May 4 2017

Evolution of a screenplay

If you’ve read through the preceding pages you’ll already know that when I was bitten with the urge to write it was purely fiction I had in mind. It was inevitable. I’d been reading the stuff since I was old enough to hold a library card — and pay a fine for a late return.

Like my favourite authors, I too wanted to be a storyteller. However,to quote Robbie Burns:

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Okay, rather than often go awry Rab said: gang aft a-gley but I’ve Anglicised things a little in the name of clarity.

While I still love fiction, non-fiction work has netted me greater financial return and, if I’m being honest, has been fun to produce — both in terms of research and putting words down on paper.

Another unexpected diversion has been in the form of screenplays.

The prologue

I’d done screenplay work as part of my Writers’ Bureau course, along with radio and stage versions, too. But it was when I attended a night school course at Grimsby college that I really became smitten by this medium.

The overall aim of the course was to produce a script for a ten minute film. What follows are the steps I took in producing the finished article, from germ of an idea to formatted script.

I will state before I continue that, for personal reasons, the journey was at times quite poignant. You see, whatever the genre, the edict for any writer is ‘write what you know’. When I approached this project my mum had recently passed away and my grief remained raw.

Consequently, the subject matter, visual imagery and character emotions were all distilled from my own experiences and sentiments.

Here it is. It’s called Two Wings.

The idea

The original idea for Two Wings came from a writer’s prompt set by the US-based Writers’ Digest on their website a year earlier. It said:

What’s inside the box you found in the back of your mother’s closet? Open it and describe what you see.

 

The germ of an idea

 

At that time I’d recently completed a non-fiction article covering the collision of two Lancaster bombers over my home village of Ulceby in 1943. The piece was later published in ‘Lincolnshire Life’ magazine.

Lancaster bomber crash site, 1943

Researching the item had a profound effect on me and I decided to adopt a wartime theme for the writing exercise.

I wrote a short story based on the prompt’s idea and enjoyed doing so. When later tasked with the screenwriting project it seemed natural that I use this; that I take the idea further, tweaking and modifying as necessary to suit the needs of visual media.

As I embarked on studying this new discipline, I was about to learn that the business of screenplays is a whole new ball game.

The Premise

Once I had the idea nailed down, the first screenplay-specific task was to produce a premise — something completely new to me. I learned that, in the film industry, the premise is a marketing tool that always takes the following form:

This is a story about _1*_ who _2*_ but _3*_ and _4*_.
1 – describes the hero
2 – states what he wants
3 – states what is stopping him
4 – hints at the end

For Two Wings the premise became:

The premise – This is a tale about …

The Pitch

As with the premise, I knew nothing of pitches. I soon learned that this, too, is a marketing tool. Here, however, the pitch is limited to twenty-five words.

Pitches also fall within one of two categories:

  1. High Concept – A high concept pitch adapts an existing story or film to describe the idea. A classic example would be ‘Jaws in space’ being the high concept pitch for the film Alien.
  2. Low Concept – Here, the nature of the work must be expressed in no more than twenty five dramatic words. Using Alien again, the low concept pitch used included the phrase: ‘In space no-one can hear you scream’.

If you’re familiar with the considerable verbage on my site you’ll appreciate that, for me, the pitch was an incredibly difficult hurdle. I did manage it, though it demanded many re-writes, and here it is (you’ll note that I used my full quota):

The pitch – an exercise in brevity

Characterisation

As I’d been writing fiction for some time I’d already encountered many examples of character sheets — templates, profiles, call them what you will. Some were brief and gimicky while others swung the other way, being lengthy, over-burdensome and consequently unusable.

Without doubt, the Twenty-Two Point Characterisation profile suggested by the course tutor was the best I’ve come across. I used it for Two Wings and have continued to do so whenever I’ve needed to draw a character, whether it be for a fiction project or screenplay.

Using the profile for my Two Wings project allowed me to build believable and credible characters, give them back-stories, add flesh to their bones and make them ‘real’. For me to write about them, breathe life into them and trigger their emotions I had to ‘know’ them and see the world through their eyes.

Within the 22-point template I had more than enough detail with which to build three-dimensional characters. Here is the profile for Leslie Keyworth, my main player:

 

 

The story outline – and three act structure

One of the most interesting aspects to learning the art of screenplay-writing was the review of existing works and analysis of how, without exception, they fall into a standard, three-act structure and a conventional framework.

Even short works of ten minutes follow this pattern, albeit using a much simpler plot. Before giving my characters dialogue to deliver I’d plotted my own planned screenplay onto this standard framework:

The heartbeat of a movie

Storyboard

Hand in hand with the outline came the storyboard. Despite all that had transpired already, from basic idea through to a draft plot structure with key players waiting in the wings, the stage still needed to be set.

A card-based storyboard was the next phase in the process. This was my first opportunity to play ‘director’, view the stage from above and begin to visualise events as they would play out.

Whilst I understood the merits of index cards, I chose Powerpoint slides for my own storyboard. I was advised that each card (or slide) should contain:

  • Slugline
  • Location
  • Time
  • Characters present
  • Action

As well as these vital elements, to allow me to gain more insight into what each scene would deliver and how it would be perceived by the viewer, I also included:

  • Visual imagery
  • Significant dialogue

As an example, for step ‘C’ in the above outline, the point at which Leslie discovers his mother’s mystery box, the corresponding storyboard looked like this:

Storyboard – setting the scene

Whilst I had already enjoyed the process of drafting a screenplay, this structured approach taken by my tutor, bringing together the outlining tool, storyboard and a more focused character profiling device, enabled me to more fully understand the science of screenplays and develop as a writer. The whole experience was also a joy.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this account and hope too that you appreciate the final product — the script itself. Here it is (just click on the photo):