Recently there’s been a lively discussion on my production company’s Facebook page about the scriptwriting process and the order in which writers should learn the elements of the craft.
Of course, the difficulty in learning the skills necessary to write a good play or screenplay is determining where to start. All the basics are important. However, towering over everything else is the story you want to tell and how you want to tell it. It all starts here.
Press releases emanate from Hollywood every week trumpeting a writer or writer/director or writer/producer and how they sold their next film in a pitch session for some large sum. They didn’t have a script to share. They had a story to tell. And the financing entities know that all good movies are based on good material and good material begins with a wonderful, unique, and exciting basic story idea—a tale worth telling.
This is why it’s important to develop a way of testing your story idea early on, to analyze it in terms of whether or not it embraces the basic dramatic ingredients that all good plays or films hold in common. And these elements, in one way or another, almost always include three things: 1) a central character with a dominant and compelling need or desire that has to be satisfied, 2) significant obstacles to the character fulfilling that need or desire setting up conflict and an intensifying dilemma, and 3) a resolution to the conflict/dilemma leaving the central character somehow changed at the end. Admittedly, this is over simplified. And obviously there are a myriad of variations to these basic building blocks as every story is unique (or should be). But one way or another, some version of these elements needs to be in place at the core of your story idea.
In my experience, too many writers have plunged into the writing of a script before they know if their basic story idea can supply the solid foundation needed to support what will be eventually built on top of it. Sometimes hundreds of pages are written before utter frustration sets in and a project is abandoned or never finished. Often—dare I say usually—this is because the essential early structural analysis of the story itself hasn’t taken place.
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