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By Mikael Colville-Andersen:

History of Hollywood Dramaturgy -
The long road to the modern screenplay

Screenwriting by Numbers
A Screenwriter's Checklist.

European Film & American Movies
The evolution of two distinct worlds.

Writing a Logline
A short guide to that all important log line.

Other Articles:

Mogens Rukov
The Dogma Doctor from Denmark.

'Il Postino'
The Disneynisation of classic works.

Creating Characters
A guideline to creating excellent characters.

Check Out Our Screenwriter Interviews:

Budd Schulberg
Paul Schrader
Richard Price
David Newman
Suso Cecchi d'Amico
Jean-Claude Carriere
Sergio Donati

Screenwriting by Numbers - A Screenwriter's Checklist
by Mikael Colville-Andersen

Rule number one is "there are no rules".
Nevertheless, some basic structural guidelines can only benefit the screenwriter. The Hollywood factory system has fine-tuned it s screenwriting structure over the past century.

These are some of the basics to consider when writing. Personally, I write blind when I do a first draft, and then use the following checklist before moving onto the rewrite.

Sometimes I just use my instincts when deciding that one or more elements are not necessary, but if you are writing for Hollywood, you should try to stick to the points rather strictly.

For clarity, we'll assume we have a 120 page screenplay. If you format it correctly, one page should equal one minute of screentime.

At a point of reference, I chose two films I happened to have seen recently, Scent of a Woman and Sleeping with the Enemy, and use them to give examples

Page 1-30 - ACT ONE
This is the section of the screenplay that moves the story towards the first PLOT PIVOT. It can roughly be divided up as follows:

Pages 1-10 - THE SET-UP
This is the beginning of the film where the audience is itching to learn the basics in order to prepare them for the next two hours.

Here's what you need:

Introduce our protagonist. Who are they? What are they like? What do they do? What is their dream and their want?

We have to know rather quickly what the story is about. The plot should be clear and defined. We should sense the atmosphere of the film. If it s a love story, we know it. A thriller, same thing.

In SCENT OF A WOMAN, for example, we see Charlie looking at a bulletin board, searching for a job. Within a few minutes, we know he is on scholarship and not one of the rich boys at the exclusive school.

In SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, we establish that the couple are wealthy and live along the beach at Cape Cod.

Early into the film we need to know what the whole thing is about. This encompasses the theme for the rest of the film. Who is the killer and will our protagonist find him? Will those two people fall in love?

Tradtionally, we know the answer - of course he/she will find him/her and of course they ll fall in love. Then we ll begin the journey. Getting there is all the fun, but the PRIMARY QUEST needs to be spelled out.

SCENT OF A WOMAN: The PRIMARY QUEST is established as "will Charlie get the job and make the money?"

SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY: Will Laura be able to get out of/put up with the marriage with the obsessive, violent husband.

We follow the protagonist and expand on the points we learned about in the setup. The conflict becomes clearer, as does the character(s).

Be careful not to start adding all sorts of new elements. Stick to concentrating on expand on the ones you presented in the setup.

The first PLOT PIVOT is presented and we spin off in a new direction. The character is clearer about achieving the primary quest.

Pages 25-30 - PLOT PIVOT 1
This is the intial point at which the plot undergoes a radical change, sending our protagonist in a new direction towards answering his Primary Quest.
At last, the plot is really underway and the protagonist s route is mapped.

SCENT OF A WOMAN: Charlie is forced to go to New York with the Colonel. We now wonder if he will be able to complete the task of taking care of the colonel.

SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY: Laura escapes by arranging her own death by drowning.

Pages 30-60 - GAIN SEGMENT
The protagonist gains speed in his/her journey towards the Primary Quest. They also undergo considerable character changes, growing and learning. While things are going well for the protagonist, they are getting deeper into it.

SCENT OF A WOMAN: Despite Charlie's protests and repeated attempts to get back home, he cannot leave the colonel. He has to complete his task and make the money

A scene in which the protagonist s character growth is outlined. We see that he/she is learning and growing through the use of some fantastically disguised metaphor. This metaphor usually ties in with the climax and/or resolution.

Pages 55-58 - ILLUMINATION
Usually a few scenes before the APEX, the protagonist gains knowledge that helps him/her on the journey. It is character-related and not plot-related.

SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY: Laura, now established in the new town, enjoys a wonderful scene in the theatre with Ben. It's as though she is learning to have fun and relax.

SCENT OF A WOMAN: Charlie watches the colonel dance the tango with Donna at the fine restaurant.

Page 60 - PLOT APEX
The protagonist steps over the line. He/she starts the journey down the other side of the mountain. Something happens that makes it impossible for them to return to the state they were in at the beginning of the film.

In the Godfather, for example, Michael Corleone walks out of the bathroom and shoots the cop and the mob guy. Now he is involved in the family s goings-on and won t be able to preserve his innocence any longer.

It is a point of commitment. Innocence is lost, only the journey to achieve the Primary Quest remains.

The protagonist can experience that the Primary Plot Quest becomes something much more personal.

While this point is related to the plot, it usually is more of a character development. It does not have the same emphasis as a PLOT PIVOT.

SCENT OF A WOMAN: Charlie learns that the colonel plans to kill himself at the end of the weekend.

SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY: Laura's husband is on her trail. He realises that she is alive.

Pages 61-65 - GRACE
There is something that contrasts with the importance of the PLOT APEX, in that it contains a lighter moment for the protagonist. It doesn t affect the plot in any great way, but it shows how the protagonist is preparing for the climax.

Raising the Stakes. The protagonist s journey starts to get considerably tougher. The tempo increases.

The protagonist s drive increases to match the increasing conflict. Both the protagoist and the audience realises that this is definately no walk in the park. Achieving the PRIMARY QUEST looks a bit iffy.

SCENT OF A WOMAN: Now that Charlie knows the colonel plans on suicide, Charlie is much more aware and wary of the situation.

SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY: Laura's husband moves in for the kill

Pages 85-90 - PLOT PIVOT 2
Welcome to the point that involves the most drastic setback so far. If the audience is now in extreme doubt that the protagonist will achieve the PRIMARY QUEST - imagine how the protagonist must feel.

All that hard work down the drain. Or is it?
During the sequence, closer to the end, the protagonist experiences something that gives them a clue that they may just have a chance, usually in a direction they hadn t considered or through an episode that opens up for them.

SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY: Laura discovers that her husband knows where she is.
SCENT OF A WOMAN: Charlie convinces the colonel to go for a ride in the Ferrari.

This encompasses the protagonist s final move towards the PRIMARY QUEST. There is only one option - move on. The plot intensifies. Usually, this involves a singular action which we sense we lead to the PRIMARY QUEST, despite the risks.

Something happens in this sequence, closer to the beginning than the end, through which the protagonist gains some nugget of wisdom. The protagonist may experience something that makes him/her realise something they didn t know. Something that helps them or something that shows that they have learned/experienced something they hadn t planned on when they began the journey.

Pages 108-115 - CLIMAX
The protagonist can see the end of the tunnel, but must give it the whole nine yards in order to reach it.

Unforunately for the protagonist, however, the main antagonist, or nemesis, just happens to be standing in their way. This is a "life and death" or a "choose love or nothing" situation. The crucial point where the protagonist has to do the ultimate battle, whether physical (in a plot-based story) or emotional (in a character-based story.

SCENT OF A WOMAN: The colonel helps Charlie get out of his predicament at school by giving that moving speech.
SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY: Laura battles for her life.

The battle over, the PRIMARY QUEST acquired, what does the protagonist do? How do they feel? What have they learned? How have they developed as a character? What clues do we get as to what the protagonist will do or how they will live after we walk out of the cinema?

SCENT OF A WOMAN: Charlie drops off the colonel at home and watches him make amends by being nice to his niece and nephew.

Page 120 - THE END

© Mikael Colville-Andersen 2006-2011