Writing for movies is a specialized skill—it differs greatly from “normal” writing (i.e. writing a novel). Books and movies both start with a story idea. From there, the process of writing a movie is vastly different from writing a book.
Assuming you already have an idea for a movie, your next step should be to carefully craft a logline. The logline is a very brief (25 words or less as made famous in The Player) summary that describes the central conflict of your story, introduces the characters, and hooks the reader. Here are a couple of logline examples—can you tell which movies they describe?
Logline One: The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.
Logline Two: The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.
The logline is a valuable tool in selling your idea. It’s essentially an elevator pitch for your movie. In the two examples used above, the first is for Pulp Fiction and the second is for The Godfather. You want your logline to excite a producer enough to ask for a synopsis or a treatment of your idea.
A synopsis is a one to three-page document that summarizes your plot, highlights your main characters and describes what happens to them during your story. It’s best when it emphasizes the conflicts and resolutions as it unveils the plot. A synopsis is also a way to get some copyright protection for your story idea before you’ve actually written your screenplay (you can’t copyright an idea.) Make sure to include your movie title and your contact information on your synopsis. Most of all, make sure your synopsis does not deviate from your logline.
Your next step in writing a movie is to create a treatment for your idea. A treatment can be thought of as a screenplay for a silent movie—in other words it is a step by step, scene by scene breakdown that describes the action that takes place on the screen but contains no dialogue. Treatments usually run between 10 and 40 pages. Not only does a treatment tell the story, it states how the story unfolds by going into the nuts and bolts of how your narrative is to be presented on screen. This is where the writer’s vision is unveiled—the structure, the tone, the pacing, the characters and their roles all need to be fleshed out in the treatment. A treatment offers far more copyright protection of your original idea than a synopsis.
As a writer, the treatment can be an effective bridge between idea/synopsis and final screenplay. Since the treatment breaks down your story into a scene by scene format, it gives you, the screenwriter, an opportunity to tinker with the structure before it gets locked in with dialogue. There are a few things to consider when creating your treatment:
- Write in the present tense. It should come across as if it were narrating your story in real time.
- Each scene should have a slug—INT or EXT, location and time of day.
- Only write about that which can be shown on screen. In other words, don’t write about a character’s thoughts.
- Do include emotions as these can be shown on the screen.
- Be detailed when it comes to describing physical actions.
- Include a description of the information the dialogue will convey in each scene.
- Make sure you haven’t strayed from your logline.
Your penultimate step is to write your screenplay. Depending on how thorough you made your treatment this could be as simple as adding dialogue to the treatment or as complex as adding slugs and additional details to every scene. You’ll want to make sure you have everything in proper screenplay format, that spelling and punctuation are spot on and that you copyright it as soon as you are finished.
Screenwriting is both art and craft. Create a plan or schedule that you adhere to. You should self-impose deadlines on all phases of the process from logline to final screenplay. You should plan on doing multiple rewrites if necessary, to ensure that your final screenplay matches your initial logline and eliminate things that do not move the story along or are extraneous to the logline. The goal is to write the best screenplay you are capable of, not the best screenplay you can write in 100 hours. If it takes two years, it takes two years.
The final step is selling your screenplay having it made into a film. This should always be your goal. While all of this can sound straightforward and easy to do, it’s not. It’s something that repetition will help you improve and that expert guidance can be invaluable.