Fiction Scriptwriting

The Screenplay

Writing a script is easy. All you need is a copy of Syd Field’s book The Screenwriter’s Workbook. And a few good ideas… Oh, and some sort of software to help you with the layout. Seriously. You can do the same thing in Wrod or Pages or whatever, but Scrivener or Celtx or Final Draft make the formatting very easy. Of course, if you’re writing for a three minute amateur silent piece, the layout isn’t very important, but for anything more than that, specialist software is a good investment. For a start, producers (or their readers) are overloaded with offerings. If your epic is in the expected format, it might be read – at least the first few pages. If it looks strange, it goes straight into the bin. The other thing you need is – a story! A story has three things:
  • A hero – Hollywood calls him or her the Protagonist.

  • A baddie – the Antagonist.

  • A goal.


It’s a good idea to get some sort of rough structure down on paper early in the process. You don’t have to stick to it, but it can stop your project wandering off course. Some people say it should be one sentence; others think a couple of pages best, and just as many say a paragraph is a good compromise. Talk it over with somebody. Not a good friend – but somebody knowledgeable if you can find one. It’s surprising how valuable early feedback can be. Then you need characters. However many the story needs but at least two of them must be very strong characters.


Some people seem to be able to sail straight into the story part, but most do their best work if they’ve got good strong three-dimensional characters ready to do battle. Write down as much about your hero and your villain as possible. Most of it won’t make it onto the screen in those terms, but if you know lots about your people, they’ll come alive for the viewer. Write down anything and everything:
  • Sex

  • Age – and apparent age

  • Height

  • Weight

  • Usual dress

  • Hairstyle

  • Make-up

  • Visible marks

  • Occupation

  • Income

  • Family – parents, children, relevant brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, etc

  • Home – house, trailer, houseboat, mansion, bed-sitter, etc

  • Education

  • Habits. Biting nails, scratching elbow, using an inhaler, checking pockets, etc

  • Ideal holiday destination

  • Ideal birthday present

  • If I saw him or her coming towards me in the distance, what would I notice first?

  • Transport – cycles everywhere, fast car, vintage Land Rover, public transport only, diesel taxi, etc

  • If he or she were in a lift and it suddenly stopped between floors, what would he or she do? If alone? If with an attractive member of the opposite sex? If surrounded by a pack of skinheads? If crowded by fifty Mormons? Etc

That was just a quick list, but add as much as you like. The deeper the backstory, the better your character will appear on screen.

Act One

The average feature film lasts one and a half to two hours and will contain forty to sixty scenes (on average; some films have just one scene – others over a hundred). There might be a sort of prologue – maybe a bit of fast action to get the viewer glued to his seat. Sometimes this is a flashback to a character’s childhood, or it might be a flash forward, or something happening in another city that will affect the main action later on. People talk about it giving ‘grip’. After the ‘prologue’, if there is one, comes Act 1; it introduces the characters – maybe showing the hero having breakfast with his family, going to work, or whaterver. Act 1 lasts maybe twenty minutes or so, and towards the end you’ll nearly always find a turning point – something goes wrong for the hero. Some people call this the ‘inciting incident’.

Act Two

Here is where the protagonist takes on the problem. He or she does something that is aimed at correcting the ‘bad situation’, but usually it rebounds on the hero, making things even worse. This forces him to do something else, and that has another rebound, and so on. The act usually lasts about an hour, with fortunes alternately positive and negative, and usually getting more extreme. Here there are usually two or three sub-plots that get interwoven with the main theme. Somewhere in Act 2, about two thirds of the way through, things look really bad for the good character. She then strengthens her resolve, grits her teeth, and (maybe fuelled by a helpful clue), engages the enemy one last time.

Act Three

The tension in the film, which has been tightening and slackening, but on an ever-increasing base, now reaches its maximum. The two forces confront each other at a peak of physical action. Or emotional action – but then you have to find a physical manifestation of the emotion to put on screen. The act is usually twenty minutes to half an hour long. And at the end, our hero (or heroine) is back to normal, but a ‘better’ normal than before. Equilibrium has returned, but the protagonist is richer in character for having overcome the evil.


That may all sound like some sort of cheap and nasty formula for writing a screenplay. But take any short story, any joke about an Englishman, and Irishman and a Scotsman – and in essence, they all follow the pattern. Grab a good film from DVD or YouTube and watch it two or three times with a notepad in your hand. You should find the turning points quite easily. If in doubt, try The Fugitive. A cracking good story, and almost classic in its adherence to the three act structure.

Short Films

Even if your epic feature is only forty seconds long, it still needs the three main ingredients – hero, villain and goal. And within that forty seconds, must be the two ‘turning points’ or ‘plot points’: when the negative force is revealed, and when the evil is to be overcome. There’s so much more to screenwriting than this, but I can’t say it better than Syd Field. Can anybody?