A Screenplay in 70 Days – Week Four

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We’ve spent the last three weeks planning, researching and building our stories. You should have a detailed outline and a number of scenes written out in some manner. This week we’re going to actually start to build our story from the opening scene through to the closing scene. Days Five through to Seven will start a series of writing days. This week I will use the first version of my new Scrivener Project. You have permission to download it and use it for your own personal use while working on your own 70 Days project. So let’s get started. Once you’ve downloaded the project take the time to import your notes into the Scrivener project so you have everything in one handy place.

A Screenplay in 70 Days Scrivener Project v1.0 – Right click and use Save As… to Download the Scrivener Project.

Week Four – February 9 – February 15, 2014

Day One – Writing Sequences
What is a sequence? If one of your scene ideas is a CAR CHASE then this would be a sequence. A sequence can be defined as a series of scenes that are needed to tell one specific part of the story. In Ghostbusters (1984) there is the Waldorf/Slimer sequence. The Empire Strikes Back had a Asteroid sequence. Within these sequences are a number of scenes that build the story.

  • The Ghostbusters get a call from the Waldorf
  • The Ghostbusters arrive at the Waldorf
  • The Ghostbusters receive details from the hotel manager
  • The Ghostbusters take the elevator
  • The Ghostbusters shoot a housekeeping cart, revealing the dangers of their weapons
  • Joining the separate ways each search for the ghost in their own special way
  • Ray is the first to see the ghost, eating leftover food outside a hotel room
  • Peter is attacked by the panicked ghost getting slimed in the process
  • The Ghostbusters regroup and chase the ghost into a ballroom
  • The Ghostbusters form a couple of battle techniques, while destroying the ballroom
  • Teamwork, and not crossing the streams, result in captured ghost
  • Peter offers to re-release the ghost back into the ball room if the hotel refuses to pay

That is a summary of the Waldorf/Slimer sequence. The sequence takes about 15 minutes of screen time but the Ghostbusters as well as the audience learns a great deal about the group. The equipment is dangerous to use and difficult to control, we learn that ghosts are real with interesting personalities and finally we learn that getting paid for services rendered will be an ongoing issue. While some of the scene ideas we’ve written out are in fact scenes, while others will be sequences. Today we’re going to sit down and go through our scene cards and determine which are sequences. Which cards can be divided into scenes like we did with the Waldorf/Slimer sequence. Once you have identified these sequences, make note that it’s a sequence and on the back of the car write out a list of possible scenes that could be part of that sequence.

Day Two – Writing Scenes
Today we find ourselves with more scenes to work with now that we identified our sequences and have broken then into scenes. Today we’re going to focus on all of our scenes starting by asking, what makes a good scene? That’s an easy one, CONFLICT. Every scene you write will have some level of conflict written into it, even if the scene is played out between two people on the same team. Look at Star Wars, the scene were Luke and Han have been left in the control room after Ben has gone off to turn off the tracker beam. In this scene the two have been told to stay put until Ben arrives. Han sits down and leans back, putting his hands behind his head. The conflict begins at this point. Luke sings the praises of Ben, a man he has just met while Han playfully insults Ben as someone who “…is good at getting us in trouble.” Suddenly Artoo-Detoo starts to beep wildly and See-Threepio translates, reporting that Princess Leia is in the detention center and is scheduled to be executed. “Better her than me.” Han says as he and Luke start to discuss what to do about this news. With the stakes raised, Luke and Han are in conflict about what to do. Of course they are going to save the princess so Han ends up agreeing with Luke, although he’s pretty sure it’s not going to work.

Today let’s take a look at the scenes we have written out for our stories and determine what the conflict of the scene is. Remember not every scene will have direct conflict, but those scenes will be rare. The Hero will always up against something, don’t make it easy for them at any point. As you look at each scene, establish the conflict and write it down on the back of the card. If just two people are in a scene there is going to be conflict between these two people. If the Hero shares a scene with three other people, then there will be conflict between the Hero and at least one of the other people. Keep the Hero in the conflict.

Day Three – What are Story Beats?
I personally prefer to work in Story Beats. The remainder of this process will be based on beats rather than sequences and scenes. I define a Story Beat as something smaller than a sequence but larger that a scene. Often a Story Beat will consist of no more than three specific scenes. I have found the size of a Story Beat to be very manageable when planning and writing my screenplays. Over the years I have broken my screenplays into 56 different beats. 14 beats are designated for the first act. The second act is double that with 28 beats and the third act is the final 14 beats. There is no page limitations on a story beat. Some beats might be half a page while other beats might be as long as 3 or 4 pages. The average beat would be 2 pages in length meaning that my screenplay would end up being 112 pages long (on average). While there is a lot of numbers here, none of it has any real meaning, a beat is as long or as short as you need it but breaking out into 56 different beats means you can write it in a number of smaller pieces. If you write two beats a day then by the end of the day you have 4 pages. Some days might be 7 pages while other days those two beats might only be 2 pages, but being smaller pieces your screenplay becomes much easier to write.

Today is going to be an easy day. You’ve already divided your scene cards into three groups (one group for each act) so today we’re going to count our scene cards. The first act should be 14 different scene cards, the second act will have 28 and the third act will have the remaining 14. What if you have too many? Can you merge two scenes into a single scene that does the work of the original two. Rather than introducing two characters separately can you introduce them within the same scene? If you are missing beats then you will need to add new beats to the act. At this point if you get within a one or two beats you’re doing very well.

Day Four – The Nine Story Beats
Our screenplay will be built from 56 different Story Beats but today we’re going to learn about the nine most important Story Beats in your story. In many of the screenplay books on the market they teach you about different scenes that they say must happen at certain points in your screenplay. This process is no different. If you watch any of the successful movies recently they will have key moments in the story. It’s the same with the least successful movie, but the difference is, that in less successful movies the story points are more obvious. The key is burying your story points under a great story. This is the underlining thought that lead me to build this process. A good screenplay buries the story points so that the audience doesn’t see them. How can you do that? You do it by putting the story points in the beats, not the screenplay. So instead of the Inciting Incident doesn’t happen on page 10, but rather it happens in Story Beat 5. When you start writing that beat it could happen anywhere from page 6 to page 13 – or later. This is what I call burying the story points.

The Nine Story Beats are as such;

  • Opening Scene (1): You want to use this scene to hook the audience. Make it exciting, get the audience asking questions. Do not introduce too many characters at once. Keep the characters shown important and make sure the audience knows who is important and who is not. Darth Vader attacks the Rebel ship
  • Inciting Incident (5): This is the point where the Hero first learns about the story. No decision is needed at this point, however the character will have an opinion about the information he has just learned. This is where the Story Question is asked. Luke discovers the secret message from Princess Leia stored in Artoo-Detoo
  • Plot Point One (14): The Hero has a choice to make. Does he dive into the story or does he ignore his calling? Remember it must always make the choice. Don’t force your Hero into the story. Luke decides he has nothing left on Tatooine and decides to leave the planet with Ben and the Droid.
  • First Obstacle (21): While the Hero controls seven of these beats, the Villain controls the two Obstacles. The First Obstacles is where the Villain’s actions causes the Hero to run into a dead end. Darth Vader blows up Alderaan before Luke can get there so Luke is now unsure what to do.
  • Midpoint (28): Often this is a slight break where the Hero and the audience can catch their breath just moments before the story takes an unexpected twist in a different direction. Luke discovers that Leia is being held nearby and decides he must rescue her.
  • Second Obstacle (35): The Villain delivers a devastating blow to the Hero at this point in the story. The blow is often so heard that it often causes the Hero to question is actions and whether he will succeed or not. Darth Vader kills Ben Kenobi while Luke watches.
  • Plot Point Two (42): The Hero as overcome his loss and has gotten his second wind. The Hero decides that he must go on and see the mission to it’s end. At this point the Hero has overcome his character flaw and has nearly completed his character arc. Luke decides to join the Rebellion on it’s attack on the oncoming Death Star.
  • Climax (53): The Story Question is answered at this point. This is the scene the audience has been waiting for. The Hero has fought long and hard to get to this point and he’s either going to win or lose. Luke destroys the Death Star.
  • Closing Scene (56): The final scene that the audience will see. This is what they will remember most about your screenplay. If your story is a winning story line we see the Hero pleased that he won, while a tragedy will end with a sad scene. Luke and Han are awarded medals from their bravery.

Today we’re going to spend the day finding our Nine Story beats. Which scenes do you chose to tell these nine different story beats? Do the scenes tell the story? Over the next several days we’re going to discuss each of the beats in greater detail. If you not sure if you have a scene for any of these Nine Beats, don’t worry about it yet, maybe you haven’t created that beat yet.

Day Five – Beat 1: The Opening Scene
How will open your screenplay? Let’s take a look at how 4 popular films opened. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring opened using a prologue that showed the last great battle and how the ring was lost to the ages. This opening gives the audience the film’s backstory in a show don’t tell manner but it runs the risk of giving the audience too much information. Star Wars started with what I call a Story Opening. The audience is quickly introduced to the story via the famous scroll and the battle between the Rebel Blockade Runner and the Imperial Star Destroyer. After a brief laser battle where we meets the droids, the audience is introduced to the Villain of the film, Darth Vader. The Hero opening shows the Hero living his life as Die Hard opened with John McClane arriving in LA on Christmas Eve. The audience learns that McClane is a cop and he is going to visit his estranged wife for Christmas. Finally you can frame your film between two linked scenes as was done in The Princess Bride. The film opens with a grandfather offering to read the story to his grandson and then ends with grandson happy to have spent the time with his grandson.

Whichever opening you choose there is a lot you need to keep in mind. The first is that the scene MUST hook your audience. Your opening must have your readers turning the pages. Make your story so interesting that your readers want to learn more. Secondly don’t introduce too many characters at once. At the beginning your audience doesn’t know who’s important. If your Hero visits a coffee shop don’t make the server more interesting than he Hero, unless the server is a major character. Finally, don’t throw too much at your audience in that first scene, remember there other scenes to come.

Today we’re going to come up with our opening scene. If you’re using the Scrivener file above, open the Opening Scene file under Research and write down one sentence that describes your Opening Scene. Below that write out some rough details in two or three sentences. How do you envision this scene playing out? What details are required?

Star Wars: Beat 1 – Opening Scene – The Star Destroyer shoots the Rebel Blockade Runner and prepares to board it.

Day Six – Beats 2 to 4
Depending on your opening, these three beats can either be used to advance your story or provide your audience with more information about the Hero. In Ghostbusters after the Opening Scene in the library we meet the Hero, Peter Venkman conducting tests on a couple students, flirting with the girl while punishing the boy. Then Ray Stanz enters telling Peter that they are needed at the library. Ray is very excited showing the audience he’s a true believer while Peter is not a believer at all. The fourth beat would be Igor Spengler’s introduction at the library. His scene shows the he’s the brains of the operation. While advancing the story, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis gave each lead character their own introduction scene, with the story’s Hero getting the first (and funniest).

Make the most use of these three beats. Get the story moving while introducing characters or elements of the story at the same time, as they did with Ghostbusters. If you opened with the Hero you want to show a taste of their life. If you opened amongst the action you need to show he that action ties into the story. Superhero films love to open with an action sequence showing the hero in action. Superman II (1980) opened with Superman stopping terrorist in Paris from using an atomic bomb. These action scene appeared to be an unrelated action sequence until that atomic bomb detonates in space and the blast frees the three super-villains from the Phantom Zone, starting the story of the film.

What will be your next three beats? Will they get the story started, introduce characters or both? Make the most use of these beats. Get as much done with them as you can without over burdening the audience. Ghostbusters used each beat to introduce the characters. Cone up with a single sentence for each beat but make additional notes for each beat.

Star Wars: Beat 2 – Artoo-Detoo & See-Threepio move through the corridors as the Rebels prepare to be boarded.

Star Wars: Beat 3 – The Imperials board the Blockade Runner and a laser battle through the corridors begin.

Star Wars: Beat 4 – With the Rebels on the run Darth Vader bards the ship and orders that prisnors are foud and brought to him.

Day Seven – Beat 5: The Inciting Incident
The Inciting Incident is the point in the film learns what your story is about. Often it is also the point where the Hero is first introduced to the story. In Ghostbusters the Inciting Incident is the point where the characters see a real ghost for the first time. This leads to the Inciting Incident’s biggest job, the Story Question. The Inciting Incident scene is where the Story Question is asked to the audience. The Ghostbusters Story Question is, will the Ghostbusters discover the cause of the ghost’s appearance and stop it? Your Hero will spend the whole film trying to answer this question.

So what is your Story Question? Now create a beat that will introduce the audience to your Story Question question. Does the Hero get a hint about the story as well? That’s up to you? The Ghostbusters learned that ghosts are real and they would later come up with a plan to make money on that fact. It’s at this point in your screenplay where your story must begin, whether the Hero is aware of the story or not.

Star Wars: Beat 5 – Inciting Incident – Princess Leia gives Artoo-Detoo the stolen Death Star plans and orders him to get to Obi-Wan Kenobi.

So we’re reached the end of the fourth week and we built the first five beats of our screenplay. The process has begun and will continue through the next two weeks. Next week we’ll finish the remaining first act beats and get started on the second act. See you then.

– Steve

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