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).

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 by March 16, 2021

Lesson 2, online lesson with ACMI: March 16, 2021. This lesson will be about plot and premise, as well as characters.

Lesson 3: Do at home or school before 23 March. This lesson will be all about plotting and finding the key 'beats' of your story

Lesson 4, online lesson with ACMI: 23 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 if you like.

Lesson 1

Coming up with ideas 

All stories, be they for a film, a book, or a TV series, start out as ideas. 

But where do ideas come from? 

The obvious answer is your imagination, but it’s not always as simple as just stopping and having a think and suddenly you have the greatest idea for a story ever!

The good news is you can prompt yourself to think of ideas and prepare yourself to be inspired by the world around you for story ideas as well. 

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 toys and thought “what if toys could walk and talk when no one was 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. 

✏️ Write down three ‘what if....’ questions of your own.

If you have more than three great! When you’re finished pick your favourite three. These should be ones you think are the most exciting for a short film story.

The real world 

Often the world around us inspires ideas and being open and ready to let your mind wander when it finds something interesting is a good practice.  

So, we encourage seeing something interesting and daydreaming about it! 

To give you another example of how the real world can inspire a what-if question, and a cool idea for a short film, let’s watch this student made one:

🤔 Before you read on, have a think: what do you think the 'what if...' question was that inspired this short film?

We love this example because you can see how these guys would’ve come up with this idea.  

They probably went into their sock draw one day and could only find odd socks, and wondered how socks always disappeared. So their 'what if' question might have been "what if the socks escape when we're not looking?" or something like that.

So they daydreamt a bit about it and came up with this idea of a sock escaping the washing machine when no one was watching! They then probably wondered “well, where do the socks go from there?” And came up with this idea of all these socks hiding out having a party under the couch. 

✏️ Activity: do a short lap of your classroom or home, and see if you can find inspiration for a story idea within that space. Write down any or all of the ideas you came up with.

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

- Who is this turtle?

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

- When did this turtle start climbing this fence?

- What has motivated this turtle into climbing 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.

- 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. 

In our first online lesson we will turn this into a premise. A premise is where you take the idea and start to cement that idea a bit more. 

🔎 ✏️Activity: your turn! 

Go to this random picture generator: https://www.teachstarter.com/au/widget/visual-writing-prompts/ and find an image that you'd like to work with.

Come up with a question (or two if you like!) for each, who what when where how. Not all your questions you think of will fall neatly under one of those, so add extra questions under ‘other’. 

Who: 

What: 

When: 

Where: 

How: 

Other questions: 

Now you’ve completed these few activities, look back over the ideas you came up with. 

Pick a favourite idea to work with. You can also include ideas you had already if you like. If you can’t pick a favourite that’s fine. 

Take at least one idea and answer these questions yourself to get kickstart your idea: 

- Who is my main character?

- How would I describe their world and their everyday life? 

- What happens to this character, or what happens in their world? (This could be a problem the character faces, a goal they want to or must achieve, or a complication that upsets their way of life) 

Lesson 2

Premise and problems

Open the .pdf of the lesson if you need to revise at all, but in summary, we looked more closely at premise, character diamonds, and plot questions.

Premise is your idea in its simplest form, maybe only a sentence or two at this early stage.

We have a bit of an equation for premise, and that is:

premise = setup + problem

And setup = character and their world

Don't forget the problem is sometimes known as complication, or inciting incident - same thing really, it's the thing that upsets your character's world, and turns it upside down.

1) Write out the premise for your screen story idea

Character diamond

2) Create a character diamond for your protagonist

A character diamond includes:

  • your protagonist's goal
  • the problem they face in the story
  • their strength
  • their weakness
  • their greatest fear
  • and a hidden talent or special skill

Obstacles and stakes

Obstacles are the things that get in the way of your protagonist achieving their goal, or overcoming the problem.

Stakes are what the protagonist is risking if they don't succeed!

3) Brainstorm a list of possible obstacles for your character, and write a short sentence that explains the stakes for your character

Plot and character question

Instead of giving the ending away, a complete premise will include a plot question.

The plot question is the main question the story will answer by the end.

We care what happens to the main character, so we might include a character question, a question that is a bit more personal - more character based than plot based.

4) Write out the key plot question for your story.

5) Come back to your character diamond to help you think of a character question for your story

Bring it all together

So now it's time to take some of this great information you've developed, and include it into your premise. This will fill it out, add more detail, and give your story much more direction.

You don't have to pack everything in! It's not very scientific to say this BUT just include what you think is right, and works.

Have your original premise handy, and see if you can include:

  • some character information from your character diamond (doesn't have to all be in there!)
  • obstacles and stakes
  • plot question
  • character question

Lesson 3

Structuring your story

By now, hopefully you have been able to turn your idea into a premise.

You’ll also know a bit more about your main character and have your character diamond.

We also talked about Plot questions.

These will all help as we start adding more detail to our stories.

If you didn’t get time during the last lesson, spend some time finishing these off now.

In this lesson, we are going to look at how we flesh out more detail in the story. This is called a structure. It’s just like our house diagram. Imagine the premise is the foundation of the house, the characters are the walls, and now we are going to put the roof on.

Beginning, middle and end

(Sometimes this is also called Orientation, Problem, Resolution)

We know you’re probably familiar with these three words. We’ve all been listening to or telling stories since we were young. Most stories follow this structure. We have a structure so we can keep our audience entertained until the end! But most importantly, we want to take them on a journey with our characters.

What happens in the beginning?

We meet a character and their world or setting for the story.

What happens in the Middle?

A problem is established and the character goes about solving it

What happens in the End?

The problem is resolved, but because of the adventure or what the character has learned along the way, they are not the same as when they started.

Using a map

We use maps so we know which direction we are going in. The same applies when we are developing a script. Maps can be handy to keep your story on track. Now you have gathered all this great information, see if you can create a story map like ours below.

You’ll see that we haven’t fleshed out the whole story yet, but we definitely have the most exciting points mapped out.

Lesson 4

In this online lesson, we cover:

  • one-liners
  • synopsis
  • outlines
  • how to write a script

You'll find a .pdf version of the presentation below after the lesson.

One-liner

Similar to your original premise, maybe even shorter! It is the essence of your story.

Synopsis

More detailed and longer than the one-liner or your original premise — will include character + their world, stakes, plot question, character question, and possibly more (stakes, obstacles)

Outline

Might be a page of writing, where you flesh out the details of your story. For this you’re relying on your story map a bit more as you’re telling the story as it would unfold on screen. Not yet a film script.

1) Now that you've got all this extra information about your story, your characters, and plot - time to work on these three pieces of writing. Write a one-liner and synopsis of your story, and when you're ready, write an outline. Remember, it's helpful to have your story map handy when you write your outline!

The outline is there to help you bridge the gap between your story map and your script. The outline has more detail than your story map, but not as much detail as your script will have, so it helps you write your script!

This is the Outline Checklist we told you about in the lesson- it might help!

  • the setup
  • the problem
  • the actions the characters have to take  
  • the major obstacles in their way  
  • the climax
  • the resolution – plot (action) and character (emotional) journey.

Lesson 5

What to send us

Just a reminder, here's what we would like you to send us - so, the work you need to submit!

  • One-liner
  • One paragraph synopsis
  • Script sample (a page or two)

Optional- if you are a keen bean!

  • Story outline (no more than one page)

Email us your work at writingforscreen@acmi.net.au by Thursday 1 April. If you need more time, let us know and you can send us your work by Tuesday 20 April.

If you can, please CC your teacher into your email.

Keep reading to get more information about writing your script sample.

Formatting a script

A script 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.

Films are 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 font that we use when formatting is Courier New. But don’t worry too much about this- your software will do it for you. It will also help you with the formatting.

Take a look at our example in lesson 4 if you need a reminder of what it looks like.

Writing and rewriting

Here’s some helpful hints as you start writing your scripts.

Keep your story work handy

You’ve done all the background work, so this is where you get to bring your story to the page. Keep your story work 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
  • synopsis or outline

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? (the protagonist or another character?)
  • What do they want? (this can be a smaller version of their overall goal)
  • What gets in the way? (an obstacle)
  • Moment of change (character decides to...)
  • Show or tell: we can say a lot by looking at something. Try describing what we are seeing rather than always having a character explaining through dialogue.

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.

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!

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 is important

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. So give yourself time to experiment and follow your gut instinct.