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Ten Top Tips on Scriptwriting

By Paul Chater

In an interview the famous director Alfred Hitchcock said "There are three things that make a movie great: a good script, a good script and a good script." He went on to add "Imagery is its partner, never its rival." His statements clearly demonstrate the importance he set upon the art of scriptwriting. So here are ten tips to help you tell a most memorable story.

1. Assume your audience has a short attention span.
Capture the audience attention right from the start. Thrillers should begin with action or should flow quickly. Love stories need to gain empathy for the main characters as quickly as possible. Then the audience will continue to be involved for as long as the story builds.

2. Spend most of your attention on the first part of your script
When your script is completed, get friends or family you trust, to read the first few pages. Then ask them for an honest opinion: "Do you want to read more?" If there is a positive response, continue, otherwise rethink and rewrite. Tell a story that needs to be told. Your or other people's hopes and fears are often a good source of material. Or create a conflict with elements of tension, stress and worry. Elaborate and refine this over many redrafts. Developing and refining is the best ways to produce a good story. Never think your first draft is the best. Improvements can always be made.

3. Write your script economically
Sketch out your story, the circumstances, the goals and climaxes for the main characters involved. But do not get lost in refining the filming details. Limit screen directions to a minimum. These can be elaborated at the film planning stage. (The planning stage is critical for producing a good film, with decisions about how to approach the filming and techniques to be used - leading to a creative edit.) Let the audience feel emotionally involved in your story by engaging their imaginations without spelling out each detail. Short and low/no budget films must keep the cast to a minimum and stick to a main theme or storyline. Parallel storylines are only possible in longer productions. Review your scenes for pace and story development and always question everything: "Is this essential to the plot, theme or story?" A BBC director/producer once told me "Stories become masterpieces, not for what was first written but for what was omitted between drafts." She went on to say "....this process continues in the cutting room. There are many admired masterpieces, that could still be improved by shortening." "...it is so difficult to produce something that is new and extraordinary to capture the viewer. This is why Hollywood produces bigger and better stunts to obtain the mind-blowing factor needed for a blockbuster. However for the BBC it is more about how the story is filmed and told that makes the difference."

Checklist of items to review for your script:
- Sketch out a general plan and map events, characters and situations to envision how events will unfold, and the pace needed.
- Is the core story believable and realistic? Even for sci-fi this needs to be considered.
- How have you made the main character interesting?
- Tell your story, don't rely on imagary only to convey the storyline.
- Have you deviated from the plot at any time? Why? Is this necessary to the storyline? Restraints are a must for a short film.
- Don't include anything that is impossible you or others to film.
- Which details, items, or information are deliberately left vague to involve the audience's imagination?
- Is your storyline/plot flawed, or has weak parts or characters?
- Imagine each scene as though it was real life.
- Have you avoided a predicable ending?
- Avoid mixing styles of speech and vocabulary too much unless you are going for a certain effect. But remember each character needs to be different.
- When setting the scene don't forget to include important details such as time of day, the occasion, and actions of the characters in the scene.
- Make everything about the main character's journey to resolution difficult.
- Transform the characters during your story.
- How good is the story's climax?
- Have you surprised the audience with a memorable ending?

4.Write your roles with natural speech.
Ensure the dialogue is flowing and natural to suit your main characters, era, and concept. Ensure that different characters have their own 'voice' based on their background, which will affect their speaking style and dialect. Get a woman to read the female characters' dialogue and a man to read male dialogue to confirm that it sounds natural.

5. Understand your audience, review and seek advice from others.
When you are writing a script, place yourself in the minds of your audience. Ask yourself does the story or your message work? Follow the emotional development for each scene. Review and ask others for their opinions. There is nothing worse than spending a considerable amount of time on what you consider is your masterpiece only to find no one else enjoys it. Keep your message simple, concise and uncomplicated so that it flows well, and the pace is right for an audience.

6. Make unique voices for each of your characters.
Movies work most effectively when the characters are distinct. It might be helpful to model your character on someone you know or understand well, fictional or real.

Checklist to review voices:
- Create characters who are memorable.
- Surprise us with quirks and unusual traits.
- Avoid stereotypes.
- Check dialogue for phrases or colloquial authenticity.
- Avoid dialogue the audience may not understand.

7. Review other movies similar to your story/plot and make sure your script has something special.
Consider how your own story can be different from any other similar plot. Can you tweak yours in such a way that a story, event or character is viewed as extraordinary. Learn by reviewing other films in depth and analyzing the cinematic techniques. Watch each scene and note what camera angles are used, where the soundtrack changes, any special techniques, the pace and variations for each edit cut and so on. Then you can copy and master good techniques and disregard others.

8. Be aware of your theme, and keep it consistent throughout your script.
To make your characters believable they must have personal goals. How will the audience feel if the stakes are too high, or if failure results. Good stories depend on obstacles and their resolution. Make sure your story line remains credible or you will lose your audience.

9. Review your structure: capture the audience attention to provide information and then re-capture it at main plot points throughout your film.
Nowadays many films follow a successful formula which has been used by filmmakers for many years:
The first 10% of the movie is the setup. This where you capture the audience - it is the hook for them to continue watching. At this point show the hero or main character in everyday life and establish their identity to make the audience care or be sympathetic towards them.
Then comes the turning point - something that effects the main character or people close to them, creating a new situation. This moment needs to have a great impact but be left open-ended for the story to continue. This makes up the next part of the movie from the 10% mark to around 25%, showing the new situation unfolding and the initial reactions of the main character and their plans to overcoming the new problems.
At 25% there is usually a low point. The character's first attempt fails or another disaster arrives needing a rethink and a change of plan. This increases the pressure on the main character who moves from wanting an easy resolution to extreme motivation to succeed.
From the 25% to 50% mark the main character makes plans and takes action to achieve their goal. At 50% the main character reaches the point of no return, with no possibility to turn back to their normal life and is now they fully committed. In the final quarter of the film the main character dives into a situation where all can be lost. The pace accelerates and everything works against success. Then comes the last climax and resolution, where the main character faces the biggest obstacle, determines his own fate and acieves their goal. The film ends by showing the aftermath and what the main character is going to do with their new life.

Checklist for plot inclusions:
- Character establishment in existing daily life
- Increased awareness of situation change
- Reluctance to accept change
- Plan to overcome change
- Commitment to meet that goal
- Planning or rethink to achieve goal
- Preparation to overcome
- Big changes to possibilities of success
- Consequences of meeting or not meeting their goal
- Determination to overcome
- Final attempt leading to climax
- Mastery/Resolution

10. Your film will work if the audience wants more…
An ending with a climax followed by a resolution will be satisfying. But to really enthrall the audience leave them wondering about something relating to their own lives.

Checklist for your film climax:
- Have you resolved the original problem established in the first act sufficiently?
- Is there a sustained fulfilling finish where all the characters come together happily or get their due reward?
- Does the story contain a twist or a satisfying surprise?
- Have you avoided a predictable ending?
- Have you revealed a character trait which is believable?
- What significant event appears in last five percent before the end?

Paul Chater CEMRIAC training officer.

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Page updated on 11 October 2011
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