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Necessary Screenplay Elements for Your Digital Film

The first step in writing a screenplay for your DSLR film lies in actually having a story to write. If you don’t have a well-thought-out idea, it doesn’t matter how professional your formatting looks. Before going any further, you need to understand how your idea conforms to the structure of a movie.

Film character types

The characters in your movie fall into one of a few categories:

  • Protagonist: It’s the main character that ends up in conflict. You want the audience to root for this character. Think Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption.

  • Antagonist: An antagonist is the primary opponent to the protagonist. He's the character or characters who enhance the protagonist’s problem. Darth Vader in Star War, or Bane from The Dark Knight Rises are prime examples.

  • Flat characters: These are the minor characters in the film. They help carry out the story without showing much of their personalities. Consider the storm troopers in Star Wars.

The three-act film structure

Conventional storytelling takes place in three acts. The first establishes the main characters and introduces the conflict. For example, in the first act of the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo, you learn that Scottie, the character played by James Stewart, is a police officer who has suffered a traumatic experience that made him afraid of heights. He becomes a private investigator and trails a mysterious woman named Madeline.

In the second act of the screenplay, the conflict deepens. The stakes are raised, and the situation becomes more complicated. In Vertigo, Scottie falls in love with the woman he’s following, but when she falls from a bell tower because his fear of heights prevented him from saving her, Stewart’s character becomes the subject of a police inquest. After he's acquitted, he slips into depression.

The third act presents a turning point before the final confrontation of the story you’re trying to tell. In Vertigo, that point comes when Scottie meets a woman named Judy who greatly resembles Madeline. From there, the plot twists are revealed and finally resolved.

Nobody says it needs to be a happy ending or that the acts are equal in length. In fact, the second act is often the longest and the third, the shortest.

Write the film treatment

A treatment is a summary of the story that describes your characters and the conflict they face. This is incorporated into a simple story with a beginning, middle, and an end. This summation comes in handy when you’re writing the actual screenplay.

Start small and build

With that idea, it’s not a bad idea to write a simple, three-page version that is a breakdown of the first scene, last scene, and several in between. After that, you can build it until you’ve filled all the nuances between major points in the story.

Other things to keep in mind:

  • Make sure the title page is properly formatted: It should have nothing but the movie name, your name, and, on the bottom left, your contact information.

  • Page length: The way a screenplay is formatted generally equates to a ratio of one page to a minute of screen time. This makes it easier to pace your action and the length of your screenplay, which should be around 100-120 pages.

  • The spec script: A spec script is written with the idea of trying to shop it, and not the kind you’re writing to base the movie you’ll make on. If you're writing a spec script, resist the urge to include camera directions and other production information.

Craft your character's dialogue in your film screenplay

Real, life-like characters are the chief requirement for a compelling screenplay. That means that both your protagonist and antagonist should be fully formed three-dimensional characters. It’s okay to show your hero’s flaws as well as your villain’s vulnerability. Consider Jarvet, the antagonist in Les Miserables. He mercilessly hunts the protagonist, Jean Valjean, throughout the story. He’s not bad, however, just determined to do his duty.

Although character development is an ongoing process, here are some suggestions to help your script sing:

  • Make the dialogue snappy. It’s important to make it flow. Of course, the real art is making sure it sounds real. One way to accomplish this is to listen to people’s conversations and write to a rhythm.

  • Use characters to create conflict. One of the best ways to tell a dramatic story is through the character's actions and words. An overly preachy approach rarely compels the viewer. There’s no better way to move the story along a treacherous route and to eventual resolution than with your characters.

  • Create an individual voice. Develop each character with his own personality and actions. Make sure his lines are consistent with how his character would really talk.

  • Develop character traits. In real life, each person conducts herself uniquely, and the same applies for your characters.

  • Profile your character. Write some backstory about each character. It doesn’t have to make it in the script, but at least it helps you understand how to write it and how actors perceive it. Was the dad in your script in the Army when he was younger? Or does your hero carry the emotional scars of an abused childhood? All these elements help you write the character.

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