Contained screenwriting can be challenging. Not everyone is wired to tell a story that involves only a small amount of characters and that mostly happens in just one or two locations. But like most creative endeavors, the right kind of limitations can produce surprising benefits. Placing boundaries on your screenplay can create dynamic storytelling opportunities, not to mention that contained screenplays typically have a lower budget. And that could make the difference between being an aspiring screenwriter versus a produced screenwriter. Here’s everything you need to know about writing a contained screenplay, and why limitations might just launch your screenwriting career.
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What is a contained screenplay?
A contained screenplay is a script that contains a limited number of characters, locations, props, and production requirements. Basically, it’s the film equivalent of a television “bottle episode” where the main characters (typically) remain in one main location throughout the duration of the script. The key thing to remember with contained screenplays is that the narrow scope of production requirements. But that doesn’t mean that a contained screenplay has to have a narrow theme or even a limited story. In fact, contained scripts often contain some of the most powerful stories because they give characters time and space to develop instead of leaping from plot point to plot point.
8 great screenplays with only one location
Some of the most iconic films of all time are set in just one or two locations. This forces the story to rely on dialogue, character development, and relationships. Here are 8 of the best contained screenplays ever written that only take place in one (or a few) settings:
- 12 Angry Men — Watch this film to learn how to capture tension, drama, conflict, and more in just a single setting with limited characters
- Snowpiercer — What happens when you trap the last remnants of humanity on a single train?
- Rear Window — Post-COVID this Hitchcock classic feels more like a documentary. Watch it and learn just how far good storytelling can take a contained screenplay
- The Breakfast Club — One Saturday, a library, six characters, and an instant classic
- Castaway — Who needs a co-star when the prop department has a volleyball?
- Saw — This low-budget horror masterpiece practically spawned a new sub-genre of contained horror screenplays
- The Mist — Trapped in a supermarket a cast of everyday characters can’t even see what’s holding them hostage
- My Dinner With Andre — Just a conversation between two friends at a restaurant. This single setting film is a master study in dialogue
Why should you write a contained screenplay?
Your goal as a screenwriter might be to write the next blockbuster hit. And that’s fine. Many screenwriters have at least one big-budget blockbuster script ready to go. However, a lower budget contained screenplay is far more likely to interest smaller indie film producers. And if you’re going to produce the film yourself, you have to write a script you can shoot on a lower budget.
How to write a contained screenplay
- Fewer characters
- Limit locations
- Focus on dialogue
- Reverse engineer plot points
First, you need to limit the number of characters in your story. Choose a family, a group of roommates, a couple, and set the story in this location where all these people live together. Or, if your characters don’t live together, create a situation in which they are forced to be together in one location. A cottage in the woods, a road trip, an office, maybe they’re trapped somewhere, or they ended up at this location by accident. Instead of casting another character, give your protagonist a volleyball. Just keep the number of people and locations to a minimum.
This might appear limiting. It’s not. Because the fun happens when you’re forced to create dynamic stories that only use a few characters and locations. How are you heroes going to save the world from the comfort of a couch, an office chair, or a cabin by the lake? I can’t wait to find out.
Just make sure the few characters in your screenplay have some type of inherent conflict and connection between them. Are they lovers on the verge of breaking up? Do they not know each other at all and somehow have to work together? Are they polar opposites in terms of political, moral, or ethical views? Putting people with opposing views in a room is already step one for creating conflict. And conflict is the key to compelling storytelling. You don’t need a whole lot more to create a story audiences will be glued to and fully emotionally invested. Especially if those characters come to realize as the story progresses that they need each other to accomplish their goal. If you can also make them realize they have more in common than they thought the audience will cheer.
Reverse engineer the plot
Reverse engineering your story from a limited set of characters and scenarios. It forces you to dig deep into the core of human relationships and conflicts that exist between each character. And that’s often harder to do with a fast-paced expansive script. Even the biggest, most expensive movies are about people and the ways humans interact, who they love, who they hate, and who they would risk anything to save. Writing a contained script simply capitalizes on this.
You don’t need to create the risk of the entire planet blowing up to have high stakes, you just need to make sure your reader is invested in the drama and the relationships. Instead of writing about the global impact of the apocalypse, show viewers the intimate loss your protagonist feels as the world is ending for them.
Limitations make great stories
It doesn’t hurt to add a lot of twists and turns to the story, but if you can limit the scope and setting of your script you’ll have more room to explore the motivations of each character. Limiting crowd scenes, car chases, elaborate stunts, children, animals, lavish locations, CG, special effects, filming underwater, and period set pieces will not only tighten your writing — it will reduce your production budget!
Remember, personal conflict, emotional investment, subtext, and flawed characters put in extraordinary situations don’t cost a thing. Give your protagonist a goal that matters to them more than anything else and you have all the raw materials you need for a compelling screenplay.
Do you have a ground-breaking contained screenplay? We want to read it! Submit your script to the Features Competition for a chance at cash prizes and a jury of industry judges who want to make the next big feature film.
Julia Camara is an award-winning Brazilian screenwriter/filmmaker. Julia won a Telly Award for the sci-fi found footage feature Occupants. Julia’s feature directorial debut In Transit, won Best Experimental Film at four different festivals. Julia’s other writing credits include Area Q and Open Road.