To write a great script, you need a great idea.
So, where do great ideas come from?
This is very personal. You can feel inspired by nature, music, and dreams. You get a fixed idea and can’t let it go anymore.
I personally have those kinds of strong visions and I can build a story around one unique vision.
But there are many other ways to find a great idea.
Being inspired by films you like is a very effective way to find your own voice. Also making the decision of creating one that you'd like to watch.
As Steven Spielberg put it in this interview from 2011 on his collaboration with Peter Jackson, Tintin:
“I make films I want to watch”.
Although this would be not your original idea, books are a great source of inspiration too.
There is always room for creativity in the adaptation. Also, one single idea in a book can catch your attention and make you want to build a story around it.
Whether you want to tell the story of a friend’s friend, your own or you feel inspired by a discussion at your neighbor’s table in a restaurant, life’s experiences are an endless source of inspiration.
Once you get an idea, you have to think about your concept...
High and low have nothing to do with the quality of a film, but rather the plot’s style.
High Concept is a plot that you can resume in a few words and is predictable. Lots of Blockbusters have a high concept. The core of the story is sometimes announced in the title itself.
Low Concept films are more difficult to describe. The audience needs to concentrate a little bit more to understand what’s it’s all about. From mystery to character study, the low concept can’t be resumed in one sentence.
Don’t feel obligated to do one or the other. There's no shame in liking arthouse and blockbusters. If you care more about the story and the quality than about the context within the film has been made, you'll surely create something great.
Syd Field (1935-2013) was known for the structure he discovered in classic Hollywood movies and described it in his book Screenwriting (1979).
He’s also known for the television series Men in Crisis, Hollywood and the Stars, National Geographics, and Jacque Cousteau Specials from 1963 to 1965.
Syd Field taught screenwriting for the Master of Professional Writing Program, at the University of Southern California.
The structure he developed in his work consists of three acts.
The first act is described in approximately the first ¼ of the script, the second in the next ½ and the third act in the last ¼ of the story.
Even if this division varies a little, those are the proportions on which a script with Field’s method is developed.
I’m going to refer in the rest of this article to the protagonist as a “he”, so please don’t be offended if I don’t use “she” as well, it’s only easier to follow and read.
In the first act, the protagonists and the scene are settled. It’s the beginning of the story.
This is also the act in which the conflict and the main characters are presented to the audience. The protagonists should be settled in the first ten pages. Their world, values, habits, and goals are presented is those first pages until an inciting event occurs.
This event happens in the middle of the first act and is the first time the protagonist(s) will encounter the main conflict.
It’s not to be confounded with the key event that pushes the protagonist to leave his comfort zone.
This key event is settled at the end of the first act and prepare the protagonist to enter a new world, aka the first plot point.
Let's take the example of The Matrix franchise by the Wachowski siblings...
When Neo gets in touch with Trinity and her crew for the first time, it’s an inciting event.
When Neo meets Morpheus, and get to choose between the red and the blue pill, it’s a key event.
And when he takes the red one and wakes up into reality, it’s the first plot point.
The first plot point is very important to keep your audience attentive.
It determines if their curiosity is going to be triggered or not.
And the average audience is not very patient.
But, let’s be honest, it’s also not its job to be attentive to your work, it’s yours to make them want to watch further.
The first plot point is also often the first event remembered by the audience.
Below, this is indubitably one of the most memorable of film history!
In the second act, the main conflict of the story is developed.
The goal set by the protagonist in the first act is going to be pursued with ups and downs.
The downs will always come first.
The protagonist will be confronted with a number of obstacles that stand between him and his goal.
Obstacles don’t have to be other human being or living things by the way. It can be a storm, gravity, traffic, you name it.
The more appealing and dramatical the obstacle, the more villain the antagonist is, the more passionate your audience will be.
It’s important that it’s believable and logical within the story. I didn’t say realistic, but believable, plausible and convincing. Otherwise, your audience will lose interest.
All those neatly arranged obstacles and their reactions to it should lead smoothly to the midpoint of the story.
As the name tells it very well, the midpoint takes place in the middle of your second act and of your entire story!
As The job of Mr. Midpoint is to spin the plot into a new direction, your job is to make your audience not feel like they have to struggle to follow you. Don’t oblige them to fight their way through a boring story.
The midpoint is a major event that must increase the tension within the story.
To maintain this tension your protagonist should be fighting his way back toward his goal in every single scene, regardless of how recklessly he does it.
This has nothing to do with the core of his character!
The obstacles that stand in his way must be external to him. It can’t be a feeling or a mood because then nothing happens.
Except if you intend to make a film where nothing major happens intentionally, but that’s another story.
In The Matrix, this would be the meeting between Neo and the Oracle, who announces him, that Morpheus is going to sacrifices himself for him and that one of them is going to die.
Neo has to choose who it’s going to be.
You should also not confound a character’s goal with his motivation.
The motivation explains why a protagonist is doing something while the goal is hopefully the outcome of his action; a result which occurs physically in his world.
The second plot point aka the Point of No Return is a decisive event, that pushes the protagonist irreversibly away from his initial situation.
It’s a major transformation that the protagonist has to make, due to an external crisis.
If you’d talk about a film with your friend, you shouldn’t tell about the second plot point, because you’d ruin his experience as a viewer. This would be what everybody knows as a spoiler.
In The Matrix, the second plot point occurs when Morpheus is captured and tortured by agent Smith, Cypher dies and the rest of the team is unplugged with Tank, Trinity, and Neo as only survivors.
Because Zion, which is the last human’s bastion, is threatened, Tank proposes to unplug Morpheus, before he succumbs to torture and reveals its location.
That’s when Neo and Trinity decide to risk everything and save Morpheus in the Matrix.
The third act develops the conclusion of the story.
It starts after a major crisis, which is the second plot point.
Usually, the protagonist is at its lowest and lost almost every hope.
He’ll put himself together in the second scene of the third act and fight his way back to his goal.
On the contrary, if the protagonist is going to lose his goal, the act should start with the protagonist being on top.
He’ll then lose one by one everything that’d have brought him closer to his goal.
The goal is also not to be confounded with the climax, which can show a villain being killed, a car accident, an explosion, etc.
The film ends once the goal has been reached. In the best case, the goal will be reached on the last page of your script.
In The Matrix, a climax of the third act would be as Neo is shot by agent Smith.
Protagonists can have more than one goal.
This is the case in The Matrix.
Morpheus’s main goal is to save Zion from the Machine.
Trinity’s main goal is to get the man and getting him to accomplish his destiny.
Neo’s main goal is to give humanity its freedom of choices back.
In this last scene, the audience can see that he’s accomplished it for now.
Not only Syd Field is able to advise you on storytelling but also Robert McKee, who has written one of renown book on screenwriting called “Story“.
This is a common mistake made by beginners when writing.
They describe feeling from the inside and don’t actually show how it’d look like for the audience or the readers.
So, always think about this, when you tell a story.
If you’d written “Tom is sad” in a script, how do you think it’d be translated into images?
Does Tom bang his head against the wall when he’s sad? Does he stare into the abyss? Does he kill people? Does he drink 10 glasses of whiskey?
You get the picture!
The more vivid you are with your descriptions, the more spirited it’ll feel for the audience and the professionals who will read the script even before.
If you start developing your story without having developed your protagonists, antagonists, and story before, you’ll have trouble finding a logical thread through your story.
Every time your characters will encounter a conflict, you won’t know how to make them react, because you won’t know what they stand for.
Describe everything for yourself in a separate document, which is important for you, not for your audience.
Your audience won’t see the work you’ve done in the background, but it’ll feel that’s something is wrong, if you didn’t elaborate a solid basis before.
If you want to know more about building spirited characters, I wrote something on this topic a few months ago:
If you enjoyed this article, please leave a comment. Many thanks!
To write this post I was inspired by the following articles:
Hello there, I'm Martha, a tenacious optimist, multi passionated human being obsessed with improvement and breakthroughs. I'm a pain in the ass when it comes to accepting status quo and I love inspiring films and books because they go to the depth of our feelings, have the power to change perspective and sometimes to heal.
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