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[Tamil Cinema Guide] How to write a movie screenplay ?

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(Guest article by Nandhini JS, Director of the Popular Tamil Film, Thiru Thiru Thuru Thuru)

The first thing you should know is that writing a Movie Script is tough. Really tough. It is a difficult and laborious task. Even the best writers often have creative blocks and can go for years without writing a single script. So if this is your first time, you are certainly going to go nuts. I read this somewhere – “In a well written screenplay, the journey of the screenwriter will mimic the journey of the protagonist. It will be brutal, difficult, and ultimately, fulfilling”.

The Basics

Remember, making movies is a business. As a filmmaker, you are selling a story to an audience. So, connect with your audience. They are smart and don’t like to be silent observers. If people aren’t invested with the story, if they don’t care about the characters, if they are not intimately involved, anticipating, reaching conclusions, and adding it up, then the movie is no good.

Once you have your basic story, characters, plots and situations developed in your head, you need to write a scene by scene outline before actually getting to the screenplay part. You need to be clear about how your story begins, what the midpoint is and how it ends. In a novel, the writer has complete freedom to explore any point of view, shift between conscious and subconscious mind, explore a character or a story from multiple perspectives, jump to and fro to any situation, place, time etc. You cannot do that in a screenplay. The viewer cannot stop and start, or go back and contemplate what came before. The screenwriter, therefore, must pack as much information and texture into each scene as possible, while keeping the tempo of the piece brisk enough to retain the audience’s interest.

Also, FINALIZE THE ENDING or Climax sequences before you start your first scene. A novelist can begin a story without knowing how things are going to turn out or what the ending will be. They may feel that their characters will lead them to the ending or that would discover it as they keep writing. But you cannot do that in a screenplay. Think of a screenplay as a train, with scheduled stops, fixed destination and an estimated arrival time. You don’t want to get lost or be late. You should follow a planned track or otherwise the train will get derailed. Also, unlike a novel, a screenplay must be written in present tense and only what the audience can SEE and HEAR. While a novel conveys what the characters are thinking and feeling through an interior monologue, a screenplay must show characters’ external visible behavior expressed through dialogue or physical actions.

Screenplay Format

The next step is learning the format of a screenplay. There are lots of screenwriting softwares like Final Draft and Celtx available which help you write screenplays in professional Hollywood format. There are also softwares like Scripts Pro for iPad and iPhone. Also there are sites like http://www.script-o-rama.com and http://www.imsdb.com where lots of English movie scripts are available online for download which can be read as references. Pick and read the scripts of movies you have seen and enjoyed. The more you read, the better you will write.

Think of a scene as a unit of action. In each scene, define who (character or characters), what (situation), when (time of day), where (place of action), and why (purpose of the action).

There are SIX basic elements in a Screenplay.

1. Scene Headings: These appear at the beginning of a new scene and tell us the scene’s setting. These are made up of,

* INT. or EXT. Short for Interior and Exterior, this tells the production crew whether or not they’ll be shooting on a sound stage or on location.
* Location. Where the scene takes place. Like LIVING ROOM or BASKETBALL COURT or CANTEEN.
* Time. Usually just DAY or NIGHT but can be MORNING, EVENING or as specific as 5:30 A.M., 9:00 P.M etc.

2. Action: This describes what is happening on the screen, and which characters (if any) are involved. It looks like this.

* As students go to class, the sound of the cyclotron spills out of the science center onto the grounds of Empire State University. We see PETER PARKER, a pleasant faced senior who’s among the top in his class. Sincere and serious, he has yet to develop a way with women.

Here you can also add Camera Directions like POV shot, pan, tilt, push in, pull out, track forward, track back, close up, wide, etc. But keep this to the minimum or avoid it.

3. Character Name: When there is a Dialogue, this tells us which character is speaking. Like CHARLES or RAJ. When you have minor characters whose name is unimportant and they appear in just one or two scenes, you can use their role as the Character Name, such as WAITRESS or TICKET CHECKER or MAILMAN.

4. Dialogue: The words spoken by a Character.

GIBBS
She was singing about pirates. It’s bad luck to sing about pirates. It’s bad luck to have a woman on board too.

5. Parentheticals: These are optional and usually written inside brackets. They come under the Character to describe what a character is simultaneously doing, who they are talking to, or how they is speaking.

GIBBS
(frowns as he walks off)
She was singing about pirates. It’s bad luck to sing about pirates. It’s bad luck to have a woman on board too.

6. Transitions: These come in the right-hand corner at the end of each scene to indicate the transition to the next scene. Usually ‘CUT TO’ is used. You can also use FADE OUT, DISSOLVE TO etc.

Screenplay Structure

Movies portray a protagonist or the ‘hero’ who faces overwhelming and insoluble hurdles as he/she pursues a certain goal or objective. Your screenplay structure determines the sequence of events that lead the hero toward this objective. Irrespective of the kind or genre, such as a romantic comedy, suspense thriller, emotional drama, action, horror, science fiction, small or big budget film, all Hollywood movies follow the same basic structure. The exact same structure goes well with our Indian mainstream films too.

Many screenplay gurus have formulated various types of screenplay formats, some with a three-act structure, some four and some with five. I follow Michael Hauge’s ‘Six Stage Plot Structure’ which I personally feel is the best of all.

Use this technique to write a solid screenplay. But as Michael Hauge quotes “Don’t let all these percentages block your creativity. Structure is an effective template for rewriting and strengthening the emotional impact of your story. But you don’t want to be imprisoned by it. Come up with characters you love and a story that ignites your passion. Then apply these structural principles, to ensure that your screenplay will powerfully touch the widest possible audience.”

Start Writing

Screenplays are built on what happens next? Therefore, the root of every scene comes through suspense, mystery and revelation. Screenwriting is actually Filmmaking on paper. When writing, you are the director, the cinematographer, the editor, the art director, the character, the everyone. You see it all. You want the audience to feel happiness, sadness, love, anger, courage, determination, heroism, empathy, hope, inspiration and everything else they can vicariously experience through the screen.

“Screenwriting is the toughest craft, and when you write well, when you can create a good story, peopled with good characters that truly relate to each other, that evoke tears or laughter that is human and durable, then you can write your own ticket.” — Mel Brooks

* Remember that if you really want to finish your screenplay, make a schedule & stick to it. Only when you have completed the first draft of your screenplay does your journey begin. Up until that moment, everything is still just a fantasy, but when you print out that first draft, you have done it. It’s tangible.

* You also know that today’s moviegoers expect to be visually engaged with breathtaking visuals, grand music, sound effects, visual effects and dynamic dialogues. And because you have the whole thing in your head, there’s a tendency to try and stuff it all in – every single detail. Don’t write too many descriptions. You can get away with that in a novel, but not with a screenplay. A scene can be just one sentence, half a page or even four pages. Try your best to keep the dialogues crisp and descriptions brief. If you are not sure about the importance of a scene in the story, delete it. Even if you love it, even if it’s funny or witty or clever, if it doesn’t move the story forward or reveal some essential information about the character, destroy it. In a properly formatted screenplay, every page counts to one minute of screen time. If your script is 120 pages, the movie will run for approximately 120 minutes. This is certainly not accurate for all screenplays. It is just a scale for good structuring.

* Now, just because you complete a screenplay, however, doesn’t necessarily mean you have executed quality writing. Your first draft will probably be quite bad, embarrassing even, but that’s because it takes ten years to have overnight success and a lifetime to become a master craftsman. Writing itself is what teaches writing. Write again. Make another draft, and another, until you are confident.

* When you are finally confident about a particular draft, you have what it takes to hit the road to success. All the very best.