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Screenwriting 101 by Susan Kouguell

Screenwriting 101  
by Susan Kouguell

 

I’ve been on both sides of the proverbial film fence.  On one side, as a screenwriter, working in an industry that is competitive, sometimes soul-sucking and other times joyous and inspiring, but definitely not for the thin-skinned -- and on the other side, as a story analyst and story editor – and lived to write about it – (for Harvey Weinstein at Miramax, Paramount Pictures, Viacom, Dustin Hoffman, and more) and as an acquisitions consultant for Warner Bros. and Republic Pictures.  I have an ‘insider’ understanding of what companies are looking for in a screenplay and film, and know what types of writing tools work for my students, Su-City Pictures East’ clients, and for me.  

Writing a screenplay requires knowing and implementing the industry formatting rules and narrative storytelling devices, and meeting the audience’s expectations without compromising your vision.

Yes, some say, “rules are meant to be broken” but I also believe in the adage that “one needs to learn how to write a good sentence before deconstructing it” – so with that in mind, here are some guidelines to follow when writing a screenplay.

Basic rules for a traditional feature-length screenplay

Generally, one script page equals one minute of screen time. A screenplay should be no longer than 120 pages.

Starting with Act 1, scene 1, each scene should be well-paced and build to a satisfying climax.  Endings that are contrived, implausible, ambiguous, and/or haven’t paid off your setups will risk your script getting rejected.

Know the genre conventions of your story and stick to it throughout your script.

Structure

Act 1:

  • Write a strong hook, which will engage the reader.

  • Establish your plausible, unique, and fascinating plot.

  • Introduce your captivating protagonist and his or her goals.

  • Establishment the central conflict and what’s at stake for your main characters.

  • Introduce your riveting antagonist.

  • Set up your subplots and minor characters.

  • Make sure your scenes are well-paced.    

  • Include a strong turning point at the end of this act, which will propel the story forward to Act 2.

Act 2:  

  • Continue to raise the stakes for your characters and your story by placing obstacles in your protagonist’s path.

  • Continue to reveal information about your characters and plot.

  • Further reveal your antagonist’s intentions.

  • Keep developing your subplots, which will help to inform and push forward your main plot.

  • Build to a clear and poignant turning point at the end of this act.

Act 3:

  • The stakes must continue to rise in this act, leading to the final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist in the climax.  

  • If it serves your story, your protagonist should learn something by the end of the script and your antagonist should face consequences for his or her actions.

  • Resolve the major conflicts and subplots in this act.

Characters

Characters should be compelling, unique, multi-dimensional, distinct, and have clear attitudes towards each other.  Their motivations and goals must be fully developed.  

Action Paragraphs

A script is not a novel. Avoid dense action paragraphs of descriptions. Each separate action should be a new paragraph. Be brief and concise. Make each word count.  Don't telegraph what is about to be seen and/or heard in the dialogue.

Plot

Know what your story is about and convey it with clarity.  Set up the world of your story so the reader can step into it with a complete understanding of how this universe works.  If the film industry executive isn’t engaged in your plot and does not feel empathy (not necessarily sympathy) for your characters and the situations they find themselves in, your script will most likely be rejected.  

Advice

Be open to feedback.  Writing is rewriting; the number of rewrites you might need is no reflection of your talent. To strengthen your screenwriting craft, see movies and read screenplays in the genre you’re working in.

If you’re not passionate about your project, neither will the film industry executive who reads your screenplay.  Set up a staged reading or informal reading of your script with friends so you can hear it read aloud in order to gain objectivity. Always submit your best work.

 

Susan Kouguell - bio

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker Susan Kouguell is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and industry executives worldwide. (www.su-city-pictures.com). Recipient of many grants and fellowships, including the MacDowell Colony, Jerome Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Edward Albee Foundation, Susan’s short films are in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and archives, and were included in the Whitney Museum’s Biennial. Kouguell worked with Louis Malle on And the Pursuit of Happiness, was a story analyst and story editor for many studios, wrote voice-over narrations for (Harvey Weinstein) Miramax and over a dozen feature assignments for independent companies. Susan wrote THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out! and SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises, available at $1.00 off on https://www.createspace.com/3558862 and using DISCOUNT CODE: G22GAZPD.  On Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009SB8Z7M (discount code does not apply). Follow Susan at Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and SKouguell on Twitter, and read more articles on her blog: http://su-city-pictures.com/wpblog/

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