A great script is the backbone of successful films, television and even advertising of all kinds. We will examine the basics of this craft and compile a short but far-reaching guide on how to write a script.
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Types of Scripts
Learning how to write a script will impact the majority of our content, including ads. There are several types of scripts out there.
Fiction scripts are used in feature films and short films. It is important to note that other forms of content, such as audio ads often use the same structure and principles as fiction scripts. It is, therefore, useful to study live-action film scripts if we want to create better ads.
Non-fiction scripts include documentaries. They use a lot more voice over narration than fiction scripts but are usually created on top of the same foundation used in fiction scripts.
What is a ‘Good Script’, anyway?
At first glance, it seems preposterous to try to teach how to write a good script. In a sense, teaching how to write a script is akin to trying to teach how to craft a great novel or create a great painting.
The wonderful film ‘Adaptation’, highlights this point over and over again. As Charlie Kaufman seeks to create a great, original script, his brother, Donald is crafting a more ‘commercial’ story. The book which Charlie is adapting, ‘The Orchid Thief’, is extremely difficult to turn into a script. In the end, story principles do help Charlie work out the conundrum, without having to necessarily ‘sell out.’
Should we write ‘artistically’ or ‘commercially’? Perhaps, as ‘Adaptation’ shows, this is the wrong kind of question. Writing ‘artistically’, without recourse to the fundamentals of dramatic writing may produce work that is too self-referential, even amateurish. On the other hand, writing ‘commercially’ may come across as stilted, unoriginal and trivial.
In sum, it is not about writing ‘artistically’ or ‘commercially’ but rather about giving our art free reign on top of solid and time-tested principles of good drama.
The Art of Dramatic Writing
When we talk about how to write a script, we must study playwriting first. Learning how to write a play script will teach us fundamentals we can apply to other work.
There is perhaps no better teacher here than Lajos Egri and his ‘The Art of Dramatic Writing.’ Any aspiring scriptwriters, and indeed copywriters and content creators, would benefit from reading and studying this work.
The premise, according to Egri, is what our script is really about. It may often be expressed as a phrase, which, in turn, gives an indication of the dramatic movement as a whole.
The premise for ‘Scarface’ could be described as ‘The rise and fall of a drug kingpin’. This is good, but what is the story really about? When we go to the heart of the matter, we could come up with something like ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ or something of the sort. This is more likely the premise and it will inform the whole arc of the story.
Dialectics and Story Arc
A good play or script is all about dialectical movement leading to a conclusion. There is a flow and indeed a struggle of thesis vs. antithesis, leading to a synthesis, where either premise will win, or there will be a sort of ironic ending which is a mix of both.
When all is said and done, there is a change. This dialectical movement is evident towards the end as a story arc. The characters, particularly the hero, change. Such a change may be positive but it may also be negative.
Take Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather’, going from a young man with aspirations of independence to becoming the new leader of the crime family. The dialectical struggle between freedom and familial tradition is resolved in the end, in a rather somber and metaphoric resolution: the door is closed on Kay’s face.
Robert McKee’s famous book ‘Story’, is very useful when learning how to write a script. McKee describes classical movie script design as making use of causality, closed endings, linear time, external conflict, consistent reality, and active protagonists. As scriptwriters, we must master this structure first.
The majority of films that we watch usually feature such a structure: ‘The Lion King’, ‘Men in Black’, ‘Chinatown’, you name it. McKee states: “Classical design means a story built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality, to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change.”
The other type of story is Minimalism, featuring an open ending, internal conflict, multi-protagonists, and a passive protagonist. Some examples of mini-plots are Antonioni’s ‘Blowup’ or Wender’s ‘Paris, Texas’. McKee describes the third type of script as ‘anti-structure’ which makes prolific use of coincidence as a narrative device, as well as nonlinear time and inconsistent realities. A good example of this film is, for instance, Fellini’s ‘8 ½’ or Resnai’s ‘Last Year at Marienbad’.
The scene is the basic building block of a script. Ideally, in McKee’s words, it “creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a value and achieved through conflict.”
We must understand that a scene must serve the overall purpose of the script. It should ideally raise the temperature, so to speak, towards the inevitable resolution of the story (be it positive, negative or ironic).
Occasionally, a writer will be tempted to create scenes that merely expose information. Such scenes lack conflict and are usually weak. McKee espouses a simple formula: “No scene that doesn’t turn”.
Three Act Structure
When learning how to write a script, mastering three-act classical structure is essential. A typical movie lasts for about two hours. Usually, one script page is equal to one minute on the screen. This means that a two-hour movie will have a script about 120 pages long. Likewise, a 90-minute movie will have a 90-page script, and so on. These are rough estimates but they are useful to take into account.
Each movie is divided into acts. A typical 120-page movie script will have a first act that lasts for about 30 pages. The second act is the longest one and will take about 60 pages. The third and final act will take another 30 pages.
The first act will usually have a turning point which leads to the second act. This second act will also have a turning point leading to the third act. A turning point is essentially a dramatic movement that propels us into the next ‘section’, so to speak.
It is important to note that the second act will usually have a ‘midpoint’ right in the middle. It serves as the middle of the movie as such, but it also organizes the second act.
McKee explains: “The positive and negative assertions of the same idea contest back and forth through the film, building in intensity until at Crisis they collide head-on in a last impasse. Out of this rises the Story Climax, in which one or the other idea succeeds.”
More often than not, the ending will be composed of a crisis, climax, and resolution. The crisis implies a choice by the protagonist. The climax is, according to McKee: “A revolution in values from positive to negative or negative to positive with or without irony- a value swing at maximum charge that’s absolute and irreversible. The meaning of that change moves the heart of the audience.”
The resolution is, in McKee’s words, “any material left after the climax”. In ‘Platoon’, for instance, the resolution would probably be Taylor leaving on the helicopter and reflecting on the war in his voice over.
Genre, Myth, and Structure
When learning how to write a script, a great main character is essential. Such a protagonist should be willful, have a conscious desire and possibly also an unconscious desire. The issue of desiring something and having obstacles in achieving that desire is the backbone of most films.
Genres and Myth
Genres are a tricky thing. Every writer aiming to learn how to write a movie script should master genres. The problem, however, is that a heavy-handed approach to genre may end up constricting the writing, indeed forcing it into a straitjacket and producing cliché work.
The simple solution is to craft a story that relies on the most popular genre of all: myth/hero’s journey. Myth is arguably a sort of meta-genre, popularly described as the ‘hero’s journey’.
‘The hero’s journey’ begins with an ordinary world, where a hero receives a call to adventure. The hero meets with a mentor and sets out on a journey, crossing a threshold, enduring tests and battling enemies as well as making friends. The hero eventually reaches a metaphoric cave where a final ordeal and battle is fought and a reward and victory are achieved.
This story framework is metaphoric, but it points out the basic building blocks of successful storytelling. John Truby, in his ‘The Anatomy of Story’, expounds on this structure, and increases it to twenty-two steps:
- Self-revelation, need and desire
- Ghost and story world
- Weakness and need
- Inciting event
- Ally or allies
- Opponent and/or mystery
- Fake-ally opponent
- First revelation and decision: Changed desire and motive
- Opponent’s plan and main counterattack
- Attack by ally
- Apparent defeat
- Second revelation and decision: Obsessive drive, changed desire and motive
- Audience revelation
- Third revelation and decision
- Gate, gauntlet, visit to death
- Moral decision
- New equilibrium
An aspiring scriptwriter or copywriter will profit from reading some books on how to write a script. It is important to remember, however, that these books offer principles; they should not be viewed as straitjackets on our creativity.
Also, there are a great number of books and experts out there, so it is best to read pointedly. As ever, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’ and we must venture out to craft our scripts and not remain mere observers or students of the craft.
These two books mentioned will provide a solid grounding on playwriting and scriptwriting. They may very well be considered essential:
Thereafter, there are some books which may be useful. Truby’s work is useful to learn structure and genre. Thereafter, Riley is a great teacher of the nitty-gritty of formatting a script (ie: what goes in caps, what doesn’t, etc.)