So you want to write a screenplay. Awesome! I’m proud of you. Remember, no matter how crappy your screenplay is, you will be miles ahead of every single person who’s ever said “I have a great idea for a movie!” but never bothered to write that script, which from my experience is the entire human population outside of screenwriters.
So where do you start? I like to start with the following four things:
- What does my character want?
- Why does my character want this thing?
- What is my character’s plan to get this thing?
- What will happen if this particular plan fails?
Now I’m sure if you’ve spent time on screenwriting forums or blogs before, you may have seen something like this before. It’s certainly not a reinvention of the wheel. However, there are a few slight tweaks that I think are important enough to talk about, especially since I’ve seen some of them skipped over by other people.
1. What does my character want?
What your main character wants is what shapes your story. Now when you’re trying to figure out your character’s motivation, I actually find it helpful to “flesh in” rather than “flesh out.” Start with something super vague and then figure out what specific things need to happen to make that vague motivation more concrete. For example, something like “Rocky Balboa wants to win a boxing match” is a shit motivation. No one can relate to this unless they are a boxer. But we can totally work with something like “Rocky Balboa wants to prove his doubters wrong.” Now we have a lot of insight into what sorts of scenes need to happen in order to give weight to that final boxing match. (Get it? It’s the heavyweight championship?)
2. Why does my character want this thing?
I hinted at this in step 1, but I think it’s so important it deserves its own step. While the thing your character wants shapes your story, WHY your character wants it shapes the character itself. A character who wants $100,000 to pay for their child’s cancer treatments and a character who wants $100,000 to buy a new sports car are two fundamentally different characters. A character who wants to overthrow their government in order to restore peace, prosperity, and freedom is fundamentally different than a character who wants to overthrow their government in order to install themselves as the new dictator.
After you figure out what your character wants, a common mistake is to just take it for granted that your audience will understand why your character wants that thing. After all who doesn’t want money? Who doesn’t want power? Who doesn’t want love? Who doesn’t want to survive? All of these are recurring motivations in thousands of different movies. The ones that do them best take the time to remind us why these fundamentals of human existence are fundamentals of human existence. Don’t be lazy. Don’t skip step 2.
3. What is my character’s plan to get this thing?
Like step 2, this is partially about story but also about character. Someone who plans to get their $100,000 by orchestrating an elaborate heist is much different from someone who plans to get their $100,000 by marrying a millionaire, and both of those are different from someone who plans to get their $100,000 from selling drugs. Of course all three of these would make for very different movies as well.
Either way, there’s a damn fine reason why people don’t really make movies about characters sitting around waiting for the thing they want to magically appear. There’s Waiting For Gadot, and that’s about it. And that arguably shouldn’t even count since it was a stage play first. Your character needs a plan. Maybe it’s a plan they come up with themselves, maybe it’s a plan thrust upon them and they are dragged along kicking and screaming. Either way, there has to be a plan, and your audience has to know what that plan is.
4. What will happen if this particular plan fails?
The concept of “stakes” is relatively common in screenwriting discussions. The gist of it is that we need to feel like shit will hit the fan if our protagonist is unsuccessful. All too often, it is left at that, which I consider an oversimplification. It’s not enough to just have high stakes for failure in general. We need high stakes for this plan. We don’t really get any drama if we feel like our protagonist can just try different plans over and over again until they get it right.
Imagine if in Back to the Future Marty McFly had a list of 10 times over the next week when lightning would strike and he could get back to 1985. It sounds dumb because it is dumb. The climax is intense because this is Marty’s ONLY chance to get what he wants. We need some explanation for why whatever plan we’re watching our protagonist try is the ONLY thing that could work. Or alternatively, if you want your character to try a few different plans over the course of the story, you need to find some way of making each failure a little more painful than the last, until their ultimate triumph or tragic downfall. The stakes need to be specific for the plan.
Start with these four things. If your audiences understands these four things, you get a lot of freedom over what else you tell them without them losing interest altogether. Plus it should help you figure out what the next steps of your writing process should be.
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