How to write a screenplay

Mitya Voskresensky
Mitya VoskresenskyDigital strategist em Grey Moscow
How to write
a screenplay.
Or tell a better story.
by Victor Piñeiro
[storystuff]
What’s your idea?
First things first.
It should be awesome.
It should have a HOOK.
It should be HIGH CONCEPT.
Which really means...
high concept: adj. a story based on a striking and
easily communicable plot or idea
(Oxford English Dictionary)
Awesome ideas.
• A cop who has to kill robots might be a robot himself.
• During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power
breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaurs to run amok.
• A suicidal family man is given the opportunity to see what
the world would be like if he had never been born.
• A guy who complains about God too often is given
almighty powers to teach him how difficult it is to run the
world.
• After an Alaskan town is plunged into darkness for a
month, it is attacked by a bloodthirsty gang of vampires.
You need a PLOT
and a STORY.
Plot
• the hero WANTING something
• one event causing another
Story
• the hero NEEDING something
• revealing the hero’s character
Tell it to me in one line.
Okay, you’ve got your awesome idea.
Your one-line idea, or LOGLINE, should include or
suggest these three elements:
Someone (the hero) wants something (the goal) but
is blocked by something (the adversary).
Awesome loglines
• An 8-year-old boy, who is accidentally left behind while his
family flies to France for Christmas, has to defend his home
against idiotic burglars.
• A cowboy toy is profoundly threatened and jealous when a
fancy spaceman toy supplants him as top toy in a boy's
room.
• A weatherman finds himself living the same day over and
over again.
• A naive young man battles heartless authorities to protect
the life of his girlfriend when it’s revealed that she’s not
human— she’s a mermaid.
If it helps, you can also describe the TONE of your movie
with an “X meets Y”, “X with Y” or “X in Y” one-liner.
Pocahontas In Space
blair witch meets Godzilla
hamlet with lions
jaws with other
creatures
Your idea in one word.
For bonus points, give me:
(This is your THEME.)
revenge.
family.
character.
Who’s your hero?
Okay, you have an idea.
What does heWANT?
What does he NEED?
To define your hero, ask:
A WANT is external.
A NEED is internal.
WANTS: Parents to Meet
NEEDS: Courage
WANTS: Money
NEEDS: Trust/Love
WANTS: Tomorrow
NEEDS: ToAppreciateToday
WANTS: To Defeat Doc Ock
NEEDS: Confidence
What’s his FLAW?
[What he NEEDS is related to his FLAW.]
One more question.
FEAR.
INDECISION..
SELF-DOUBT.
Who’s the adversary?
Okay, you’ve got a hero.
[Note: They might not be a villain.]
An adversary embodies the hero’s FLAW.
An adversary forces the hero to face his FLAW.
Adversary.
ADVERSARY.
ADVERSARY.
ADVERSARY.
Let’s talk STRUCTURE.
Idea? Check.
Hero? Check.
Adversary? Check.
Most films (and many stories) have THREE ACTS.
Each ACT is made up of SEQUENCES.
Each SEQUENCE is made up of SCENES.
Each SCENE is made up of BEATS.
MOVIE
SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE
SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE
SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE
SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE
SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE
ACT ACT ACT
SEQUENCE SEQUENCE SEQUENCE
SEQUENCE SEQUENCE SEQUENCE
SEQUENCE SEQUENCE SEQUENCE
=
=
=
BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT
BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT
BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT
BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT
BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT
=
Beat
• the smallest unit in a script/story
• an exchange of action & reaction
Scene
• a continuous action in a specific location
• functions as a mini-story
• has a protagonist with a goal
• the protagonists must face an obstacle
• a scene either moves the story forward or
• reveals info about the character
Sequence
• several scenes that build up to a bigger climax
• each sequence has a mini-goal
• sequences end in turning points
• turning point = a goal achieved or lost
• turning point = the story changing direction
Act
• several sequences that build up to a climax
• the climax is a a major turning point
Stories also tend to have the following SIGNPOSTS.
A day in the life.
Show us what the hero’s world is like, introduce all the
main characters, introduce the hero’s flaw(s).
ACT I ACT II ACT III
MIDPOINT
The SPARK!
Something happens and the hero’s world is FLIPPED ON
ITS HEAD. This is where the HOOK comes in. You can
also consider this THE CALL TO ADVENTURE.
ACT I ACT II ACT III
MIDPOINT
Do I Stay or Do I Go?
The hero must decide whether to embark on this
adventure (or take this new opportunity). 99% of the time
she will REFUSE INITIALLY and something will drive her
to make the decision and GO!
ACT I ACT II ACT III
MIDPOINT
Into the NewWorld
The hero (boldly) ventures into the new world, which is
the OPPOSITE of the world she’s lived in up to this point.
ACT I ACT II ACT III
MIDPOINT
What is love?
The new world often comes with a few new characters,
including the LOVE INTEREST. He usually represents
what the hero NEEDS.
ACT I ACT II ACT III
MIDPOINT
MeltTheir Faces Off
Remember that awesome HOOK you thought up? Pay it
off here. The hero has fun with her new powers or
situation. The audience should LOVE this part.
ACT I ACT II ACT III
MIDPOINT
Crossing the Rubicon
In other words, this is the POINT OF NO RETURN. The
hero must do something which she can’t undo, which
will soon plunge her into the NIGHTMARE... but not
quite yet.
ACT I ACT II ACT III
MIDPOINT
FalseVictory
The hero gets a moment of clarity, and everything seems
like it’s going to be okay – she’s going to prevail...
[Note: sometimes this is False Defeat.]
ACT I ACT II ACT III
MIDPOINT
Long Journey Into Night
Things go from bad to worse. The villains come back,
way more powerful than before. The hero’s losing her
external battle and internal battle (which often means the
love interest leaves).
ACT I ACT II ACT III
MIDPOINT
Rock Bottom
Things could not get worse. The villains seem
unstoppable. All hope is lost. The love interest ditched
the hero (usually because of the hero’s FLAW). And just
when things are at their most hopeless...
ACT I ACT II ACT III
MIDPOINT
From theAshes
...the hero realizes her flaw, learns her lesson, and
formulates a plan to defeat the villain. Here’s where the A
story (the main plot) and the B story (often the love
interest) meet.
ACT I ACT II ACT III
MIDPOINT
Time to KickAss!
The hero faces the villain, who is at their strongest... and
WINS! By winning she has now CHANGED THE
WORLD. The hero is now older and wiser. And every
major character HAS CHANGED.
ACT I ACT II ACT III
MIDPOINT
ACT ONE
Day In the Life
The SPARK!
Do I Stay or Do I Go?
Into the New World!
ACT TWO
What Is Love?
Melt Their Faces Off
Crossing the Rubicon (Midpoint)
False Victory
Long Journey Into Night
Rock Bottom
From the Ashes
ACT THREE
Time to Kick Ass!
Signposts
Focus on your outline.
The best advice I can give you at this point is:
Spend a lot of time working out the beats, scenes,
sequences and acts. Use the signposts to help guide
your story. Stories/Scripts ARE structure. Iron out
structure before you dive into the writing.*
* This point is super controversial. For another take, Google the term “pantser”.
Checklist
✓ You have an awesome idea that’s easy to communicate.
✓ Your hero is awesome and likable.
✓ She wants something that’s tangible, and she wants it BAD.
✓ She is flawed and needs to change if she’s to succeed.
✓ Her adversary is formidable.
✓ Every scene has conflict.
✓ Obstacles get harder and harder.
✓ Stakes get higher and higher.
✓ We enter scenes late and leave scenes early.
✓ Every major character changes by the end.
✓ The turning points should be SURPRISING BUT INEVITABLE.
Rookie Mistakes
• Your hero is too passive.
• Your main character has too many friends.
• You have a few (or many) scenes that lack conflict.
• Your characters don’t all change (or learn something).
• You have too much exposition, and are telling, not showing.
• Your scenes are way too long.
• Every character sounds the same.
• The stakes aren’t high enough.
Read.
Finally, the best advice I can give you:
Start with these books.
• Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
• Story by Robert McKee
• The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier
• Screenplay by Syd Field
• The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
• Writing Movies For Fun & Profit by Ben Garant & Tom Lennon
• Save the Cat Strikes Back by Blake Snyder
* In order of usefulness (to me).
Visit these websites.
• http://johnaugust.com
• http://screenwritingtips.tumblr.com/
• http://www.gointothestory.com/
• http://scriptshadow.blogspot.com/
• http://www.tracking-board.com/
Caveats!
These tips and guidelines are a collection of stuff I’ve found
useful as I’ve learned about storytelling and screenwriting.
Nothing here is set in stone and all these “rules” can be broken.
I learned a lot of this stuff from the books I mentioned earlier – 
do yourself a favor and read them!
I’m barely scratching the surface here. Didn’t even get into genre!
I wrote this for friends who’ve asked me to give them a quick
primer on storytelling basics, and for a younger version of myself
– I wish I’d known some of this when I was in high school or
college.
Who IAm
Hi – I’m Victor. I haven’t written an Oscar-winning screenplay, a
summer blockbuster or The Great American Novel.
I did write and produce the documentary Second Skin, which
premiered at SXSW, won a bunch of awards, and was distributed
internationally. I’ve also written a bunch of screenplays, one
which was a Sundance Film Lab Finalist.
Besides film, I’ve worked on establishing stories and voices for
Skittles, Star Wars and other brands. I’ve also published a bunch
of articles and poetry. And of course, I’ve got that unfinished
novel in the desk drawer.
Talk to me: victor@victorpineiro.com Twitter: @victorpineiro
Thanks!
Tyson Damman for the design.
James Hutchinson for the advice.
Will Simon for the edits.
Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza for the ideas.
Greg Babonis for the tweaks.
How to write a screenplay
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How to write a screenplay

  • 1. How to write a screenplay. Or tell a better story. by Victor Piñeiro [storystuff]
  • 2. What’s your idea? First things first.
  • 3. It should be awesome. It should have a HOOK. It should be HIGH CONCEPT. Which really means...
  • 4. high concept: adj. a story based on a striking and easily communicable plot or idea (Oxford English Dictionary)
  • 5. Awesome ideas. • A cop who has to kill robots might be a robot himself. • During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaurs to run amok. • A suicidal family man is given the opportunity to see what the world would be like if he had never been born. • A guy who complains about God too often is given almighty powers to teach him how difficult it is to run the world. • After an Alaskan town is plunged into darkness for a month, it is attacked by a bloodthirsty gang of vampires.
  • 6. You need a PLOT and a STORY.
  • 7. Plot • the hero WANTING something • one event causing another
  • 8. Story • the hero NEEDING something • revealing the hero’s character
  • 9. Tell it to me in one line. Okay, you’ve got your awesome idea.
  • 10. Your one-line idea, or LOGLINE, should include or suggest these three elements: Someone (the hero) wants something (the goal) but is blocked by something (the adversary).
  • 11. Awesome loglines • An 8-year-old boy, who is accidentally left behind while his family flies to France for Christmas, has to defend his home against idiotic burglars. • A cowboy toy is profoundly threatened and jealous when a fancy spaceman toy supplants him as top toy in a boy's room. • A weatherman finds himself living the same day over and over again. • A naive young man battles heartless authorities to protect the life of his girlfriend when it’s revealed that she’s not human— she’s a mermaid.
  • 12. If it helps, you can also describe the TONE of your movie with an “X meets Y”, “X with Y” or “X in Y” one-liner.
  • 14. blair witch meets Godzilla
  • 17. Your idea in one word. For bonus points, give me: (This is your THEME.)
  • 21. Who’s your hero? Okay, you have an idea.
  • 22. What does heWANT? What does he NEED? To define your hero, ask:
  • 23. A WANT is external. A NEED is internal.
  • 24. WANTS: Parents to Meet NEEDS: Courage
  • 27. WANTS: To Defeat Doc Ock NEEDS: Confidence
  • 28. What’s his FLAW? [What he NEEDS is related to his FLAW.] One more question.
  • 29. FEAR.
  • 32. Who’s the adversary? Okay, you’ve got a hero. [Note: They might not be a villain.]
  • 33. An adversary embodies the hero’s FLAW. An adversary forces the hero to face his FLAW.
  • 38. Let’s talk STRUCTURE. Idea? Check. Hero? Check. Adversary? Check.
  • 39. Most films (and many stories) have THREE ACTS. Each ACT is made up of SEQUENCES. Each SEQUENCE is made up of SCENES. Each SCENE is made up of BEATS.
  • 40. MOVIE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE SCENE ACT ACT ACT SEQUENCE SEQUENCE SEQUENCE SEQUENCE SEQUENCE SEQUENCE SEQUENCE SEQUENCE SEQUENCE = = = BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT BEAT =
  • 41. Beat • the smallest unit in a script/story • an exchange of action & reaction
  • 42. Scene • a continuous action in a specific location • functions as a mini-story • has a protagonist with a goal • the protagonists must face an obstacle • a scene either moves the story forward or • reveals info about the character
  • 43. Sequence • several scenes that build up to a bigger climax • each sequence has a mini-goal • sequences end in turning points • turning point = a goal achieved or lost • turning point = the story changing direction
  • 44. Act • several sequences that build up to a climax • the climax is a a major turning point
  • 45. Stories also tend to have the following SIGNPOSTS.
  • 46. A day in the life. Show us what the hero’s world is like, introduce all the main characters, introduce the hero’s flaw(s). ACT I ACT II ACT III MIDPOINT
  • 47. The SPARK! Something happens and the hero’s world is FLIPPED ON ITS HEAD. This is where the HOOK comes in. You can also consider this THE CALL TO ADVENTURE. ACT I ACT II ACT III MIDPOINT
  • 48. Do I Stay or Do I Go? The hero must decide whether to embark on this adventure (or take this new opportunity). 99% of the time she will REFUSE INITIALLY and something will drive her to make the decision and GO! ACT I ACT II ACT III MIDPOINT
  • 49. Into the NewWorld The hero (boldly) ventures into the new world, which is the OPPOSITE of the world she’s lived in up to this point. ACT I ACT II ACT III MIDPOINT
  • 50. What is love? The new world often comes with a few new characters, including the LOVE INTEREST. He usually represents what the hero NEEDS. ACT I ACT II ACT III MIDPOINT
  • 51. MeltTheir Faces Off Remember that awesome HOOK you thought up? Pay it off here. The hero has fun with her new powers or situation. The audience should LOVE this part. ACT I ACT II ACT III MIDPOINT
  • 52. Crossing the Rubicon In other words, this is the POINT OF NO RETURN. The hero must do something which she can’t undo, which will soon plunge her into the NIGHTMARE... but not quite yet. ACT I ACT II ACT III MIDPOINT
  • 53. FalseVictory The hero gets a moment of clarity, and everything seems like it’s going to be okay – she’s going to prevail... [Note: sometimes this is False Defeat.] ACT I ACT II ACT III MIDPOINT
  • 54. Long Journey Into Night Things go from bad to worse. The villains come back, way more powerful than before. The hero’s losing her external battle and internal battle (which often means the love interest leaves). ACT I ACT II ACT III MIDPOINT
  • 55. Rock Bottom Things could not get worse. The villains seem unstoppable. All hope is lost. The love interest ditched the hero (usually because of the hero’s FLAW). And just when things are at their most hopeless... ACT I ACT II ACT III MIDPOINT
  • 56. From theAshes ...the hero realizes her flaw, learns her lesson, and formulates a plan to defeat the villain. Here’s where the A story (the main plot) and the B story (often the love interest) meet. ACT I ACT II ACT III MIDPOINT
  • 57. Time to KickAss! The hero faces the villain, who is at their strongest... and WINS! By winning she has now CHANGED THE WORLD. The hero is now older and wiser. And every major character HAS CHANGED. ACT I ACT II ACT III MIDPOINT
  • 58. ACT ONE Day In the Life The SPARK! Do I Stay or Do I Go? Into the New World! ACT TWO What Is Love? Melt Their Faces Off Crossing the Rubicon (Midpoint) False Victory Long Journey Into Night Rock Bottom From the Ashes ACT THREE Time to Kick Ass! Signposts
  • 59. Focus on your outline. The best advice I can give you at this point is:
  • 60. Spend a lot of time working out the beats, scenes, sequences and acts. Use the signposts to help guide your story. Stories/Scripts ARE structure. Iron out structure before you dive into the writing.* * This point is super controversial. For another take, Google the term “pantser”.
  • 61. Checklist ✓ You have an awesome idea that’s easy to communicate. ✓ Your hero is awesome and likable. ✓ She wants something that’s tangible, and she wants it BAD. ✓ She is flawed and needs to change if she’s to succeed. ✓ Her adversary is formidable. ✓ Every scene has conflict. ✓ Obstacles get harder and harder. ✓ Stakes get higher and higher. ✓ We enter scenes late and leave scenes early. ✓ Every major character changes by the end. ✓ The turning points should be SURPRISING BUT INEVITABLE.
  • 62. Rookie Mistakes • Your hero is too passive. • Your main character has too many friends. • You have a few (or many) scenes that lack conflict. • Your characters don’t all change (or learn something). • You have too much exposition, and are telling, not showing. • Your scenes are way too long. • Every character sounds the same. • The stakes aren’t high enough.
  • 63. Read. Finally, the best advice I can give you:
  • 64. Start with these books. • Save the Cat by Blake Snyder • Story by Robert McKee • The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier • Screenplay by Syd Field • The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell • Writing Movies For Fun & Profit by Ben Garant & Tom Lennon • Save the Cat Strikes Back by Blake Snyder * In order of usefulness (to me).
  • 65. Visit these websites. • http://johnaugust.com • http://screenwritingtips.tumblr.com/ • http://www.gointothestory.com/ • http://scriptshadow.blogspot.com/ • http://www.tracking-board.com/
  • 66. Caveats! These tips and guidelines are a collection of stuff I’ve found useful as I’ve learned about storytelling and screenwriting. Nothing here is set in stone and all these “rules” can be broken. I learned a lot of this stuff from the books I mentioned earlier –  do yourself a favor and read them! I’m barely scratching the surface here. Didn’t even get into genre! I wrote this for friends who’ve asked me to give them a quick primer on storytelling basics, and for a younger version of myself – I wish I’d known some of this when I was in high school or college.
  • 67. Who IAm Hi – I’m Victor. I haven’t written an Oscar-winning screenplay, a summer blockbuster or The Great American Novel. I did write and produce the documentary Second Skin, which premiered at SXSW, won a bunch of awards, and was distributed internationally. I’ve also written a bunch of screenplays, one which was a Sundance Film Lab Finalist. Besides film, I’ve worked on establishing stories and voices for Skittles, Star Wars and other brands. I’ve also published a bunch of articles and poetry. And of course, I’ve got that unfinished novel in the desk drawer. Talk to me: victor@victorpineiro.com Twitter: @victorpineiro
  • 68. Thanks! Tyson Damman for the design. James Hutchinson for the advice. Will Simon for the edits. Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza for the ideas. Greg Babonis for the tweaks.