Pre-Production: Screenwriting

More than 10,000 Attorney prepared forms

Screenwriting is the first stage of the pre-production process (Katz, 1991:98), since the script as “a written version of the movie”, acts as a “blueprint”, the base for the production of the film (Screenplays: Crash Course Film Production #1, 2017).
Thus, screenplays are written during the development phase of pre-production – development begins when a writer starts work on a screenplay, or a producer has an idea for a project, with this phase continuing as the script is redrafted several times, and the foundations of the film, such as finding key locations, cast and crew, and developing an initial budget, are prepared before the film moves into the main pre-production process once it finds funding, either from an independent source or a studio (known as being ‘green-lit’) (Webb, 2019).
A screenwriter – or sometimes more than one screenwriter if co-writing is involved – initially crafts the vision for the project as the person responsible for building the world of the film through words as they are guided through writing and redrafting by the producer – however, the director takes over observing rewrites when they are recruited to the project by the producer and thus they add their vision to the film, collaborating with to create, and ultimately taking over the responsibility of the project’s vision from the screenwriter, since during production the director is responsible for elements such as visual style, casting, and locations which will affect how the screenplay is portrayed on screen to an audience (Rea & Irving, 2015:28).
Scripts are written around three key elements: the protagonist, also known as the main character, their goal, and the struggles they must overcome to reach this goal, from which the other elements of the film, such as settings, the theme and the tone, are created (Screenplays: Crash Course Film Production #1, 2017).


Story beats & tone

Stories revolve around these three key elements, since they encourage the audience to relate to the main character through their struggles to reach their goal – it has been argued about the main character that, effectively they become your avatar in the drama” – as an incident/event happens to them, which incites the rest of the story (Yorke, 2013). 
This inciting incident has been called the “catalyst” – a moment which changes the normal life of the character, often seemingly for the worse, yet, by the end of the film, this incident is often “what leads the hero to happiness” – this catalyst moment should happen for feature films by page 12 (Snyder, 2005:77), but within the first few pages of a short film, due to their shorter running time. In the short film Dig for example, the catalyst moment, when the little girl (the main character) sees her dad has started to dig a hole in their back garden, happens a minute and a half into the film.
However, even before the catalyst, the opening scene of the film needs to establish the film’s tone, as well as introduce the main character(s), so the audience know what kind of film they are watching (Grant, 2013:152). Tone is “the overall atmosphere of the writing, the emotional resonance it establishes and maintains throughout, and it reflects the writer’s attitude toward the subject matter” – this can range from dark and bitter, to light and hopeful (Grant, 2013:151).
Opening scenes can establish tone and introduce character(s) in several ways, such as through showing the character’s everyday routine – this can make the audience aware of the type of person the character is, as well as show what the main character will spend the film trying to return to after their routine is disrupted by the catalyst – or by starting at the catalyst moment, bringing the audience straight into the action (Grant, 2013:152). Overall, how the writer decides to introduce the film to the audience through this opening scene will depend on the story they wish to tell, since this creates a “before” image of the character(s), which will lead to an “after” image by the end of the film to show how the events of the film have changed them (Snyder, 2005:72).
Events of a film can be outlined by a writer by using a “beat sheet” – this is a type of outline where “each major plot point gets its own bullet point (or occasionally, a number)” (August, 2010a).
Screenwriter Blake Snyder created a simple one page outline describing what kind of beats should be in each act in a three act feature film to help writers give their films strong structures (Snyder, 2005:68-9). Thus, these beats are also used in short films, however, analysing Dig, I found that some were missing, creating an even more simplified structure for its nine minute running time. These are the beats that Dig follows:
Opening image: Suburban house – gives the audience an idea of the type of characters to expect, and establishes the film’s setting
Fig. 1 Dig (2014)
Theme stated: Being a kid – shown through the ball and bike in the back garden, the art on the fridge as the little girl comes to get milk for her cereal, and how she struggles to pour the milk – backed up the light-hearted, upbeat music which conveys what the tone of the film will be
Fig. 2 Dig (2014)
Set-up: Helps to state the theme by showing the little girl going about her daily routine, as she eats breakfast – yet this is disrupted by:
Catalyst: The little girl sees her dad digging a hole in the garden as she eats her cereal and looks out the window – she decides to watch him
Fig. 3 Dig (2014)
B-story: This is typically called “the love story”, since it involves the main character’s relationship with another character, yet it is also the story which emphasises the film’s theme (Snyder, 2005:79) – for Dig being a kid, thus the little girl is joined by more and more of her friends as they come over to ask her to play, yet she decides to stay and watch her dad – thus the relationship involved is the one between the main character and her dad
Fig. 4 Dig (2014)
Fun and Games: Delivers “the promise of the premise” (Snyder, 2005:81) – since Dig is about the neighbourhood questioning why the hole is being dug, the little girl and her friends go and get ice cream, including one for the little girl’s dad, who stops digging to eat it – this also makes the audience question that if he can stop digging to eat ice cream, why is he digging so urgently in the first place?
Fig. 5 Dig (2014)
Midpoint: A neighbour confronts the little girl’s dad about not having a permit to dig the hole
Bad Guys Close In: Leads to another neighbour confronting him – leading to the little girl’s mum finally realising that her dad is digging a hole and being annoyed – they all try to stop him digging
All is lost: The little guy gets annoyed at them all for confronting her dad – getting her into trouble with her mum as the police arrive to speak to her dad
Dark night of the soul: The little girl cries alone in her room as her dad is arrested outside
Fig. 6 Dig (2014)
Break into three: This is where the A & B story come together to show the protagonist how to overcome their obstacles (Snyder, 2005:89), thus the little girl talks to her dad before he gets led off by the police – he explains he was only digging a hole
Final image: So the little girl takes what she’s learnt from her dad and continues digging the hole for him, in his absence after his arrest
Fig. 7 Dig (2014)
Thus, the final image conveys the film’s theme – being a kid – by showing that the little girl idolises her dad, as his daughter, and in her childlike innocence follows his actions, despite seeing that they got him into trouble.
Breaking the film down into beats like this allowed me to see that these beats do not have to each be an individual scene – for example, eating the ice creams, the first neighbour confronting the dad which leads to the other confrontations, and eventually the police arriving, all happen in the same scene, despite being four separate beats.
Nonetheless, films can be broken down into scenes by using index cards.

Index Cards

Index cards can be used to outline scenes in a film, with a single scene or sequence being allocated to one card, allowing the writer to arrange them on a table, or stick them onto a board to work on structure (August, 2003). This acts as “a way to easily test different scenes, story arcs, ideas, bits of dialogue and story rhythms, and decide whether they work” or whether they need to be changed to improve the film’s structure before beginning writing (Snyder, 2005:100).
Seeing the scenes broken down and arranged in this way can allow the writer to better feel how the film’s plot flows, allowing them to also notice where there may be gaps in the screenplay, in which case an index card can also be used to indicate where another scene is needed – index cards can be similarly used to keep track of new ideas which the writer can note down, such as those about characters, settings, theme etc. (Myers, 2013).
Yet, index cards should only represent big story points, as they need to be general so they can be rearranged as much as needed – to also help with the visualisation of these story points in a physical form, a writer can use different coloured cards for different types of sequences, such as one colour for action and another for narrative since this can help highlight how the film will be paced (August, 2010b).
The board or table these cards are arranged on is typically separated into four separate sections – act one, act two a (until the midpoint), act two b, and act three (Snyder, 2005:101). The contents of each card should consist of the scene heading, as well as “the basic action of the scene told in simple declarative sentences” – sentences which are statements (Snyder, 2005:103).
However, once the basic action has been plotted, the writer needs to consider the emotional change in each scene, as well as the conflict (Snyder, 2005:110). A scene’s emotional change is how the character’s emotion at the beginning of the scene differs from that at the end of the scene, important since it signifies that something happens in every scene which is important enough to change the character slightly – emotional change is shown on index cards by the symbol +/- or -/+, depending on how the character’s emotional state changes (Snyder, 2005:110-1).
This emotional change affects the mood of the film, which is the feeling experienced by the audience, since this is often determined by the main character’s emotions, whether they are in the scene or not – yet, mood should change from scene to scene, affected by if the writer wants to make the tone lighter or darker within the scene, sometimes even choosing the mood of the scene to contrast with the emotions of the main character, depending on what the story requires (Grant, 2013:151).
This can depend on the the conflict faced by the character within the scene/sequence, denoted by the symbol > < on an index card, which must be in every scene, but only one conflict – one goal and one obstacle – should be in each scene, otherwise the scene can become too complicated (Snyder, 2005:111).

Screenwriter John August does suggest that index cards may not be useful for films with no action sequences, believing “a better bet would be to write up an outline or a treatment that lets you get a sense of the feel of the movie, not just the big beats” – yet, he also acknowledges that each film requires their own process which is best for them, and that due to this, when writing, the cards should be used as a guide, veered from if needed to improve the story (August, 2003).
Even though my film has no action sequences, I found that using index cards in this way helped me, since it made evident what each scene was needed for, and the fundamentals that I needed to convey when writing it. They also helped when my plot got too convoluted, as I could see when I had either too many cards, or too much information on one card.
From this, I did find that, “quality prep work makes writing the script much easier. I know what I need out of each scene going forward” (Myers, 2017), because of the simple nature of the index cards’ contents and how they could be rearranged when I wanted to edit the story, even whilst writing.


Redrafting is essential in screenwriting, as it is the only way to make improvements to the script and thus determine the quality of the end product (Miyamoto, 2015). It has been said that good preparation helps with this, since knowing at least the concept, story, characters, themes, and tone” before writing means that the screenwriter is not “writing blindly” as they already know certain elements of the film, even if these do have to be improved later – this can still mean less rewriting, since there are already clear ideas for the film, which can always be returned to if they aren’t followed and new ideas do not work (Miyamoto, 2015).
This is also why a writer should return to their first draft when writing their second and not discard it (Miyamoto, 2015), especially since, as believed by writer Neil Gaiman, “the process of doing your second draft is a process of making it look like you knew what you were doing all along” (Neil Gaiman Teaches The Art of Storytelling | Official Trailer | MasterClass, 2019). From good preparation the fundamental elements will be in place in this first draft, but need improving to make clearer.
However, to save time, it has been suggested that it is possible for a writer to rewrite as they draft, meaning that they return to the last pages they wrote at the end of a writing session, improving them as they read although the screenplay is incomplete, since by doing this they are in the same state of mind when redrafting as they were when they wrote the draft in the first place – it has been argued that doing this means it could be possible for the completed draft to flow better and be more succinct than if the writer did not go back and rewrite it while they read, especially if they concentrate on improving as much of the script as possible, as well as cut anything which doesn’t move the story forward (Miyamoto, 2015).
To improve the story, a writer can also ask:
  • Is the hero active or passive? – a hero should be active so that the story is constantly moved forward by them reaching for their goal
  • Is dialogue expositional? – show, don’t tell
  • Can the villain challenge the hero even more?
  • Does the story’s pace increase towards the end of the film, offering revelations about the characters?
  • Does the script have scenes which show emotional change?
  • Do the characters each have a distinct voice?
  • Is the main character’s struggle based on primal instinct – survival, protection of loved ones, revenge etc. – so that it is relatable to everyone?
(Snyder, 2005:160-1).
Rewriting in this way not only allows the script to become better, but also the writer to become more skilled, as they learn how to handle each screenwriting element through testing what works and what doesn’t (Miyamoto, 2015).


Writing science fiction

Science fiction films can be classified as those that require science to drive them – even if this science is fake, hypothetical, or nonsensical, as long as it makes sense within the film’s world – without some kind of ‘science’, the film instead falls into the fantasy genre (Grant, 2013:1-3).
To show this, Grant (2013:2) uses the example of Back to the Future (1985), since it relies on the concept of the flux capacitor, which needs 1.21 gigawatts to power a time machine within a DeLorean – not real science, but it is kept constant within the film’s story, and the plot relies on this to move forward and create conflict for the characters.
Because of this, science fiction as a genre has been described as being dependent on the question “What if?”, since it centres around possibility, being compared to how real scientists research and work on experiments by taking what is known – such as the concept of the time machine, a familiar science fiction trope to viewers – and extending this so possibilities can be explored – such as, in the case of Back to the Future, what if your parents had never met because you went back in time and accidentally stopped them from meeting? (Telotte, 2004:03).
Due to this exploration of possibility, science fiction films usually tell one of three types of story:
  • A protagonist enters a new world unlike their own, such as in Back to the Future when Marty travels back in time
  • The protagonist encounters someone or something unlike them, which is from another world, but has entered the protagonist’s world to achieve a certain goal or to bring the protagonist to their world, such as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • The protagonist must find a resolution to an obstacle within their advanced world which seems unlike our own, such as in Blade Runner (Voytilla, 1999:261).

It has been argued that the second type of story, encountering someone/something from another world best shows the speculative nature of the genre, as it is able to widen “the scope of our knowledge” since it, “explodes our very perception of the universe…It effectively alters our whole sense of reality” (Telotte, 2004:12-13) by bringing an unknown world – in the form of this something or someone – to the world we already know, such as in my film, The Universe Is A Goldfish Bowl, since a scientist meets a version of herself from a parallel universe, challenging the reality of there being one universe by introducing the possibility of there being a multiverse – several universes.
Thus, my film is based on the concept of the multiverse – also known as Everett’s many-worlds interpretation – which is a real scientific concept. Hence, it was necessary within this story to mix fact and fiction, a trope of science fiction, due to its reliance on science – due to this the science, even if not real, needs to be explained in some detail, since most people know some basic scientific concepts, and will wonder how the science works within the rules of the film’s world, meaning the writer needs to be able to give basic answers about it, such as how the dinosaurs all being female due to the engineering of their chromosomes is explained in Jurassic Park, with one of the characters still believing that despite this engineering, life will find a way, foreshadowing the rest of the film’s plot – and showing that the science that affects the plot is only what should be explained (Grant, 2013:93-5). For this reason, it is unnecessary for the writer to do extensive research, since they “only need to know enough so (they) can get it on the page”, and explain its effect on the plot (Grant, 2013:93).
From this it can be seen that the science can be explained by a character within the film, such as, in an example given by Pacific Rim: Uprising writer, Emily Carmichael, how a character can mention “leaving town” on some kind of spaceship or a vehicle unlike any on Earth “in an offhand way”, allowing the writer to start showing viewers that the world of the film is different from reality, and has a reality and history of its own (Hollywood Screenwriter Attempts To Write A Scene in 7 Minutes | Vanity Fair, 2019).

However, how dialogue is used by a character depends on their personality and what they want/need, with characters and their wants/needs also determining the film’s plot (Myers, 2017). Thus, despite this dependence on science, characters are the central focus of science fiction, since this is the element the audience empathise with and relate to (Grant, 2013:3).

Creating character

Within science fiction films, “The main character in your story has to be the only person this story could possibly happen to“, due to their imperfections, which should build to create the reasons why this person is the only character who can be at the centre of this story – this is because this character has to overcome these imperfections to reach the story’s resolution (Grant, 2013:38), and “usually, the more conflict the protagonist faces, the more they transform to overcome it” (Screenplays: Crash Course Film Production #1, 2017).
In other words, the more flawed the protagonist is, and the more these flaws make it challenging for them to deal with what happens to them in the story, the more conflict will be created, and thus the more the character will change, leading to a more satisfying ending.
Despite this, the size of the conflict faced by the character should always depend on the story (Screenplays: Crash Course Film Production #1, 2017). For example, conflict can be something as small as not being able to put a coin in a machine without the coin being rejected, (as in the short film The Coin Machine, with the main character’s flaw being impatience), or as big as saving the galaxy from evil in Star Wars, causing the main character to have to overcome his lack of self-belief.
Nonetheless, regarding this change in characters, “the most important thing for the screenwriter is finding ways to make all of this come across visually” (Screenplays: Crash Course Film Production #1, 2017), so that this difference in the character becomes evident to the audience.
This can be shown through how the character looks – whether they look scruffy, exhausted, or clean and wide eyed – allowing their personality to become visible to the audience, a large part of this being portrayed by what the character wears (McGrail, s.d).
For example, I imagined my main character, Vera, as being a person of habit because she is in a routine so she can maximise her work time – Vera’s main priority being work. Due to this, Vera always looks tired (getting progressively worse as the film goes on) from overworking, thus she only ever wears her work clothes during the film.
Yet, since Vera is a scientist, her work clothes would therefore need to conform to lab safety standards. For example, she would wear trousers and a long sleeved t-shirt so her arms and legs are covered against potential spills and/or lab accidents, no jewellery as there would be a hazard it could catch on something, and flat shoes to protect her feet, as well as her hair tied back when working so it doesn’t get in the way – all to conform to lab safety regulations (Lab Manager, 2017).
Despite this, although Vera’s clothes would be smart, since they are work clothes, they would not be too formal – as stated by one scientist, If I came to work in a suit, everyone would ask me, “What’s with the suit?””, mainly because this is not practical to wear whilst conducting experiments – thus, some scientists tend to dress for comfort (Ruben, 2014). I thought that Vera would fit this, caring more about her work than her appearance, but still being concerned that her clothes are not mismatched so she can maintain a professional appearance.

Nonetheless, despite Roni being different from Vera – for example, her appearance is more casual since she is dressed for travel – I still wanted to use visuals which would connect them, since they are different versions of the same person. For this reason, both of them are people of habit, Vera drinking only coffee and Roni only tea, since they both are always thinking about work. Due to this, Vera always drinks coffee out of the same cat-shaped mug, which has been used so much it’s faded with an ear chipped off. To link them in this way, Roni wears a cat jumper to show they have the common interest, yet that Roni loves cats more than Vera – so her interest is more evident – as she owns a pet cat because she works less than Vera.
Details about character can also be shown through dialogue, since “where someone comes from, events from their past, and how they are as a person will have a huge influence on their patterns of speech, their confidence, and indeed their willingness to talk”, thus it is necessary to work out some of these details about character (Grant, 2013:37-8). For this reason, it can be seen that it is necessary for characters to each have their own distinguishable voices.
Thus, for Vera and Roni I wrote character notes I could refer to when writing the screenplay, which were able to inform their personalities, voices, and appearances, helping me aim to make them each distinguishable.

Nonethelessinitially when working on making the characters’ voices distinguishable from each other, I decided to write scribble scenes – usually a version of a scene which details the scene in its simplest form without full sentences or complete dialogue which the writer can return to later without forgetting the details (August, 2014) – but I included full dialogue without the characters’ names.

Writing dialogue without names like this helped me, as, if I didn’t make each character’s voice distinct I didn’t know whose line was whose. Thus, I had to concentrate on making sure Vera’s dialogue showed she spoke in declarative sentences – statements and facts, showing that she is primarily concerned with logic – such as “according to science, real people don’t just magically duplicate one day”, allowing her voice to differ from Roni’s.
This is because, as the main character, Vera needs to move the story forward, since the plot revolves around her goal – because of this, protagonists should not ask questions, but actively lead the story – thus it should be other characters who are asking them questions as they drive the plot forward (Snyder, 2005:146). This is since protagonists who drive the plot will “attract characters and scenarios that will teach the valuable lesson of the story (i.e., the “arc”)”, and thus the protagonist needs “a strong and clear need” which will drive the story forward and define it by leading the protagonist toward the irreversible change of your finale” (Detisch, 2019).
As already stated, this change in the protagonist needs to be shown visually – film is a visual medium – thus, in The Universe Is A Goldfish Bowl, I decided to do this with Vera by having her realise she is overworking by seeing her reflection in the mirror and how this compares to Roni’s – Roni looks strong and healthy, whilst Vera looks pale, exhausted, and ill.
However, I aimed to show how Vera changed because of this realisation after she gives up by appearing in later scenes fresh faced and no longer pale because she learns to take five minutes and step away from her work – emphasising this change by having Roni, who has taken over Vera’s work, end up pale and exhausted as Vera had been.
Overall, it has been argued that the most important thing about the protagonist of any story is that The main character in your story has to be the only person this story could possibly happen to“,  because of how they need to face conflict due to the story in order to change (Grant, 2013:38). This is why I gave Vera the attribute of overworking, since Roni’s arrival means she decides to take on an impossible task which she then overworks to solve, but can only solve if she stops overworking and finally sees Roni is real – hence, her flaws make her face conflict due to the story which is what leads to her changing (Grant, 2013:39).

Reading screenplays

During this unit, I read the screenplays for several films including Lost in Translation, Up in the Air, Gravity, Arrival, Jackie, as well as some TV pilots for my dissertation, such as that of Castle and The Rookie, which I found taught me how to use screenwriting elements which I could carry over into this unit.
For example, the screenplay for Jackie (2017) – the story of the assassination of President Kennedy told from his wife’s point of view – taught me I could use the symbol — to denote characters interrupting each other, but also themselves, or changing topic mid sentence, or as a way to denote a short beat, shorter than that denoted by a parenthetical:

I found that this helped me to convey Roni’s excitement and impatience better since it shows how she switches topics, and repeats herself sometimes due to these emotions.

Reading the pilot script for The Rookie (2019) – a TV show about the LA police department’s oldest rookie – also helped me learn that action blocks can be used to show characters’ emotions, since “this is where the thoughts, feelings, and themes of the screenplay are turned into actions you can see” (Screenplays: Crash Course Film Production #1, 2017).

Seeing how to show a character’s feelings like this helped me show Vera’s overworking and her consequent exhaustion through using different verbs to describe how she walks, or how she rubs her eyes.

List of illustrations

Figure 1-7. Dig (2014) [Short film] At: (Accessed on 23 December 2019).


August, J. (2003) Index cards. At: (Accessed on 23 December 2019).

August, J. (2010a) WTF is a beat sheet? At: (Accessed on 23 December 2019).

August, J. (2010b) 10 hints for index cards. At: (Accessed on 23 December 2019).

August, J. (2014) How to Write a Scene, now in handy two-page form. At: (Accessed on 23 December 2019).

Detisch, A. (2019) ‘The Ultimate Film Beat Sheet.’ In: StudioBinder 9/12/19. At: (Accessed on 23 December 2019).

Grant, R. (2013) Writing The Science Fiction Film. California: Michael Wiese Productions.

Hollywood Screenwriter Attempts To Write A Scene in 7 Minutes | Vanity Fair (2019) [online video] At: (Accessed on 23 December 2019).

Katz, S. (1991) Shot By Shot. California: Michael Wiese Productions.

Lab Manager (2017) Lab Safety Rules and Guidelines. At: (Accessed on 23 December 2019).

McGrail, L. (s.d) ‘4 Examples of Good Visual Writing in a Movie Script.’ In: Lights Film School. At: (Accessed on 28 December 2019).

Miyamoto, K. (2015) ‘7 Ways to Master the Art of the Script Rewrite.’ In: Screencraft 14/10/15. At: (Accessed on 23 December 2019).

Myers, S. (2013) ‘Screenwriting Tips: Index Cards.’ In: Go Into The Story 6/6/13. At: (Accessed on 23 December 2019).

Myers, S. (2017) ‘100 Screenwriters on Screenwriting.’ In: Go Into The Story 16/8/17. At: (Accessed on 23 December 2019).

Neil Gaiman Teaches The Art of Storytelling | Official Trailer | MasterClass (2019) [online video] At: (Accessed on 23 December 2019).

Rea, P. & Irving, D. (2015) Producing and Directing the Short Film and Video. Oxon: Focal Press.

Ruben, A. (2014) ‘Dress to Profess: What Should Scientists Wear?’ In: Science 24/4/14. At: (Accessed on 23 December 2019).

Screenplays: Crash Course Film Production #1 (2017) [online video] At: (Accessed on 23 December 2019).

Snyder, B. (2005) Save the cat! California: Michael Wiese Productions.

Telotte, J. (2004) Science Fiction Film. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Voytilla, S. (1999) Myth And The Movies: Discovering the Mythic Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films. California: Michael Wiese Productions.

Webb, M. (2019) ‘Understanding the 5 Stages of Indie Film Production.’ In: Indie Film Hustle 22/11/19. At: (Accessed on 23 December 2019).

Yorke, J. (2013) ‘What makes a great screenplay.’ In: The Guardian 15/3/13. At: (Accessed on 23 December 2019).

What's your reaction?

In Love
Not Sure

You may also like

More in:Production

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *