I have been developing a new method of planning my next screenplay so I can complete the required development and write the first draft of my script in just 70 days. The method requires testing and that is what I am going to do for the first ten weeks of 2014. You can see by the image above that there is something to do (and write) on each day of the week. The writing being done will always build on what was completed during the previous days. As I post these 10 weeks I am also going to develop a new screenplay to see if it really is possible to finish a first draft in just 70 days.
Week One – January 5 – January 11, 2014
Day 1 – Developing the Idea
Your idea might be a specific scene, a theme or even just a single character and you need to build it into a 110-minute screenplay. Where do you start? How do you start? Many writers start with a blank piece of paper or a set of cue cards or even a blank computer file. For this 70-day experiment I am going to start with a single cue card and then import it to the computer. I’m going to completely develop my new screenplay within a Scrivener project file. Scrivener allows you to import webpages, PDF files and images as you need for research. All this data is kept within a single Scrivener file so that all of my research is available whenever I need it. Start by creating a new Screenplay project (or a Blank project if you would rather). Under research I’ve added five folders for the first six weeks of the 70 Days project. The final 4 weeks is used to actually write the first draft of the screenplay. I have spent time building what will become a Scrivener template for this 70 Days Project and once I have finished building the template I will offer it free once it is complete.
When it’s time to start developing your idea write down your existing idea for your screenplay in the center of a piece of paper (we’re going to scan this and import into Scrivener when we’re done). Now circle your primary idea and then start writing down related thoughts, characters, scenes – whatever comes to mine. If possible keep ‘like thoughts’ together in the same thread so you can follow your line of thinking again when you return to this information at a later date. Spend at least an hour on this task and try to fill the page with ideas and thoughts. If you need to move to a second cue card than do so. You can never have too many ideas. Below is my idea tree:
Day 2 – Developing The Central Question
Every film answers a question that is asked at the beginning of the film. In The Wizard of Oz (1939) the question is “will Dorothy get home to Kansas?” In Star Wars (1977) the question is “will Luke get the stolen plans to the Rebellion in time that they can be used against the Empire?” The question is often asked within the first 15 minutes of film and is always answered during the final 10 minutes. The answer of this question is known as the CLIMAX of the film. The point where the hero will either succeed or fail. If your screenplay doesn’t ask a question than there is no reason for your audience to remain in their seats, is there? During Day Two we’re going to develop the Central Question for the screenplay. Often it is best to start by asking yourself what is the Climax event of your story? What must happen in order for your story to reach the end? Luke destroyed the Death Star at the end of Star Wars and Dorothy discovered her way back in Kansas at the end of The Wizard of Oz. At this point you don’t know your story nor it’s Climax, but now is the time we’re going to cast an anchor and start developing the different parts of your story. Write down the Climax you envision it right now. Using your Climax as the answer try to determine the question? Superman kills Zod (The Man of Steel – 2013); “Will Superman be able to stop General Zod from turning the Earth into a second Krypton?” Juno gives her child to Vanessa (Juno – 2007); “Will Juno be able to find a stable home for her unborn child?” You will need a scene at the beginning of your screenplay that will establish the question, but we’ll get to that in the coming weeks.
Day 3 – Creating Your Hero
The Protagonist of your story is also known as your Hero. The Hero is the central character of the story and the story happens to the Hero. Your audience will connect to your story through your Hero. At this point we’re going to start to create the Hero of your story today but we’re going to leave a lot of blanks that will be filled in within the remaining 67 days. Is your Hero male or female? This is the first question. In one of the early drafts of Star Wars, George Lucas envisioned Luke’s character as a female, but he later changed the character to a male. Would your story be better if you flipped the sex of your Hero? What if Luke Skywalker was actually female and Princess Leia was her twin sister, how would that have changed the story? Take a moment and write some thoughts about your story with a male Hero and then a female Hero. How would your story change? Is one better than the other? Once you have decided on the sex of your Hero then give your Hero a name.
Within the story the Hero plays a central role. When the Hero reaches a choice they must decide to move into the next sequence of the screenplay on their own, however sometimes as the screenwriter you will need to force the Hero to make the choice needed. In Star Wars Luke is afraid to go off with Ben Kenobi and he first chooses to remain on Tatooine, however, after his aunt and uncle are killed he decides there is nothing left for him on Tatooine and he leaves with Ben. Another great example of a hard choice is from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), the Villain wants Indy to find the Holy Grail. At this point Indy chooses not to and therefore will Villain lose, but then the Villain shoots Indy’s father. Suddenly the Hero has to make a choice between two bad options. If Indy decides to stand his ground then his father will die but if he decides to get the Grail for the Villain his father will be able to drink from the Grail and he will survive. This example shows that the Hero doesn’t have to like their options, but they still have to make a choice.
Take some time and write down whatever information you already know about your Hero. If you know your Hero is a male in his early 30’s who is a computer programmer who has never been on an airplane, then write down that information on the Hero’s character bio page. We’re going to flush out the Hero next week so don’t worry if you don’t have a lot of information at this point.
Day 4 – Creating Your Villain
The Antagonist is the Villain of your story. Not every story has a Darth Vader-like villain but there will always be a single character who opposes the Hero throughout the screenplay. Every time the Hero pushes forward it is the Villain’s job to push back even harder. When creating your Villain you must create someone who is strong enough to successfully oppose the Hero. Darth Vader was far stronger than Luke Skywalker. Superman is stronger than Lex Luthor, but Luthor is cunning and has always planned for the next step. In later weeks we’re going to discuss how the Villain controls different parts of the story but for now know that the Villain controls the obstacles the Hero faces throughout the story. Luke was trying to get to Alderaan, however Vader had it destroyed causing Luke to rethink his goal.
Give your Villain a name and a sex. In a romance film the Hero could be the female while the man she’s attracted to would be the Villain because he opposes the Hero’s goal. She wants to date the man while he doesn’t want to date her. Give your Villain a bit of a backstory as well as some life details leaving holes to be filled in next week. Remember your Villain will never see themselves as the Villain.
Day 5 – Building Your Screenplay’s Log Line
Log Lines are the elevator pitch sentence of your screenplay. There are so many ways to write a log line that you can spend days if not weeks studying the different methods. Search the internet for Writing Log Lines and you will find a number of different articles. I’ve read so many of the articles and I’ve written about this subject a couple of times over the last two years. I define the Log Line as a single sentence summary of your story. I prefer to stick to one sentence, although it is often a ‘run on’ sentence. The sentence should have the basic three points, the Hero, the Villain and the Action. If you can also squeeze in the fourth point, the stakes, you may have written the perfect Log Line.
A young, idealistic farm boy discovers a secret message that sends him to face a Galactic battle station before it destroys a struggle band of freedom fighters - Star Wars
At this point there are still major holes in the story so your Log Line will not be perfect. When writing your Log Line never use names, instead choose words that clearly defines the character so the listener understands the character. A young, idealistic farm boy is much more descriptive than Luke Skywalker to someone who has never heard of the story before. Take the time to play with the words so that each word tells a small part of your story. Use action words (or conflict words) when describing the relationship between the Hero and the Villain. Search the internet, there are much better examples out there than mine.
Day 6 – Creating an Emotional Story Arc
One of the things I’ve recently learned by reading Pilar Alessandra’s book “The Coffee Break Screenwriter” is that a well crafted story is an emotional story. The Hero’s actions are dictated by the Hero’s feelings and the Hero’s feelings are determined by actions taken either for or against the Hero. If the Hero’s friend cuts the grass for the Hero while she’s not home as a favour this action will make the Hero feel grateful and her actions will cause her to invite the friend over for coffee. If the Villain kidnaps the Hero’s dog than she could (and probably would) feel angry and would take action to attempt to free her dog. Building your story outline based on actions and emotions is one way to gather some possible scene ideas that will keep your audience attached to the story. Start with an initial action, how did it make the Hero feel? What action did the Hero take because of their feelings and finally what action did another character take that made the Hero feel another emotion and take another action. The process just repeats itself. Outside action, Hero feeling, Hero Action, Outside Action, and so on until you reach your climax (it’s a good thing we figured out what the Climax is yesterday). If you haven’t I recommend reading Pilar’s book before you start your own 70 days.
Day 7 – The Three Act Structure
Today you’re going to start breaking your story into three parts. Everyone has hear, Boy meets Girl, Boy looses Girl, Boy gets Girl back. That is a three act story – there is a beginning, a middle and an end. Each act serves a specific purpose.
The First Act is the beginning. Within the Beginning you must quickly introduce your audience to the Hero, the Villain and the Story. Look at some of your favourite films and see how they do this. Star Wars starts with a story introduction where the audience learns about the war between the Rebels and the Empire and then the audience meets Darth Vader. A few scenes later they are introduced to Luke Skywalker. In Twister (1996) the audience is quickly introduced to Jo and Bill and that Bill is trying to get Jo to sign the divorce papers while Jo is getting ready for a violent day of storms. Write down scene ideas about how you will introduce the Hero, the Villain and the Story. While the Villain and the story are often tied together at the beginning, the Audience should see the Hero during their normal life, before the story scoops them up. There will need to be scenes in the first act that will introduce the Central Question.
The Second Act (later we will divide it into two equal parts) makes up the action part of your story. As the Hero enters the Second Act they have been scooped up into the action and are struggling to get through the problem(s) as best they can. It is through this part of your screenplay that the Hero will face obstacles, have small successes and failures. In Star Wars the second act begins right after Luke returns from his homestead where he found his aunt and uncle dead. The first problem Luke faces in the second act is getting off the planet. He needs to find a pilot then he needs to sell his landspeeder. As they are preparing to leave the planet the ship Luke hired is attacked by Imperial Stormtroopers. Throughout the entire second act Luke faces different challenges and obstacles. The second act of Star Wars continues until the heroes reach the Rebel Base on Yavin.
The Third Act is where the action ramps up while leading into the Climax (remember the Climax from Day 2?). After the Climax there is often one or two wrap up scenes that will tie-up any loose threads. Luke agrees to join the Rebellion and take part on the attack on the Death Star, triggering the beginning of the third act. At this point the scenes become a quick succession of brief, action-filled scenes. As we draw closer to the end of the film each scene becomes quicker and quicker. The climax is the destruction of the Death Star followed by a couple of wrap up scenes showing Luke’s return, Artoo’s damage and finally the awards ceremony where everyone is okay and smiling.
Today write down a list of scenes that will be needed in each of the acts. Start with the Climax at the end of Act Three. How many scenes do you need to write? Write as many scenes as you can think of. We haven’t even begun to build the story yet, but if there are scenes you have already envisioned then write them down. The more you can think of the more options you’ll have over the next four weeks. Write the scenes on paper, cue cards or computer files, but try to keep them separate for future use. Today write scenes for three hours before considering yourself done. Divide the scenes into the three acts. Remember to look back at your notes from the last previous days to get additional scene ideas.
Next week I start developing the characters that will populate this story. I hope you will join me then.