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
- 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?
Writing science fiction
- 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).
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.
Nonetheless, initially 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).
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:
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).
List of illustrations
August, J. (2010a) WTF is a beat sheet? At: https://johnaugust.com/?s=beat+sheet (Accessed on 23 December 2019).
August, J. (2010b) 10 hints for index cards. At: https://johnaugust.com/?s=index+cards (Accessed on 23 December 2019).
August, J. (2014) How to Write a Scene, now in handy two-page form. At: https://johnaugust.com/2014/how-to-write-a-scene-in-two-pages (Accessed on 23 December 2019).
Detisch, A. (2019) ‘The Ultimate Film Beat Sheet.’ In: StudioBinder 9/12/19. At: https://www.studiobinder.com/blog/save-the-cat-beat-sheet/ (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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zoM-tQOOcPw (Accessed on 23 December 2019).
Katz, S. (1991) Shot By Shot. California: Michael Wiese Productions.
Lab Manager (2017) Lab Safety Rules and Guidelines. At: https://www.labmanager.com/lab-health-and-safety/2017/12/science-laboratory-safety-rules-guidelines#.XheHpS2cau6 (Accessed on 23 December 2019).
McGrail, L. (s.d) ‘4 Examples of Good Visual Writing in a Movie Script.’ In: Lights Film School. At: https://www.lightsfilmschool.com/blog/4-examples-of-good-visual-writing-in-a-movie-script (Accessed on 28 December 2019).
Miyamoto, K. (2015) ‘7 Ways to Master the Art of the Script Rewrite.’ In: Screencraft 14/10/15. At: https://screencraft.org/2015/10/14/7-ways-to-master-the-art-of-the-script-rewrite/ (Accessed on 23 December 2019).
Myers, S. (2013) ‘Screenwriting Tips: Index Cards.’ In: Go Into The Story 6/6/13. At: https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/screenwriting-tip-index-cards-3c8a303236be (Accessed on 23 December 2019).
Myers, S. (2017) ‘100 Screenwriters on Screenwriting.’ In: Go Into The Story 16/8/17. At: https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/100-screenwriters-on-screenwriting-a6b94c3d8a89 (Accessed on 23 December 2019).
Neil Gaiman Teaches The Art of Storytelling | Official Trailer | MasterClass (2019) [online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SinJ_hB8T1k (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: https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2014/04/dress-profess-what-should-scientists-wear (Accessed on 23 December 2019).
Screenplays: Crash Course Film Production #1 (2017) [online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TARsoxST0tQ&list=PL8dPuuaLjXtPnisE6CrrLO00Qoe67TDpx&t (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.
Yorke, J. (2013) ‘What makes a great screenplay.’ In: The Guardian 15/3/13. At: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/15/john-yorke-best-screenwriting (Accessed on 23 December 2019).