Writing for the Screen resources 7-8
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 – that's what we call a feature-length film.
This page is students who have registered or been registered for this program.
The program will run like this:
Lesson 1: do at home/school by 18 October
Lesson 2: Online lesson 19 October
Lesson 3: do at home/school by 22 October
Lesson 4: Online lesson 23 October
Lesson 5: do at home or school and send us your work in November
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.
Where do ideas come from?
Ideation and creative tasks for coming up with ideas
Premise and problem
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
Here are the different types of pitch documents you can look into. These can accompany your other work.
- Mood board
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
Pitch doc/one pager
The kinds of things you might want to consider are:
This is where it becomes useful to have done the paragraph summary of your story!
The central characters
Who’s journey are we following?
Why you and why now?
This is where you can bring in that early work you did on premise and theme. Why this story matters to you and your purpose for writing it.
- what are you trying to say?
-what is your writer's intent and if you want to film it and direct it yourself, what is your filmmaker's intent?
-What makes it special or unique?
Your audience will go on an emotional journey with your protagonist. It’s all about the audience empathising and being on board with your character.
See if you can picture who this audience is in your mind. Who do you think would watch and relate to the film?
Visual cues are helpful to show the tone and style you image for the film. (Pick a few of your favourites from your mood board if you like).
- Verbal pitch
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.
- 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.
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. Please submit your work no later than Monday 23 November.
What to submit
- Send us your logline and paragraph synopsis
- Send us a script excerpt (aim for at least a page)
Your script excerpt 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 by.
- Send us a pitch doc, so either a mood board, recording of your verbal pitch, or sizzle reel
- Send us your full treatment or full script if you complete a draft