My entire screenwriting process

Osiyo. Dohiju? Hey welcome back.

This is the whole article that covers my process of creating a story, plot, outline, first draft, full script, editing, rewriting, and polishing. It’s not a perfect process. It is simply the process I use. When I’m done writing I want my script to be the best that I can make it.

I go through plot and story individually making sure they all match up (like make sure I didn’t introduce something after it happens). Then structure. Then I read actions and punch them up. I’ll read the dialog aloud and make sure it sounds right. The very last thing I do before my final read through is read the script backwards to find any misspellings, format issues, character names, etc.

Let’s start with story. What is the story that I want to tell? Action, adventure, thriller, comedy, romcom? Who do I envision as the actors in the story. When I have an idea I often have some scene that comes to mind. I sometimes have an actor or actress in mind for specific parts and I write for that to begin with. The characters evolve and by the end they’re not the same as when they started so I usually don’t have those same actors in mind – they’re new characters.

The common thought is to write what you know. Tom Clancy wrote about military what-ifs. John Grisham writes about lawyers and courtrooms. Does Tom Clancy have a military background? He was in ROTC and never served. John Grisham doesn’t have an action background. They learned what they needed to. They had a passion for something. You don’t have to be a psychologist to write about something psychological. You can study serial killers, write about that and not be a psychopath. I love sitcoms. I love comedy. I’ve studied many topics in my life. Languages, serial killers, submarines, astronauts, and much more. I know about military life from Iraq. I was not special forces, navy seal, marine recon, SAR, none of that. I was a medic in the national guard. I could tell stories about my life in the army. I can write about a lot of topics because i have a passion for those studies.

I have two scripts I want to write in the very near future. The one we’ll focus on is an action-comedy. I envision Ryan Reynolds as the main character. I have other supporting actors in mind. Also, for the record, I think Bob Newhart and Ryan Reynolds are two of the funniest drama/comedy actors I’ve ever seen along with Steve Zahn and Portia De Rossi. So, I’ll use them as ideas for the main characters. I’d like to have a Nathan Fillion, Jackie Chan, and Jason Bateman character in there as well. They won’t end up being the actors and actresses that are in the movie, they’ll just give me a good starting point for the characters. I’ll pull character ideas from the movies or tv shows I’ve loved them in and go from there. As I work character development they’ll become more their own characters than characters from other movies.

I have some ideas for actors and characters in mind. Now, I think of movies that make me laugh a lot. Office Party, Bad Moms, Bad Santa, Just Go With it, Murder Mystery, The Hustle and more. What happens in each of these? We can follow the story circle and figure it out – they’re all basically the same. Normal lives, amp up tension and hilarity as the characters deal with issues, the characters get closer to each other, forming a D&D team that is the underdog of the movie, when all seems lost they figure out a way to make it a win. That’s basically it. Each movie above has the same structure.

What is my story going to be? A company has decided to shut down an office. Everyone is fired except for the IT staff who must migrate the servers to a new location. Seems boring and droll initially. This is going to be an action-comedy. So how do I do that? Amping up the tension. The first tension is that normal lives are interrupted by some sudden issue. Now, the IT staff decides that they’re not going to let someone shut down their company. What can they do to prevent that from happening? What characters are needed to make that happen? What are the most outrageous story items that could happen to these normal people to stop them from achieving the goal? What do they find that helps them? What do they do that helps them? What could each character do that screws up their mission and maybe helps out later on? I have a lot of ideas at this point for different scenes or character interactions.

At this point, I usually break out my post-it notes and white board and scribble out some simple ideas that have come to mind while brainstorming. I have set ways I outline my stories. I have a story circle outline, my act 1 sequence setup (how act 1 brings the audience in, and the overall story structure for the entire script.

The story circle outline is basically Dan Harmon’s story circle. You can google this if you want to know more. This is the image of my story circle from my whiteboard. I have labeled each section with a letter so I can mark those on the cards I’ll create.

I’ll take each idea for the story and figure out where they should go in this story circle. Before that, I’ll give each character a basic outline giving them their strengths and weaknesses and if necessary how they’ll act in stressful situations.

My Act 1 plot points I follow from this article. What is the story world? I answer the questions for the plot points to help me get set up. I kind of know how I want this underdog story to end and some low points towards the end. How do the answers to these plot points lead to that? Do these answers change the ending a bit?

I like to start my movie the same way it ends. If it starts with an explosion, it’ll end with an explosion. If it starts with narration, it’ll end with narration. Once I figure out exactly how the story starts, I’ll know how the conclusion or epilog will end the story. I follow the rule of threes. When it comes to something in the story, I like to introduce something in the beginning, mention it briefly somewhere else, and then give it a pay off later on. An example of this is Ridley testing the flamethrower in Alien. Or the rat in liquid oxygen in The Abyss.

The next element I like to look at is the overall story structure. I have a list of page points I’ve used for 25 years to determine where things should fall in a movie script. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, they’re guidelines. They’re a checklist to make sure I don’t forget something. Each one is documented in the story circle image above I just happen to have page numbers for each. I don’t remember where I pulled these from. It might’ve been Lew Hunters book or any other screenwriting books I’ve had. I have a basic note for each point I want to hit. Different movies have different points. If it’s a romcom there are different items that are needed like the meet cute or the switch. In this case, we’ll start with the basic points I know and the Act 1 list and figure out other elements. I’ll evaluate each element and make sure it progresses the story and amps up the tension.

At some point, I read something by Joss Whedon, and I again don’t remember where, that he likes to introduce action in the middle of low and comedy points and introduce light-hearted comedy points in action. You can see this in Firefly and Serenity. The opening of Serenity we have this calm moment of Serenity entering the atmosphere and a buffer panel pops off. This sets in motion a oner that introduces the rest of the crew, the ship, their mission, and the why. Later, when they’ve been rescued by Serenity there’s a lull where they feel safe and a reever pops up and they all shoot it. A lull punched in the face by some unexpected action. As they’re being chased Jayne is harpooned and Mal goes to shoot the cable and Jayne gives a speech saying he doesn’t want to get ‘et’ [sic] as Mal aims Jayne says “well I don’t mean right now” – there are also other comedic elements where Jayne isn’t allowed to bring grenades – during the chase Jayne says “grenades sure would be nice right about now” – those little moments give us a feeling of comedic relief in the tension and bring us closer to the characters.

Ryan Reynolds, Jason Bateman, Nathan Fillion, and Bob Newhart have a way of portraying innocent characters that handle stress with comedy – like Shawn Spencer in Psych when things go wrong. I love this type of main character. They’re not in it for themselves, they’re in it because they think they’re making a difference and helping others. Their motivations may be somewhat narcissistic to others, overall though their motivation is “pure.” In Serenity, we understand that even though Mal doesn’t say it, everyone on this ship is his crew and he shows us that with his actions. When someone threatens his family he takes action to make things as right as he can – after Shepard Book.

I have a list of movies and qualities I love about those movies. The things I enjoy the most that I can use to move a story or as a main character. What is it about each of the movies that I would want to see in a movie I watch? If you haven’t been able to tell one of my favorite series is Firefly and movie as Serenity. The story of a dysfunctional family coming together and accepting each other as they are. If you apply that to the movies I listed above you’ll see they have the same qualities.

My favorite story of all time is The Count of Monte Cristo. Really anything by Dumas, Agatha Christie, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There are others, but these are the main influences in my life. I was raised on 80s TV. MacGyver, The A-Team, Magnum PI, Buck Rogers, most all Glenn Larson or Donald P Bellisario shows. Wiseguy, The Fall Guy, Rockford Files, MASH, Matt Houston, Murder She Wrote, Perry Mason, Matlock, and many more. I listened to “Oldies” – 50s, 60s, and early 70s. I watched movies and TV on TBS and TNT. I watched Laugh-In on Nick-at-Nite. My dad and mom loved TV shows from the 50s and 60s like Dragnet. We watched Tremors, Die Hard, and many more often.

Now that you know about my basic background you can see where i’m going. An underdog dysfunctional family that comes together to make things better. Throw in humor where it belongs. Throw in action where it breaks up the humor. Let’s throw in a little character development and we have a movie. We know the initial plot. How do we now make it grow so that we both care about the characters and the story? We’ll see how to do that in the next post.

Until next time, dodadagohvi.

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