By: Beverly Peders
For my senior thesis project, I had to write a full screenplay. I pitched my ideas, chose my best, and sat down at my computer to type up my treatment. There was so much in my head, but it was scattered about.
I couldn’t figure out what to do first. It was just an idea and I was foundering trying to figure out how to start it. Here’s what I found worked for me:
The best way to start is just to write. Open up a document on our computer or whip out your trusty notebook and just jot down ideas. Bullet point lists, full paragraphs, maybe just an entire block of words, anything goes. As long as you let the ideas flow and get them written out, you’re unravelling your story. Write as long as you can and about as much as you want for your story. Go back over it.
Highlight what you want to keep. Don’t delete anything. Take everything that you’re keeping and start again. Keep doing this until you’ve got something of an outline made up that works. From here you can continue an outline or try more exercises to really get the most out of your idea before taking the plunge into writing your screenplay.
2. Defining your characters
It’s hard to write a story without knowing the characters within it. The story should be led by the characters. These are the people the audience will be following throughout your story. It’s difficult for them to appreciate your elaborate story if their guides through it are one-dimensional. Always make sure to do an extensive dive into your main characters to make sure you really understand your characters.
This can help shape your story to your characters and make their actions more believable instead of having a shallow character thrust into situations the audience would never imagine could happen. Shelling out your characters first will help you figure out how your character could mold the story.
Outlines are my favorite. I love bullet point lists and organizing ideas in a tiered format. I find it’s best if I freewrite before I launch into an outline, but sometimes I’m confident I have my story right where I need it. I start with what I know I want and fill it in as I go. Huge jumps and missing scenes is okay until I’ve filled out as much detail as I want and need to go back.
This can help for those who like organizing their ideas in an easy readable format, unlike freewriting. You can format it however you want. This can easily be polished for a treatment later. Just remember not to delete anything. Keep all ideas, no matter how much you don’t like them. If you lose inspiration, always go back over old ideas. You may find gold.
4. Creating Notecards
While notecards cannot be recommended enough by my professors, and the few times I have used them, I found they live up to their reputation. If you take your freewriting ideas and put them on notecards, you can move them around and test the linearity of your story or find out how you want the story to flow.
This can help bring a lot of “What if?” questions to mind that can help develop your story from a simple idea to a complex and intriguing story. Keep the cards and, when the need arises to shake out some ideas or gain some new inspiration, break out the cards, add some more, and shuffle them up.
5. Collecting Research
Research is my weakness. I will fall down the Wikipedia rabbit hole and get lost in the library stacks more often than I write when I’m first starting out. While I love researching, I’ve learned a helpful technique from journalists to keep myself from drowning in it. Journalists use the letters “TK” in place of something they’ll have to research later: time, date, specific location, etc.
Since there are so few words in the english language that have the pairing of “T” and “K”, if you search it in your document you can find them later. As you freewrite, you can drop “TK” off in places where you know you’ll need to research or while you draft your first outline and then go into research with a nice specific laundry list of what you’re looking to mine for the perfect details and keep yourself on track.
You can even schedule some time to research only and make sure you don’t spend too long on it. Books, websites, pamphlets, travel, everything’s game, just be careful of misleading or object facts.
If you are looking for inspiration after you’ve got your story off the ground, or if you're already well-versed in these ideas and would like to try something else, here's an article I wrote on the best ways to jumpstart your inspiration.