“The first rule of write club is…”
As you commence writing your script, you may find that reaching page 60 (or so) is a gut-check moment. That mid-point can please, delight, and disturb you in equal measure. For me, “the 60s” has always been the point where I decide if I actually like my story. Oh, don’t get me wrong—I am fully enamored of my idea at page five; I am pre-cashing a fat option check by the late 20s. But things get more boggy and far less assured as my story gets its legs, as the conflicts and obstacles arise and my protagonist gains dimension. Or not.
If the mid-point of your journey brings only flop-sweat and waves of self-doubt (or self-loathing), you may have joined that very non-exclusive club of writers who cheated themselves in the pre-writing phase. Because I am a former Chapter President of that club, I can suggest a remedy, a way out of that bog, as it were. I’m not talking outlining here—I’m talking about artistic choice. Outlining is technical, choices are highly creative. Creative decisions are the reason that no computer software can write a great script. (Trust me, they’re working on it.)
So what are the essential pre-writing choices you should make? Let’s start with these five—worthy minds will certainly add to my list, but here are mine. Answer these before you begin writing and I promise those dread 60s will be kinder to you:
1. How will I upgrade (er, elevate) my genre?
First rule of this particular fight club is know your genre. (When doing your research, a good ratio is to watch ten films and read at least three scripts.) The second rule is that you should cherish and/or celebrate the best films in your chosen genre. When I was in a graduate writing program I was shocked at how many of my colleagues were tackling scripts in genres that they didn’t watch or even particularly like. One actually said to me: “I hate romantic comedies. I’m only writing one because I feel like I should have one to show to agents.” Right. Good luck with that.
If you’re a true adherent of your genre, you’ve likely watched more than ten films. Your research should provide you with a template, a working sense of the prototypical protagonist, of the type and magnitude of obstacles he or she confronts and how the story beats drop. Now that you know these typical components, you are freed to be atypical; that is, you can invent fresh ways to tell that familiar story. Good writing is aspirational, and you should aspire to elevate your genre.
2. What is my point-of-view on this story, and how does my protagonist reflect that?
This question goes to the core of why we write, or why anyone would aspire to be a screenwriter. But know this: Your persona—your beliefs, your biases—is always going to emerge on the page. If you’re writing anything in long form (novels, features), your work will ultimately be a reflection of you. So don’t run from that; don’t be coy about it. Rather, embrace it. Decide how you truly feel about about the big themes of your story—be it love, war, honor, race, fidelity, etc. If you’re ambivalent, or if you’re not quite certain how you feel it will show in the work. Usually before page 60.
3. How do I distinguish between or differentiate my characters?
One of the strictures or the medium is that you have precious little space in which to physically describe your characters. That task gets incrementally tougher should your story feature, say, a sorority full of college undergrads or platoon of military recruits. Of course you can visualize your characters—you have likely mentally cast them with actors of renown. (Who hasn’t?) But differentiation is always a problem, and one that you will need to address before you begin.
If we’re talking featured roles here, characters with three or more scenes, one good means of differentiation is idiomatic speech, also rhythms, cadence and conviction. Extroverts speak very differently from introverts; laborers from landed gentry; men from women (usually); and the elderly from the nubile. Race and ethnicity may seem an obvious point of departure but it is also a quagmire. Case in point: I was taken to task one time in a story meeting once for my approximation of African American dialogue. “Try to avoid the ebonics,” was how my producer couched it, and she was right. Lily-white me had this mother of color making strange conjunctions and dropping all of her g’s. It was a lazy choice executed on the fly and it showed. Go forth and don’t do likewise.
4. What is my protagonist’s internal conflict?
In a previous Screenwriting 101 essay I offered this capsule definition of internal conflict: Internal conflict in dramatic writing is basically the darkest aspects of one’s backstory coupled with that individual’s greatest fears. Occasionally these elements are one in the same.
The “exterior” conflicts that confront your protagonist are relatively easy to construct. For instance, if you’re writing a penultimate confrontation in an action picture (protagonist vs. über-villain), you will have established the setting (An abandoned refinery!), the weapons at hand (automatic, with lots of spare ammo), and given the villain some tactical advantage (Night vision goggles!).
In romantic stories, external obstacles that keep your hapless lovers apart include exes in the periphery, a far more suave and attractive rival, or simply the notion that (e.g. Hitch, Titanic) your protag is unworthy, that he’s punching above his weight class.
Film characters often harbor fears of personal humiliation or failure. But in constructing that interior conflict, you need to go a step beyond and make that fear very specific. For instance, suppose there is a colossal, career-ending type of failure in this character’s backstory. Their life experience—and the advice of mentors and cronies—has warned them away from this very endeavor. And yet, these plots often spin a protagonist back into these perils and/or dysfunctional situations. As writer, you will need to construct that dark backstory and decide what that preceding failure entailed.
5. What is my “All Is Lost” story beat?
This element flows directly from Question Four. If you are working in the classic three-act structure, then your second act should close with a downward spiral; a sense that this hero’s journey may in fact reach an abrupt and unhappy conclusion. This story beat, illuminated by the late Blake Snyder in Save the Cat, is the point in most movies when the audience has full measure of the forces aligned against the protagonist. Again, if this is a love story, then it doesn’t look like wedding bells are in the offing. If it’s action/adventure, then this is the point where John McClane is out of ammo and out of options. If it’s Ian Fleming, the All Is Lost beat is Goldfinger’s laser, burning its way ever-closer to James Bond’s…you get the idea.
This story beat relates to the internal conflict question in the sense that this bleak moment should be a reflection of that “greatest fears” element. This is the point where your protagonist seems doomed to repeat that dysfunctional cycle that he or she spent the whole second act trying to avoid. When your protag rises from this nadir, when he or she overcomes that bleak interval it makes the resolution more dramatic, and more triumphant.