“Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.” – Jean Luc Godard
Yeah…what he said.
The journey starts here, but before you get ahead of yourself and start formatting the title page on a script, you need to ask the most important question: "What am I trying to say?" Of course, that question gives way to endless questions that stretch to every other phase of the project. Some of them are bigger picture. “Who am I trying to say it to?” “How am I going to say it?” Others might be more brass tacks. “How much is it going to cost?” “Where am I going to disseminate this?” “How are people going to see this?” Make your life a little easier by first understanding what you're trying to say, and that will reveal the story you're going to use as a vehicle to say it.
Okay, you’re almost there. So now what makes your idea a story? The easy answer: a beginning, middle and an end. Maybe these function as a premise, a conflict and a resolution. There are probably characters who exist in a certain time and place. From there, the story can take almost any shape, size or format. Some writers like to start from an outline of the main scenes and emotional arcs – you know, the famous cork board with index cards. Others prefer a more free flowing approach. But what makes a story good? That’s a little trickier. The debate started with Plato and Aristotle and, per the internet, still rages to this day. However, most everyone agrees that good stories come from people who are passionate and hardworking. Sure, maybe your favorite storytellers like to make it look like they don’t give a damn and conjured up their magic using only a bottle of whiskey and a notepad. But it’s not true. And without a story, your media project is at best a piece of video art…or at worst, simply a bad video.
We get it. Target audience sounds like a corporate buzz term that’s accompanied by a bunch of meaningless info-graphics. After all, you want everyone to see and love your work. But who is this mythical “everyone” these days? Are they blockbuster summer moviegoers? Film festival junkies? Genre fans of horror, science fiction and thrillers? Taylor Swift’s Twitter followers? Donald Trump supporters? When you really think about it, there are a lot of different groups out there with extremely diverse, specialized tastes. And figuring out early on which people you actually want to see your work will help you craft your story. Most important of all: once you know your audience, make a plan to connect with them!
You’ve taken the time to assess your goals, so the “bottom line” should be pretty clear at this point. Basically, this boils down to a new question: how are you going to actually make your project? Unless you can form a hippie media arts commune – and hey, there are probably worse ideas out there – you’ll need to deal with money and contracts. If saying those words aloud makes you feel like a filthy sell out, then find someone who can handle the business side. Even the most passionate supporters of your artistic vision can’t work for free; and if they can, maybe you should ask them for financing.
Finding the right people to work on your project is extremely important. While your team won’t be as stylish, witty and devastatingly handsome as the guys in “Ocean’s Eleven,” you will spend a lot of time together planning a complicated operation with limited resources that may involve conning a few individuals here and there. Assembling this group requires a balancing act between competence and cooperation: each person needs to do his or her job, but also work well with others. So while first-time writers and directors may want an experienced producer on board to help, they probably don’t want the producer lording over the project. Likewise, a more experienced director of photography doesn’t like it when a know-it-all novice director constantly tinkers with the lighting and framing of each shot. On lower budget sets, there’s not a lot of room for egos. If everyone is working for less than the standard scale, a little respect will go a long way.
So you have an idea. What next? Well, that depends what your idea is. Chances are, unless you’re the reincarnation of Homer, Shakespeare and Stephen King, it’s not a story yet – and even they had to put in the work. Maybe it’s an image. Maybe it’s a scene. An event. A character. Two characters. A conflict. A line of dialogue. An emotion. A meditation on the nature of the human condition. The point is, an idea can be almost anything before you make it into a story. Ideas can come from anywhere: something you saw, read, dreamed, heard or overheard, if you like to invade people’s privacy. Whatever your idea is, think about why it interests you. If it holds your interest, it’s worth taking the next step.
What do you want to say with your idea? You’re probably familiar with the expression that there’s a moral to every story. Good triumphs over evil. Evil triumphs over good. Good and evil are oversimplified concepts that no longer have meaning or relevance in our modern world. Is there an emotion you want to explore? Maybe something has made you really happy – a new relationship, a puppy – and you want to understand why. Or maybe something has pissed you off – the flaws in the justice system, your neighbor’s new puppy that won’t shut up when she’s gone. Perhaps there’s a question about the world you want to ask. Is there a God, and, if so, does He – or She – in fact play dice with the universe? Are there more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy? Whatever it is, be sure it’s worth your time. And if you’re not sure, try to find it. Read a book. Watch that movie from your list, so long as it’s not the Twilight saga. Or just take a hike. No really, go find a trail and hike it. Nature is great, and you could probably use the exercise.
Now here’s a harder question, so be honest with yourself. What’s motivating you here? Maybe it’s a story you simply need to tell. Or is there a cause you want to take up through art? Perhaps you just want to be rich and famous. Hey, we said to be honest, so it’s all okay. To help you figure out your goals, it may help to answer two other questions first. How much money would you need to produce your idea? And how much time do you want to spend on it? If you don’t really care about money or ever getting your project made, then don’t worry. Write that action flick with a really cool helicopter explosion scene. But if you want to see your work produced, these questions matter. Be realistic about what you can actually do without a billionaire’s blank check and infinite time. For instance, has it ever occurred to you that a reaction from amazed onlookers could imply the drama of that helicopter explosion, and also convey some more authentic emotion while you’re at it? Sometimes, the most creative innovations come out of solving the problems of time and budget constraints.
ACQUISITION – An Acquisition agreement is an agreement through which a producer or production company acquires the right to use another’s literary work or other property in producing a motion picture.
BUDGET – A film production budget determines how much money will be spent on the entire film project. It involves the identification and estimation of cost items for each phase of filmmaking (development, pre-production, production, post-production and distribution).
COPYRIGHTS – So what can we protect? A written treatment or outline of a fully-developed, unique story should qualify for copyright protection, and a completed script usually does. In fact, current law states that you don not have to register such materials for them to be copyrighted; protection is automatically afforded ‘original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible form of expression.” Meaning, just type the thing on paper or save it as a computer file and it’s copyrighted. Of course, if all you do is type a script and store it away somewhere, how can you ever prove that it existed at a certain point in time? So we turn to the Copyright Office and the Writer’s Guild of America (East and West).
CROWDFUNDING – The practice of funding a project or venture by raising monetary contributions from a large number of people, today often performed via internet-mediated registries. Crowdfunding is a form of alternative finance, which has emerged outside of the traditional financial system.
DEFINING AUDIENCE/AUDIENCE BUILDING – Social media followers and email lists represent awareness, and also a core passionate group of fans that can help lift a project’s profile. Starting this process early allows the filmmaker to start a genuine relationship with their fans. Those email addresses and followers will be useful for any future promotion or release. They can even be valuable in making future deals. This is especially true for films that are utilizing crowdfunding.
E & O INSURANCE – E&O Insurance (Errors and Omissions) is a form of coverage which protects mediamakers against claims which third parties may bring concerning libel and/or slander (i.e., defamation), invasion of privacy, right of publicity and copyright and trademark infringement. These policies are required as a “deliverable element” when mediamakers enter into agreements with sales agents, distributors and other licensees that will demand to be named as “additional insured” parties under such policies.
FILM – Fiction/Non-Fiction, Feature Length, Short
LABS/WORKSHOPS – So how do you know that what you’ve written is any good? Getting feedback from people you trust is a good thing. Workshopping your script is a must. Assemble a group, throw yourself (your script) out there and let feedback begin.
LIFE RIGHTS – “Life story rights” are a nebulous collection of real and imagined rights held by living individuals. Life Story rights are commonly considered to include rights related to privacy, publicity and defamation.
LOOKBOOK – A Lookbook is a collection of photographs selected as visual references to express the director’s vision for the look and feel of the film. Traditionally it contains photographs but you can include whatever helps you get your ideas across, including drawings or even a multimedia lookbook.
OPTION – An Option is a contractual agreement between a potential film producer such as a movie studio, a production company or an individual, and a writer or third party who holds ownership of a screenplay. An option or option contract, provides to the option purchaser who pays an option fee, the exclusive right to develop, finance, produce or sell the property (i.e., a script) during a specified period of time.
PITCH/PITCHING – A brief oral presentation made to a studio, production company, or other source of development or production financing source to become involved in the production of the project.
SECURING RIGHTS – If you long to adapt previously published material, be certain you control the rights to the underlying material. No legitimate producing entity will get involved in a project unless the rights are secured.
STEP OUTLINE – A step outline is essentially a step by step breakdown of your story. Using one- or two-sentence statements, the writer simply and clearly describes what happens in each scene, how it builds and turns. For example: “He enters expecting to find her at home, but instead discovers her note saying she’s left for good.” By planning your story structure in advance you will save yourself a whole lot of time in the “rewriting” stage of your project because no matter how good you are at screenwriting, all writers have to learn to love rewriting!
STORYBOARD – A storyboard is a graphic organizer in the form of illustrations or images displayed in sequence for the purpose of pre-visualizing a motion picture, animation, motion graphic or interactive media sequence.
TRANSMEDIA – Not many folks still use this term. Transmedia Storytelling (also known as transmedia narrative or multiplatform storytelling, cross-media seriality) is the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats including, but not limited to, games, books, events, cinema and television. The purpose is not only to reach a wider audience by expanding the target market pool, but to expand the narrative itself.
TREATMENTS – A short document written in prose form and in the present tense that emphasized, with vivid description, the major elements of a screenplay. The ultimate goal is simply to tell your story in an engaging way, as if your were passionately telling your best friend about a new script over coffee. Learning to write a treatment allows a screenwriter to communicate his or her screenplay idea in a brief but compelling way. It also can be a powerful diagnostic and creative tool.
TV – Series, Special
WEB CONTENT – Web Series, All Others
“A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” – Jean-Luc Godard (Vivre Sa Vie, Alphaville)
“The most painful thing is to think you will come to see the film and then forget it. It is also painful to think that you see the film, remember it for a little while, and then forget it. So I try to keep you from forgetting. I try to present a human being that you are unable to forget.” – Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai, Rashomon)
“That celluloid, the actual film that runs through the camera, is dead. That’s gone, and now digital is here. But storytelling with cinema never will die–ever, ever, ever. The way the stories are told may change, but it will always be.” – David Lynch (Mulholland Drive, The Elephant Man)
“I want to risk hitting my head on the ceiling of my talent. I want to really test it out and say, ‘Okay, you’re not that good. You just reached the level here.’ I don’t ever want to fail, but I want to risk failure every time out of the gate.” – Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds)
“There are no rules in filmmaking, only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.” – Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)
“The problem with market-driven art making is that movies are green-lit based on past movies. So, as nature abhors a vacuum, the system abhors originality. Originality cannot be economically modeled.” – Lana Wachowski (The Matrix, Bound)
THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS
1. Overcoming the Monster – The Protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) which threatens the protagonist and/of protagonist’s homeland. (War of the Worlds, Star Wars: A New Hope, Seven Samurai, the James Bond franchise)
2. Rags to Riches – The poor protagonist acquires things such as power, wealth, and a mate, before losing it all and gaining it back upon growing as a person. (Cinderella, Aladdin, Great Expectations)
3. The Quest – The protagonist and some companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way. (The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, Stand by Me, The Goonies)
4. Voyage and Return – The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats is poses to him or her, returns with nothing but experience. (The Hobbit, Gone with the Wind, The Third Man, Apollo 13)
5. Comedy – Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. (Bridget Jones Diary, When Harry Met Sally)
6. Tragedy – The protagonist is a villain who falls from grace and whose death is a happy ending. (Macbeth, Bonnie and Clyde, Jules et Jim)
7. Rebirth – During the course of the story, an important event forces the main character to change their ways, often making them a better person. (Beauty and the Beast, It’s a Wonderful Life)
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