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filmmaking / Masterclasses / The Industry

Easter Series Uncovered: So you want to be a screenwriter? (Part 2)

15th April 2024


Sarah Drew, screenwriting lecturer at Screen and Film School Birmingham, recently held a wonderfully in-depth and informative virtual workshop on screenwriting as part of our ever-popular Easter Series.

Sarah offered such a rich abundance of insight and knowledge to participants in the workshop that it’s been impossible to fit it all into one article. This is part 2. To read part 1, click here.

In this second part, we move on from discussing narrative structures to explore the elements that screenwriters should incorporate into their screenplay in order to craft a story that ignites audiences’ imaginations, whilst ensuring that – when it comes time to pitch your script – you stand the best chance of success.

If you missed the session first time around, you can still check it out here:


The value of structure

John Truby, revered figure in storytelling, emphasises the importance of a comprehensive approach to crafting a compelling narrative. He breaks down the process into four distinct stages, planning, writing, rewriting, and editing. This framework underscores the significance of meticulous planning, a sentiment echoed by many seasoned screenwriters.

Indeed, the planning phase sets the stage for a successful story. Good advice is to never begin writing page one until you know what happens on the last page. While some may advocate for a more freeform approach, akin to stream of consciousness writing, the intricacies of screenwriting demand a structured foundation.

The debate around structure versus creativity is a common one, with some fearing that sticking to formula stifles creativity. However, if you have a well-planned, well-structured script, when you know what you’re doing structurally, then you can do it whichever way you want. Put it this way, in football there are many different ways in which to score a goal within the rules of the game.

Interested in cinematography? Check out lecturer Adam Collins’ Introduction to Cinematography workshop write-up

There is a tendency to think that art is finally the place where there are no rules, where you have complete freedom. I’m going to sit down at the keyboard and it’s just going to flow out of me onto the paper, and it’s going to be pure art. No. What you’re describing is finger painting. Rules are what makes art beautiful. Rules are what makes sports beautiful… and it’s the rules that make art not finger painting. Think about music and all the rules that music has. These rules also apply to writing. The rulebook is The Poetics by Aristotle. All the rules are there.” – Aaron Sorkin

Crafting a plot

Plot, Truby contends, is the sequence of events through which the main character strives to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals. It serves as the framework that expertly weaves together various story strands, including the external and internal journeys of the protagonist, as well as the contributions of supporting characters and subplots.

Central to Truby’s approach is the notion that character drives plot. He argues that a character’s weaknesses and desires play a crucial role in shaping the narrative arc. By establishing early on a character’s fears or vulnerabilities, such as Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes, the narrative sets the stage for their growth and eventual triumph over obstacles.

Truby emphasises the importance of giving characters both external goals and internal needs. While the external goal propels the plot forward, the character’s internal journey, including overcoming weaknesses and fulfilling unmet needs, drives their growth and transformation.

Crucially, Truby stresses the significance of creating an antagonist who poses a worthy challenge to the protagonist (think Sherlock vs Moriarty). The dynamic between the hero and the villain should be one of equals, with each presenting formidable obstacles to the other’s objectives. This creates tension and uncertainty, keeping the audience engaged and invested in the outcome of the story.

In essence, Truby’s approach highlights the interconnectedness of plot and character development, emphasizing the importance of crafting a narrative that steadily builds from beginning to end, while ensuring that both heroes and villains are compelling and worthy adversaries.

This also applies when writing a love story. It may seem strange to think about two people in a love story as being an antagonist and protagonist. However, for large parts of the story, that’s really how they are; they don’t just get together and everything’s wonderful. There’s conflict. The reason that the conflict is sizeable and the stakes are high is actually down to there being a ‘meeting of minds’ going on.

Journeys to victory and journeys of becoming

When we think about journeys to victory, we might consider Marvel and DC movies. The characters are focused on glory, on achieving victory. Often, there’ll be strong male archetypes, though that balance is thankfully being redressed more recently.

Journeys of becoming tend to be quieter movies, often indie films. In journeys of becoming, the character looks inwards more than outwards. The trouble is internal and they’re focused on moving forwards with their life as they feel they’ve become stuck in a rut in one way or another.

A good example of a journey of becoming is Joker (2019). The focus of the story is the internal journey of this man and why he became the Joker. This isn’t a film about him pursuing the Batman; it’s a film about the change. It has a lot to say about how society can leave people behind, and what the results can be when this happens.

It’s important to stress that, even when you’re working on a journey to victory, you still need your character to also be on a journey of becoming.

To develop your skills as a screenwriter, it’s a good idea to read a lot of psychology books, which will help you to craft rich, engaging characters. – Sarah Drew

Writing good scenes

When crafting scenes, it’s important to consider what you want the audience to know. Every scene should convey key information, whether it’s about the characters, the plot, or both. For instance, if a character interrupts your protagonist’s coffee run with news from the past, ensure that information becomes relevant later in the story. Additionally, clarify what the protagonist wants in each scene, even if it’s as simple as getting a coffee before a job interview.

Always be trying to find new ways of telling the audience something. Don’t forget, you’re in the business of visual storytelling, so though a character might not be saying much, you can show things that help drive the plot.

You also need to consider what your character wants in every scene. That drive is also key for pushing the plot forward.

Structuring scenes like a mini three-act play can add depth and coherence. Begin with a setup, establish a conflict or tension, escalate it to a climax, and then resolve it. This structure keeps the scene engaging and propels the story forward.

One way of doing this might be to switch the dynamics in a scene. For example, if you have two people in a scene, one might have the power at the beginning and then there’s a twist that means they no longer do in the second half of the scene. This encompasses your mid-point, your climax, and your denouement, where you get to reveal the thing that you want to tell your audience at the end of the scene.

Remember, conflict doesn’t always mean arguments; it can be as subtle as conflicting desires or intentions. Raising the stakes. Ultimately, you need to ensure that the audience feel they know that if the protagonist does not achieve what they want to, there will be consequences. You have to keep ramping up the tension.

Visual action for visual storytelling

Visual action is crucial in visual storytelling. Even in dialogue-heavy scenes, incorporate visual cues like body language or actions that reveal character dynamics or emotions. This adds depth and realism to the scene, making it more compelling for the audience.

Let’s say you have a scene between two people. They’re just having lunch in the kitchen together. Even if the dialogue is telling the audience what they need to know, try to do something visual. For instance, somebody’s having a conversation, but they they’re not really saying what they mean. Tell the audience that through what the character is doing with their hands or what their legs are doing under the table. Are they nervous? Are they relaxed? Maybe that’s part of the plot as well. Don’t rely solely on dialogue to communicate what’s going on.

Keep scenes short and sweet

Keep your scenes concise. While some may naturally require more time, aim for brevity, typically spanning one to three pages. Start each scene as late as possible and end it as early as possible.

Avoid unnecessary setup and exposition. Dive straight into the heart of the action, providing audiences with the essential information they need. For instance, rather than showing a character arriving at a restaurant before a breakup scene, begin the scene midway through the dinner when tensions are high. Trust the audience’s intelligence to fill in any gaps.

Leave questions unanswered to intrigue your audience. This could involve withholding a character’s response to a statement or hinting at undisclosed information. By leaving a sense of mystery or ambiguity, you keep viewers engaged and eager for more. For example, a character might evade a direct question, leaving viewers curious about their true intentions or emotions. Embrace the art of crafting scenes that leave audiences craving resolution.

Decisions, change, and advancing the story

Incorporate moments where your characters make decisions, as this helps to pace the scene and keep the momentum going. These decisions can be pivotal, whether they’re made by the central character, a supporting character, or even someone in opposition. For instance, a character might pause to reflect on a cliff’s edge before making a crucial choice. These decisions not only drive the plot forward but also heighten the stakes and maintain audience engagement.

Introduce a change in values within the scene. Start with a positive tone or power dynamic, then shift to a negative one, or vice versa. For example, a character may enter a situation with confidence, only to have their confidence shattered by unexpected information, resulting in a reversal of power dynamics. This change in values adds depth to the scene and allows for character development within the three-act structure.

Lastly, ensure that your scene advances the story, develops the characters, and explores the theme. By incorporating the previous checkpoints, your scene should naturally move the narrative forward, deepen characterisation, and contribute to the overarching themes of your story. Reviewing your scene against these criteria helps ensure that it serves its purpose within the larger context of the narrative.

When considering your theme, delve into the core message you aim to convey to your audience. Are you exploring the brevity of life, the complexities of sacrifice, or another profound question? Each scene should subtly tap into these themes, contributing to the overarching message of your film.

Working with subtext

Subtext, the underlying and often hidden meaning beneath dialogue and actions, adds depth and intrigue to a scene. It allows the audience to interpret and uncover layers of meaning as the story unfolds, conveyed through subtle cues rather than explicit statements.

Dialogue can carry subtext when characters say one thing but mean another, allowing for richer and more nuanced storytelling. Similarly, actions, body language, and even the objects characters interact with can hold hidden significance, contributing to the subtext of a scene.

Incorporating subtext into your script enhances the realism of your characters and their interactions. Instead of spoon-feeding emotions and intentions through direct dialogue, trust the audience to decipher the deeper implications of what’s being said and done.

For example, in Sideways (2004), Paul Giamatti’s character discusses his favourite grape in wine, subtly revealing aspects of his personality and feelings to the woman he’s falling in love with. This narrative subtext, embedded within the dialogue, adds complexity to the scene and the characters’ relationship.

Subtext can extend beyond individual scenes to encompass overarching themes and societal commentary. Films like The Truman Show use their plots to explore deeper themes such as the nature of reality and the pursuit of the American Dream, enriching the narrative with layers of subtextual meaning.

Incorporating subtext into your screenplay requires finesse and attention to detail, but it elevates the storytelling experience, inviting audiences to engage more deeply with the characters and themes of your story.

Visual subtext

Visual subtext, conveyed through imagery, setting, and colour, adds another layer of meaning to a story. In films like Brokeback Mountain (2004), the contrast between the cramped, claustrophobic town and the expansive, liberating landscape of Brokeback Mountain visually reflects the inner conflict and journey of the characters. The town symbolises societal constraints and the inability to be authentic, while the mountain represents freedom and self-expression.

Even seemingly minor details like colour choices can carry significant meaning. In Breaking Bad (2008-13), names with colours (e.g., Walter White, Jesse Pinkman) and the deliberate use of colour throughout the series contribute to the narrative and character development. As a screenwriter, describing the visual elements in your script, such as colours, sets the tone and communicates thematic elements to the production team and director.

To effectively write subtext, start by understanding your characters’ motivations, desires, and the stakes they face. Then, delve beneath the surface to uncover the deeper meaning of your story. Ask yourself what you’re trying to convey thematically and how this manifests in the characters, actions, dialogue, and settings. Every scene should aim to convey broader significance, whether in terms of plot, character development, or themes, enriching the storytelling experience for the audience.

Read more: So you want to be a screenwriter? – Part 1