The Screenplay: Day Seven

Though originally I planned to follow How to Write a Movie in 21 Days to the letter, I am now hopelessly off track, mostly due to the fact that the daily assignments got so HUGE that I couldn't keep up.  For example, Day Seven's assignment is:

Guess what?  You're going to write thirty pages today...This will probably be the easiest day so far.  You are not allowed to write for more than three hours.

According to the book, at the end of Day Seven I should have finished my complete rough draft of a 120 page screenplay.  Yeah...not happening.  In fact, after re-reading what I've written so far, my screenplay feels as if it's skimming along the surface of character development and story.  I don't like this.

I should explain that my ideal storytelling device is an 800 to 1,000 page novel along the lines of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or Gone with the Wind or The Count of Monte Cristo.

I don't know how to instill a 120 page screenplay with the depth of plot and character found in a 1,000 page novel.   I don't even know if that's possible.

Screenplay Preparation: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Day One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six.

The Screenplay: Preparation 4

The book informs me that I am now ready to learn how to properly format my screenplay.

Character names are centered at four and a half inches in from the left. Dialogue goes here, three inches in from the left. Dialogue shouldn't extend beyond a line two and half inches from the right edge of the paper.

This sounds much too complicated, and I'm not sure how to do this in Word without taking a ruler to my computer screen.  Since the book was published in 1988, I assumed these instructions to be a little out of date, and went to to see if they had simpler instructions.  They did.

A screenplay consists of dialogue and description.  There is no "writing:"

You can't say, "There was something chilling about the abandoned mansion..."  What you do is show it in a night storm through flashes of lightning.  Then we know it's haunted.

This is a good rule for writing anything.  As Anton Chekhov said, "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."



Red rooftops bake in the afternoon sun.  Wind tosses dust and dead leaves across the roof.  NIX’S HAND grabs a leaf.  She opens her hand and the leaf floats an inch above her palm, then bursts into flame.  The flame sparks gold.  CAMERA PULLS BACK to show NIX, a young woman wearing heavy skirts.  Nix balances on one foot on the pinnacle of the roof.  Suddenly the burning leaf takes on a life of its own and jumps out of her hand.

 NIX No.  No!

(My heroine has just spoken her first words.  Not exactly a Shakespearean entrance.)

The flame dances in the air, just out of reach.  Nix pursues the flame across the rooftops.  She moves like a cat, with no fear of heights.  She runs across an archway over a street.  Below are CHILDREN tossing hoops and STREET MERCHANTS hawking ices and cold drinks.  She chases the flame up another roof, past a window revealing a MUSICIAN singing scales.  Out of breath, she lunges and seizes the flame.  The flame scorches her hand.

 NIX (blowing on her burned fingers) Not today, not today...

Her shoe slips, and she slides down the clay tiles, twisting her skirts.  She scrabbles at the tiles with her hands, and grabs a pipe.  Nix dangles half off the roof.

CAMERA FROM BELOW reveals PASCI lounging on a parapet, looking up at Nix. Pasci wears a fool’s motley of white and black.  His face is painted white.

PASCI Trying to burn down the city, lady?

Pasci spreads out his arms dramatically, offering to catch her.

This style of writing feels very stilted, and writing dialogue for these characters is difficult because I don't really know them yet.  I'm not sure about this opening scene, either.  But as an exercise in formatting a screenplay, I guess it works.

Read Screenplay Preparation: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

The Screenplay: Preparation 3

Today the book informs me that my screenplay will be 120 pages long.  Ok.  I can live with that.  Also according to the book, the following events MUST take place on the following pages:

Page 1: Immediately establish place, time, mood. Page 3: The question or idea that this story will explore. Page 10: What does the hero WANT? (Must relate to the question!) Page 30: Event happens that snatches the rug out from under hero. Page 45: Scene that begins hero's growth. Page 60: Hero must COMMIT. Page 75: ALL IS LOST. (Then...maybe it isn't.) Page 90: Beginning of the end. Page 120: Resolution.

I assume all screenplays do not rigidly follow this pattern, but let's break down The Prisoner of Azkaban to see if it fits this formula.  I don't have a copy of the Prisoner of Azkaban screenplay, so I'll go by events I remember from the movie:

Page 1: Harry's hiding under his sheets, secretly doing his Hogwarts homework. (Immediately establishes the conflict between the magic and the mundane.)

Page 3:  Harry is confronted by enormous dog.  Hears rumours of murderer Sirius Black. (Main question of this film: who is Sirius Black?)

Page 10:  Difficult to tell what Harry wants at this point, but after the Dementors, I think what he wants most is to conquer his fear (i.e. the Dementors).

Page 30:  GASP!  Sirius Black betrayed Harry's parents! (Talk about snatching the rug out from under someone...)

Page 45:  Harry decides he's going to kill Sirius, if he can find him.  Cuz a thirteen year-old wizard can totally take on a mad mass murderer. (This isn't exactly what I call character growth, but it's a new obsession for Harry.)

Page 60:  Sirius snatches Ron. (Harry's going to save him, or die trying!)

Page 75: Sirius has betrayed them!  Lupin has betrayed them!  No, Peter has betrayed them! (All is lost!/No it's not!/Yes, it is!)


Page 120: Harry is alone again, but not as alone as before. (Resolution. The main themes of Prisoner of Azkaban are courage vs. fear, truth vs. falsehood, who people are vs. who they seem to be.)

I'm not sure I like this method of breaking down a story.  It seems very stiff and formulaic.   But I'll go with it for now.  If I don't like the results the formula gives me, I can always go back and chuck it out the window.  (I prefer to think of them as guidelines rather than actual rules...)

Read Screenplay Preparation: Part 1, Part 2.

The Screenplay: Preparation 2

This month I'm going through the book "How to Write a Movie in 21 Days," but the title ought to be "How to Write a Movie in 30 Days" because there are all these prep chapters to work through before I actually hit the "21 Days." First step today: create a logline.  A logline is a sentence that sums up a movie.  It's usually stuck on the poster in the theatre.  For example, the logline for The Village was: "Run.  The truce is breaking."   Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:  "Let The Magic Begin."  Sense and Sensibility: "Lose your heart and come to your senses."  (I love that movie.)


An Artificial Fire

The phoenix is burning.

Next step: collect visual aids.  Things that will inspire the setting and mood.  I made a Pinterest board.

Next, according to the book, I answer these questions:

My heroine's name is: Nix of family Incenda. She wants: Magic. She needs: Courage. In one word, this story is about: Courage.

Read Screenplay Preparation: Part 1

The Screenplay: Preparation

I have never had the slightest desire to write a screenplay.

That being said, why am I writing one?

While I was at the IMC, Iain McCaig recommended the book "How to Write a Movie in 21 Days" during one of his lectures.  Afterwards I was lucky enough to have a chance to talk with him about writing.  He said, "Have you ever thought about writing a screenplay?"

I said no.

"Why not?"

I couldn't think of a reason.  I said I wrote novels.  Short stories.  Fiction.

"Try writing a screenplay," he said.

So here I am.  I've got a copy of the book, though I'm dubious of anything with a title along the lines of "How to Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too."  But I'll give this screenplay a shot, and if all else fails, maybe I'll get some material I can turn into a novel.

One of the first things the book said to do was write down any ideas for scenes on 3x5 cards or scraps of paper.  Here they are: all jumbled up.  No order, rhyme or reason.  Some came from old stories I dragged out of my mental attic, others from interesting REM cycles (I have a lot of these).

Then the book told me to make a list of my main characters, with their greatest desires, personalities, ages, etc.  Since my plot revolves around three families, they count as characters, I suppose.

The setting: a place like Italy in a time that never happened, but is very similar to the 18th century.  (I know it's vague.  Work with me.)

  • Family Incenda.  The family of magic and fire.  Traditionally they protected the city from a mythical "beast."  However, the beast has degenerated into myth, and now the Incendas occupy themselves with spectacular displays of pyrotechnics  and political intrigue.
  • Family Fontani.  The crown family.  Now only figureheads, but the young king is growing resentful of playing the Incendas' puppet.
  • Family LapidasA family who has recently risen to power through the guile and financial skill of its head.

And the main people who are members of these families:

  • Nix.  A minor cousin of the Incendas.  Nobody very important.  She has a gnawing desire to master her family's art of fire.  Age 17.
  • Pasci.  The Incenda family fool.  Always smiling, always laughing.  Even when he wants to weep.  Unknown age.  Not sure what he wants.  Nix's best friend.
  • Quanzi. Formerly the heir to the Lapidas fortune.  A dreadful disappointment to his father.  He announced he wanted to marry a nobody.  His enraged father had his son publicly humiliated and then made his younger brother heir.  To crown it all, Quanzi’s squeamish bride then jilted him.  His main desire, at the moment, is to NOT murder anyone.  Because there are several people he'd like to kill.

Obviously I have Quanzi worked out better than anyone else, but he's a character I thought up years ago.  Only a few days ago I discovered he fitted into my half-formed plot like a missing puzzle piece.