Today I had the happy privilege of speaking to a group of 6th graders at my mother’s middle school about screenwriting. As a way of reinforcing the skills they’re learning in our seminar series, I will be dedicating Fridays for the forseeable future to putting up a “bloginar” (blog seminar) on screenwriting. Everybody feel free to participate… Read lessons… Take notes… Ask questions… Make comments. So, here we go!
In today’s classroom seminar, we reviewed the basic building blocks of a screenplay that we learned in our last classroom seminar: A screenplay is written in 3 acts with a turning point (called Plot Point #1) at around the 20 page point and another turning point (called Plot Point #2) at around the 90-100 page point. The first act contains a “hook” which grabs the reader’s attention and makes them interested enough to stay for the rest of the story. The second act builds on conflict until finally, in act 3 there is a resolution.
Once you know these building blocks, you must choose what kind of genre you want to write. (i.e. What’s my story world? Action? Drama? Comedy? Romance?) Then, you begin to create your characters. (i.e. Who are they? What are their personalities?) Third, you figure out what problem/conflict is going on in your story world for your characters to solve/resolve.
The bulk of the text of a screenplay falls into two categories: setting and dialogue.
Setting – the time and place of the action
Dialogue – a conversation between 2 or more people
When you watch a movie, you use two senses: sight and hearing. You can’t smell, touch, or taste a story world. You can only hear and see it. So, as a screenwriter, that’s what you are writing–the sights and sounds of story world. Therefore, unlike a book or poem, you don’t write what the character is feeling or thinking. You only write what they are doing, saying, seeing, and hearing.
One very important thing to remember is that every time your characters change time or location, you must write a setting header. For example:
INT. HOSPITAL WAITING ROOM – NIGHT
This tells us that where the action is (the interior of a hospital waiting room) and when the action is (night).
Once you have your setting header, then you expand on that by writing a description of the setting. For example:
A large, clean hospital waiting room. Every chair is filled and there are people standing against the walls. Joe stands, leaning against the wall next to the receptionist desk. He stares at the doors to the treatment area, cracking his knuckles. A busy-looking nurse sits at the desk, answering the constantly-ringing telephone and filling out stacks of paperwork.
Notice that the sentences have few adjectives or adverbs. People are mentioned, but we are not told what they are thinking or feeling– only what they are doing. Our jobs as the writers is to show what the characters are feeling through their actions and sometimes through their dialogue.
Remember that settings and scene descriptions are positioned to the left; dialogues are centered.
When you are writing dialogue, remember to think like your character. A doctor wouldn’t use slang like, “Yo Dawg, What up?” And a high-school drop-out wouldn’t use big words or technical terms. So, continuing with our scene, this would be an example of dialogue:
Nurse, when am I gonna hear something about my Dad?
Sir, the doctor is working as fast as he can.
I’ve been standing here for three hours!
(picking up phone)
I’ll see if I can find something out for you, Sir.
Guys, remember when you’re writing your scenes, visualize the scenes. If you need to, close your eyes and “stare” at it in your mind. Put yourself there as an observer. What does it look like? Who’s there? What do you hear? Use your “movie sense” (sight and sound) and have fun with it!