How Do You Write a Movie?
Since writing and producing an independent feature film, Zelos, I’m often asked how to go about writing a movie. First, there is no correct answer to this question. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here’s a basic process I worked out through a LOT of trial and error with my first screenplay that has helped me develop my second one much more efficiently (I hope!).
You have an idea for a movie — that’s great! Now you need to distill it into a sentence of under 30 words. The purpose of the logline is to clearly define what your film is ABOUT. It should include your main character, what they are pursuing, who or what is preventing them from reaching that goal, and what’s at stake.
Of course, not every film will have an obvious antagonist. For example, Zelos is a relationship drama, and the logline I wrote was: A man who would never cheat is asked by the woman he loves to sleep with someone else to save their relationship — a compromise which may ultimately destroy them.
Once you have a single sentence, you can expand this into a longer synopsis. This is a summary of the plot — and if a producer is interested in your logline, they will ask for this. It’s not a “teaser” so it needs to describe your story from start to finish, rather than leave a cliff hanger. To get started, you can write a paragraph that covers the basic plot points of your film in a few sentences.
It can be helpful to think about your screenplay as answering a “What if?” question. In my film, the question is: “What if a man is told by his girlfriend to have an affair?” As you start to delve into the character and scenario, you can flesh out your synopsis into a one-page document.
You now know the basic outline of your story — so it’s time to start breaking it down into scenes. The more detailed you make the treatment, the easier it will be when it comes to writing the script (mine are usually around 20 pages). As a basic rule, most films follow a three-act structure, which simply means a beginning, middle and end.
I find it useful to mark out each act within the treatment. The first act sets up the main character and the world they inhabit, with a key event that launches them into a new adventure. The second can be divided into two — the first half leading up to the midpoint of the film and the second half exploring its aftermath. By the third act, the film should reach a climax and then a resolution.
The first draft
Your treatment plots out the film scene-by-scene, then forms the basis of your first draft. A script has very specific formatting — Celtx is a great free software that will convert your text into screenplay format. Each scene needs to have a “slugline” at the top, stating whether it is interior or exterior, day or night, and the location. For example INT. BERNARD’S APARTMENT — DAY.
You can use your treatment to write the action of the scene, adding in dialogue. I’m a big fan of index cards — I write what happens in each scene on the card and place them on the wall so I can get a sense of the overall structure of the film. And remember, each scene needs to have a purpose — whether it’s moving the action forward or revealing something about the character.
As Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is sh*t.” I try to churn out my first draft without reading back over anything I’ve written, because if you think too much about it you end up with writer’s block. I think of my dialogue as a placeholder, because I just want to get out the gist of what each character needs to say in that scene.
That makes rewrites the most important (and hardest) part of the entire process. In rewriting, I go between my screenplay and my index cards to move scenes around, get rid of them or add new ones. Be prepared for many, many rewrites — each one will make your final film better!