Screenplays don’t write themselves, but sometimes we wish they did. Starting can be the hardest part. Ideas are great and dreaming of the possibilities where the story could go is so much easier than to plan and outline the story.
Where do you start? Character bios? Plot map? Themes? It can be overwhelming and confusing trying to find the first stepping stone.
Here are some considerations that have helped me:
1. Know Your Idea
It can be easy to jump straight from a promising idea into the story. For some writers, that’s the best way to write a story: writing it all out as fast as possible. For others, they need to have something under their feet to take that leap. A plan.
One professor I had told me that it was good to write and focus on word count or page count, but it is also important to make time to think. Rushing into your story can mean amputating large sections later when the idea develops further. Sometimes idea development comes through the process of just writing, but sometimes taking the time to think about your story before putting words on the page can help reduce hassle later.
Consider your idea. Go through all the paces you need to with it. Pick your genre and themes and try to stick to them. Of course, writing is a very fluid art and can change at any moment, but sometimes it takes a moment to step back and think to make sure the change doesn’t happen forty pages too late. Think of it like a painter. The more they focus on one area, the more that area may differ from the others if they don’t step back every now and then and check their dimensions and colors and strokes.
2. The Three C’s
When it comes to using that thinking time wisely, there are three areas that should always be considered for a good check-up: Characters, Choices, and Conflict.
Characters are what the audience connect with in order to immerse themselves in your story. Underdeveloped or unbelievable characters can ruin a story and make the plot crumble. Characters take time to flesh out, so this isn’t something you can perfect right at the beginning, but it is something that should be the most detailed when you begin. A good way to start is by looking at the easy checklist that Lajos Egri offers in his book The Art of Dramatic Writing.
The plot is moved by the characters and their choices. Once you create the character, you have a handle on how they make decisions that affect the story. The choices that are mapped out along the plot are important. They are what show the audience how the characters work and advance the plot forward. Character development is the life-blood of every story and the core of development is their choices.
Finally, the part that everyone loves is conflict. It’s the part of the film that is talked about most after the house lights turn on. While characters connect the audience and choices move the story, conflict is the story. Conflict throws choices at your character that makes them challenge their surroundings and their own selves. These three areas of the story feed off and move each other, creating a living, organic story. These are the key points to focus on when you start your outline.
3. Skeletal System
A lot of writers think it is cheating or unoriginal to use a structure to help your story move forward. Whether you do or not, stories tend to take the same format. Vladimir Propp noticed this in fairy tales and created a flexible structure that you can use to guide your story here. Aristotle’s Poetics and Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey are great places to start when you need a foundation for your story.
These methods help to create a path through the maze your characters can follow and challenge until they arrive at the end. If you just let your characters follow a simple idea that you have and build the structure around them, that’s fine. But you may find that it’s easier to shape and mold your story once you have the structure down. It’s always said that you need to follow the rules in order to know how the break them.
4. Good Habits
The best thing you can do for your writing right off the bat is to maintain a schedule. Firstly, you should figure out when you write best. Morning, noon, or night. It’s important to be at peek productive proficiency when you’re ready to write (or think! Don’t forget the thinking time!) and that means making the most of the time that you’re best at writing.
Stick to the schedule. Even if you don’t write that much, it means a lot to pull out your computer or a notepad and to just write something. You can freewrite or fill out some character profiles, just keep the story fresh in your mind. Take the time to write down your thoughts on the story or refresh your outline to make sure that it follows the story you’re telling. Just don’t give up.
Congrats on taking the first steps on writing! As long as you enjoy your writing, you can’t go wrong.
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting graduate from Drexel University. She loves all visual writing mediums and has experience in writing plays, comic books, screenplays, TV sitcoms, and video games. World building is her favorite and she obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her spare time, you may find her trying to get over her fear of heights at a rock wall or adopting yet another plant because she can’t afford an actual pet.