Say you’re building a house… would you go to the lumberyard to buy wood before drafting a floor plan? No. That would be stupid.
Now, say you want to write a screenplay. The same kind of thinking applies here, too. Screenwriters who write with no idea where they’re going usually end up with a script that reads like it doesn’t know where it’s going.
I know several writers who sit down at their desks and stare at the blank screen (or sometimes, paper), dig deep for the inspiration and begin typing away. It sounds romantic. Maybe even the epitome of what it might mean to be a screenwriter. Well, I hate to burst the bubble, but unless you write in front of a group, no one will see that moment but you. Sure, that romantic way of writing can sometimes make magic. But most of the time, many writers rarely make it to page three before starting over. And those who make it past page three usually take months and months to complete a single screenplay. Why? Because they didn’t have a structure to follow.
Having a floor plan, or a clear outline, is a more efficient way to write a movie. There is no right way or wrong way to make this structure/outline/floor plan. A structure can be organized in any way so long as it helps you. Note cards, computer document, etc. I use a single sheet of notebook paper to begin outlining mine (in blue ball point pen). There are roughly 25 lines on a single sheet. First, number them 1-25.
Then, look at those numbers and imagine a time associated with them. I say it’s somewhere between three and five minutes. Then, you can begin to separate the outline into “movie time.” Your single sheet of paper now represents somewhere between 90-120 minutes. Of course, you can break it down even further, and use two sheets. I like keeping my entire outline on one sheet, making it easier to spot certain moments.
I apologize if that’s bewildering. If you aren’t ready to dive in and make your own outline or structure, my advice is to familiarize yourself with all the story structures you can!
One way to learn about a screenplay’s structure is by drafting one for an existing movie. Any movie will do. But, I’d suggest watching All About Eve and write down a brief description of what happens every three or five minutes. Then, watch Showgirls and do the same. When you’re finished, compare them. You’ll discover they are basically the same movie. It’s pretty obvious Joe Eszterhas studied the structure of ALL ABOUT EVE before writing SHOWGIRLS. His writing style is pretty obvious, too. But yours doesn’t have to be.
Before writing my first film PEP SQUAD, I studied the structure of 9 To 5. Instead of setting the story in the corporate world, I placed it in high school. And added some of my own special touches: drive-by shootings, campy dialogue, fun costumes, etc. But, if you study PEP SQUAD and 9 TO 5, you’ll easily find the similarities in their structure.
There are scores of screenwriting books on the market, but the only one worth buying is Save the Cat!, which teaches you about structure and how to draft the perfect screenwriting floor plan. One of the book’s examples: ALIEN is the same movie as JAWS, only it’s set in space.
If you have a structure, floor plan, or outline, you can write freely in any order you like. That’s my favorite part about getting the structure down first. If there’s a specific scene or sequence that’s really clear to me, I’ll type that out first—even if it’s in the middle of the story. Or, maybe the ending is super clear—go write it. Details and ways to combine sequences can be decided later.
By drafting a solid floor plan, you’ll have a lot of fun building your screenplay. Chances are you’ll never get burnt out, you’ll never have writer’s block, and in the end, you’ll actually have a comprehensive screenplay.