took a selfie. Because of that, the phone teleported her into the past. Because of that, she becomes stuck in the past, unable to get home. Until finally she finds her way back, only after realising she had taken for granted her life in the present.
Your turn: take an idea you have and apply the Pixar method to it, or start afresh and see where the Pixar method takes you.
What is a setup?
The setup is the way you introduce the world and the characters to the audience. It’s about setting up the ‘ordinary world’ before things change for our character. This helps the audience understand the character and where they are from. Setups are best when they are brief. Film is a visual medium, so you can actually communicate a lot in a short space of time.
In our setup, we want to show my character in her ‘ordinary world’. So, her world before she takes that selfie that forces her to time travel. Time travel can be confusing for an audience, so it’s important to set up what her world is like before she travels back to the past.
Your turn: take the character from one of your ideas and work on the setup - so, expand upon this character and their 'everyday' world before the problem is introduced. This can just be a sentence or two.
What is a hook?
A hook is something that entices your audience into your film concept.
In our example, the character time travels to the past. It leaves us wondering how she will navigate a new world and whether she can make it back. So the hook is the ‘a fish out of water’ element of the story.
The hook is a really important part of pitching your idea too, so we will be coming back to this later in the program.
Think: See if you can identify the 'hook' of your idea? What is it about this idea that will stand out?
Before your next lesson
By now hopefully, you have one idea you're pretty happy with. Come to your first lesson with your premise sketched out for that idea.
We've explored a few different ways of generating ideas and fleshing them out - this is not an exact science, but your premise should include information around:
- beginning: setup, character and their everyday world
- middle: problem or conflict
- end: resolution (you don't have to think of or give away the ending just yet)
If you have an idea about the themes of your story, jot that down too!
This lesson will be all about characters, their goals and obstacles; how character informs story, and narrative arcs.
This will be online lesson and we will upload the presentation from the lesson after it's held.
Here are some notes from this lesson if you want to get a head start:
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.
In opposition to your protagonist
Can also be a character who is forced together with the protagonist - think buddy cop films.
There to force change in the protagonist
Doesn’t always have to be an ‘evil’ character
Feuding best friends or even the love interest in a romantic comedy opposite attract!
Creating a 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.
Goals, Stakes and Obstacles
Goals are the milestones that the protagonist needs to reach in order to achieve their want. They can be both large and small.
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 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.
Plot and character questions
A question should have two parts. One part should be about the circumstances that the character finds themselves in. This is the action that happens in the film. It’s called the plot.
The other part should be about the protagonist’s emotional journey. Let’s call this the character question. These two questions are interconnected and help us keep the story on track.
For our time-travelling example, we came up with:
Will she make her way back to her own time?
Will she learn to appreciate and value others, in order to make genuine friendships beyond social media?
Have a go at coming up with both a plot and a character question. Ultimately, you want to work these questions into your synopsis so you can get the audience intrigued about what the ending of your story will bring in terms of plot and character.
Remember, synopsis don't give away the ending, this is why these questions are enticing for audiences, because they are often wrapped with the last act of the story.
Structuring your story
In the last lesson we spent some time about our characters and what’s at stake for them.
You also should have some ideas around what your character and plot questions might be.
This is the foundation of your narrative arc, or in other words, the story's progression.
This lesson we will look at how we can flesh out the plot that relates to your plot question.
We will cover:
- narrative structure- the plot, or the action that takes place in your story.
- the 5 main story beats to help keep the story on track
- how to start your plotting
Going beyond beginning, middle and end
The terms ‘beginning, middle and end’ are the basis of a narrative structure. You will know this instinctively, because we have all been listening to, and telling stories since we were little.
In this lesson, we’re going to expand on our ‘beginning, middle and end’ and give it some more detail. We're going to start calling these ACTS.
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.
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!
BEAT 1 - Inciting incident
This is the moment the protagonist is faced with a problem and must make a choice.
In my example, I’m going to have a moment when the protagonist takes a selfie. She considers whether to post it to instagram.
BEAT 2 - 1st Act turn
If we think of our beg/middle/end as acts 1 2 and 3, this means the moment where the protagonist is forced to, or choses to embark on the journey. You may want to introduce the antagonist as part of the problem.
In my example the protagonist chooses to post the selfie and is flung back in time through her phone.
BEAT 3 - Midpoint
This is exactly what it sounds like- the middle of your film. The protagonist can’t go back now. They will be doing ok at achieving their goal up until this point. It may be marked by a moment of change, or a key event. There's no going back!
BEAT 4 - 2nd Act Turn/or sometimes called the ‘dark night of the soul’
The protagonist is faced with their worst moment, or face their worst fear. They might feel like they have failed, or an antagonist looks like they may triumph. At the end of this moment, there’s a glimmer of hope, where the protagonist finds the strength they didn’t think they had.
BEAT 5 - Climax
Everything the protagonist has learnt along the way, is used in this moment, as they are faced with one last challenge, or battle. It may be about defeating an antagonist. At the end, the protagonist has changed- they are not the person they were at the start of the journey.
Use the template below to fill in your own 5 beats. Keep them really 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.
Before we get to the script, we want to make sure we have our story planned out. We’ve already talked about the plot as being the action that happens in the story. So plotting means mapping out this action, kind of like a blueprint for your script.
Now that you have your 5 beats written down, now you can start filling out the story a bit more.
Think of it like ‘joint the dots’. Your beats are the dots, so now you can fill in what happens in between them.
Plot your first act using the plotting template below.
- Have your premise, character work and 5 beats handy
- Write in your 5 beats first into the template
- Add in your plot points up until the end of ACT 1 (the First act turn)
- Keep your points brief. If you need more room, you can make your own plot sheet on another piece of paper.
- If you feel confident, you can keep doing this for ACT 2 or even ACT 3.
If you get stuck, come back to the work you did on your protagonist's journey. What do they want? How do they get it? What gets in the way? Scripts are living, movable things! The most important thing is to start something.
Get to know your characters
If you have time, see if you can get to know your characters even more using the template below.
Imagine you are interviewing your character!
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.
When writing your synopsis, here's a bit of a checklist you can use (try and include most if not all of these things:)
- Protagonist & what they are like:
- Inciting incident (the problem)
- Setting or world
- Plot question
When writing your treatment, you're not longer hinting at what happens in the end, you are spelling it out.
- the setup
- the inciting incident
- the actions the characters have to take
- the major obstacles in their way
- the climax
- the resolution – both in terms of plot and emotional character journey.
Putting together your summary documents
Work on your summary documents including your synopsis. You can find our example below to give you a guide.
Writing a script
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!
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.
Now you have the basics and tense sorted, you might like to add some shorthand techniques to your script.
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:
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.
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.
Putting it all together!
Keep your story documents handy as you write your script
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
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.
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.
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!
Pitching is the art of “selling” your idea. Often occurs before script is written, but good to tweak as you go. There are different types of pitches, but all of them invite the audience to be as excited as you are about your film.
As we mentioned last lesson, you may want to put together a verbal pitch, and/or a moodboard to complement your written pitch (so your three summary documents).
Written pitch: your three summary documents essentially form a written pitch. (logline, synopsis, treatment)
A verbal pitch can be a great way to show the audience your personality and your passion for your project. The most important thing is to be yourself- the listener wants to know who you are and why this story is important to you.
Verbal pitches are quite common in the film industry. People are busy and want to know the essence of your film.
Have you heard the term ‘elevator pitch’? It’s a short pitch that should be no longer than the time it literally takes to travel in an elevator.
- The ‘hook’ is probably the second most important thing- come back to our first lesson- you've already got the answer!
- You don’t need to give your listener or reader the whole plot of your film. Come back to your short documents and your key beats! And don’t give away the whole story- keep them wanting more!
- Be creative- what could make your idea stand out?
- Try not to read from a page- engage your listener.
Moodboard: a visual board where you include all types of visual references to give an audience a strong sense of your story and the mood and atmosphere of your film. 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.
Moodboards could include:
- imagery or shots from films that have influenced your story
- imagery from films in a similar genre
- images of real-world or film locations/settings similar to how you imagine the settings of your story
- colour palettes you think would suit your story
- characters similar to your characters
- costumes or props you think would suit the world of your story
Submit your work
Over the course of this program, we’ve covered ideas, character, plotting your story, developing your short synopses, pitching your ideas and the nuts and bolts of scriptwriting.
Send us your:
- Three summary documents. So your one-liner, paragraph synopsis and one-page outline.
- Script excerpt: at least two pages of your script. It could be the opening two pages, or any point in your story.
Additionally, you can send us (this is optional):
- a video recording of your verbal pitch or your mood board
Send your work to firstname.lastname@example.org by Tuesday 20 April, 2021.
Good luck, and email us if you have any questions or concerns, or want to show us your work in progress. We're here to assist you along the way.