Writing for the Screen resources 9-11

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 11 October

Lesson 2: Online lesson 12 October

Lesson 3: do at home/school by 15 October 

Lesson 4: Online lesson 16 October

Lesson 5: do at home or school and send us your work in late October/ early 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.

Lesson 1

Ideation/idea brewing 

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 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. 

Premise

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: 

Vermeer and music creative commons.jpeg
two people selfie creative commons.jpeg

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!

Lesson 3

Structuring your story

Last lesson

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

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.

5 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!

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.

Your turn: 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.

Your turn: 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.

Character extension

Your turn: 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!

Lesson 5

Get started on your synopses

  • Working on your pitch & practicing it
  • Script formatting
  • Writing (and rewriting!)

GETTING STARTED ON YOUR SYNOPSES

We would love you work on your short documents or synopses that we talked about last lesson. You can find our example below to give you a guide.

WORKING ON YOUR PITCH & PRACTICING IT

Below is a recap of the types of pitching we discussed in the last lesson. Think about which of these stand out to you.

  1. 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.

  1. Pitch doc/one pager

The kinds of things you might want to consider are:

The storyline

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?

Audience

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?

Reference images

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).

  1. 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.

  • 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.
  1. Sizzle Reel/teaser

You could make a short test shoot or a sizzle reel if you think it will help with your hook or mood of the film. You can do something as simple as shooting some footage on your phone or ipad and using iMovie to edit. If you are more advanced with your filmmaking you might want to do something a bit more high tech, but the principle is the same as your short documents- keep it simple and punchy and leave the viewer wanting more.

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!

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.

Now it's your turn to put it all together. Please try and send the following through no later than Monday 16 November.

  1. Send us your logline and paragraph synopsis
  2. 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.

OPTIONAL

  1. Send us a pitch doc, so either a mood board, recording of your verbal pitch, or sizzle reel
  2. Send us your full treatment or full script if you complete a draft

writingforscreen@acmi.net.au