Many people come to No Film School because they want to get information about cameras, gear, and screenwriting. We’re aware that the luxury of attending film school is not available to most of the world, so we do our best to keep you all up to date on what’s out there and how you can shoot and create with your utmost potential when filmmaking.
But what’s at the root of all filmmaking?
Storytelling and Screenwriting.
And before you can start telling the story on the screen, you need to tell it on the page. For that, you have to be (or to hire) a screenwriter.
So over the next ten weeks, I’m going to give a free screenwriting seminar. Yes, it's 100% free. The mission here is to make sure filmmakers all over the world have access to an online screenwriting course that's reliable, informative, and inspirational. You're going to learn ALL the fundamentals of screenwriting; we'll coach you through ten-page sprints, and answer your questions about how your story can move forward in the comments section below each week.
We’re going to release one lesson every Friday.
If we’re going to finish this screenplay, we should get started right away. If you have things to do, and want to find out what to do this week, scroll down to the TL;DR portion.
So let’s dive in.
Why Should I Listen To You about How To Write a Screenplay?
This is the internet. The first thing you’re going to do is Google “Jason Hellerman” and realize that I’m not an A-list screenwriter. Then you’ll probably find the only movie I have listed online, Shovel Buddies, and see that it’s only a 5/10 on IMDB.
If that makes you think these posts are worthless, then I encourage you to go out there and seek out any of the extremely expensive screenwriting seminars. I hear they’re fun.
I’m not going to sell you a book. I’m not going to ask you to pay for this service.
And I’m not going to pretend I’m some genius or guru.
What I am is a D-list working writer in Hollywood. I had a script on the Black List. I’ve sold pitches and even a treatment. I do comedy punch-ups, dialogue passes, give professional notes, and I even handle a ton of commercials and some live television.
I have my Masters of Fine Arts in Screenwriting from Boston University. So I’m certified to teach and have taught some courses, on the collegiate level.
This blog is about to save you 50k a year. You’re welcome.
Trust me; I have student loans, they’re crushing.
Here’s the real deal: I’m not going to bullshit you.
I’m going to tell you my experience, occasionally reference people much further ahead than myself, and if I don’t know the answer to your question I’m going to direct you to someone that does, or just Google it until I think I do have the answer.
Oh...and while you’re all taking the next ten weeks to write a script.
I’m gonna do that too.
We’ll be in the trenches together.
I can’t wait to read the comments: nasty ones and all.
So stop stalling, and let’s get writing.
How to Write a Script in 10 Weeks
I just brewed a pot of coffee and ate a cheese danish. I’m sitting in my favorite chair. I have a scented candle lit; clean laundry. Are you ready to go?
No so fast.
Before you start writing, I hope you’ve consulted our Eight Best Screenwriting Software post and have an adequate way to get your ideas onto the page. To be a screenwriter, you need to master the screenplay format. Check out this No Film School article on screenplay formatting to master how different screenplay elements should look on the page. You might also want to take a look at how to format your title page!
If you picked screenwriting software with an outlining or treatment feature, you’re in luck. Because before we dive into our pages, I want to talk about prewriting.
What is Prewriting?
In general, prewriting is all the work you do before you sit down to write your screenplay. It can be outlines, treatments, notecards, or even drawings.
Look, we all love to procrastinate. There’s an essential fear when it comes to staring at the blank page. I have it. You have it.
So before we dive into all that, I want to prewrite. Your prewriting will become part of your process, so you want to tailor it to what works best for you.
Here’s what works best for me:
First things first. I have to write a logline.
Online Screenwriting Course Lesson 2: Loglines
I love writing screenplays. And I hope, if you're reading this, you love writing too. Writing helps me put my complex character emotions onto the page and lets me talk about the things I care about while telling a story. But sometimes my stories are so complex, that it's nearly impossible to get a pitch together, let alone distill it all down into one sentence.
There's probably a lot of guesswork within your creation of that logline as well.
But a one-sentence summary of your screenplay is very important; and so are loglines. But what's a logline? And how can you write a noisy one? Today we're going to go over logline formation, who uses loglines and even look at some logline examples to flesh out our own ideas.
Let's get writing.
So what's a logline?
A logline is a one-sentence summary of the story put forward in your movie screenplay or television pilot.
Yup, that's all that it is. But a whole bunch of work goes into creating a logline. So let's go over some logline formulas to help you get your idea out on paper.
What makes a logline "noisy?"
Today most screenplays and ideas are sold because of their noisy logline. They stand out from the crowd, in buyers' minds, and get the most attention on annual lists. A noisy logline is one that jumps off the page and makes you want to immediately read the screenplay that follows. It should scream "GOOD IDEA!" and be easy to understand and leave room for the person that hears it imagines all the possibilities within a story.
Are loglines and taglines the same thing?
No. No, they are not. A tagline is the words on the poster or advertisement Hollywood uses to sell the movie to the public. A marketing team will come up with the tagline. So the pressure is off of you there.
Here are some famous taglines:
“In space, no one can hear you scream.” --- Aliens
“One ring to rule them all.” --- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
“There are 3.7 trillion fish in the ocean. They’re looking for one.” --- Finding Nemo
But we are here to study loglines!
What are some common logline mistakes?
Many novice writers try to make their loglines way too much of a summary. They go long, and in the end, they submit a paragraph or a run-on sentence that is exhausting to read. Another thing novice writers tend to do is forget to match the tone of their logline to the tone of the movie. You shouldn't make a joke for a drama, or dramatize something that's supposed to come across as a comedy.
Lastly, it's quite common to get a logline that tells us nothing at all. Sometimes people are trying to be too brief. It's a "boy meets girl" story tells us nothing about what makes what you've written unique. Again, this needs to show us who you are as a writer, this needs to be enticing, so try to get it out and make it exciting!
Your logline needs to set up the character, conflict, world, and stakes. It's the first sentence that gets them to read the next 100 pages. A lot of people are going to try to sell you a logline generator or a logline formula, but that's all bullshit. If you want somewhere to start, use the tried and true "in a world" formula.
In a world where _____, _____ has to _____, otherwise _____ will happen.
So for something like my movie, Shovel Buddies, "In a world where their best friend died, a group of friends bands together to honor his last wish and put him in his football jersey, otherwise, their friend will be cremated without his last wish being fulfilled."
Was that the actual logline we used? No. All writing is rewriting! But I think the "In a world..." technique is a great way to get started. After you have that one, try refining it with this logline formula:
Inciting Incident + Protagonist + Journey + The Stakes
Let's go back to Shovel Buddies to refine it further.
"After they open a Snapchat from their dead friend, a group of friends has a crazy night out on the town trying to fulfill his dying wish before he's cremated and they worry their friendship will disappear along with him."
See how that doubles down and refines on the initial idea? One of the most important things here is that we continue to refine what the movie is about and continue to write in a way that attracts other people to see a little bit of themselves in it. You want people to be incredibly excited to crack the script.
Here's a tough break: there's no way to just plug in words and come out with a logline. We've played with story idea generators on here. Every tool or fix someone offers needs to be a jumping off point that helps you tackle the outcome through your own voice. Each has to adjust to the movie at hand. So let's go over some professional logline examples to see how we can refine loglines for our own projects.
I scoured the internet and found this great resource called Film Daily which had this whole article of logline examples. I added a few below so you could see how writers refine and reform their loglines.
- The Godfather: "The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son."
- Pulp Fiction:"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."
- Forest Gump: "Forrest Gump, while not intelligent, has accidentally been present at many historic moments, but his true love, Jenny, eludes him."
- The Matrix: "A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers."
- Silence of the Lambs: "A young F.B.I. cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims."
- Inside Man: "A cop has to talk down a bank robber after the criminal’s perfect heist spirals into a hostage situation."
- Rear Window: "A wheelchair-bound photographer spies on his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder."
- The Hangover: "A Las Vegas-set comedy centered around three groomsmen who lose their about-to-be-wed buddy during their drunken misadventures then must retrace their steps in order to find him."
- The Shawshank Redemption: "Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency."
I hope these logline examples helped inspire your own work. See how they tell you the story, clue you in on the genre, and give you a sense of the stakes? This is a variety of logline examples. It helps us see that you don't always need a protagonist name or an exact description of the plot, all you need to do is hook the audience.
That's why I hate logline formulas. Loglines adjust for the story at hand. And the writer is in charge of making those adjustments.
Who uses a logline?
If you have an agent or a manager, they'll use the logline as part of your submission of a script to producers, actors, and directors. You will use a logline to enter a contest, to put at the front of a film or tv treatment, and there are even logline services and contents!
You want to refine your logline because that's what people will use to pitch you and your project. When Shovel Buddies made the Black List and was passed around, everyone sold it as the "kids steal the body" script. It was a weird one that had such a noisy concept and logline everyone wanted to read it. That's not me bragging, it's just something that's been told to me, and something I've tried to learn from with my other projects.
If your logline doesn't get you excited to write the project, then why write it at all?
You should use your logline to motivate yourself to keep writing. Or join our free screenwriting seminar and use it to get working!
After I’m done the logline, I explore the idea in a treatment.
Online Screenwriting Course Lesson 3: Writing a Screenplay Treatment
We have an entire article on how to write a screenplay treatment so that I won’t belabor the point here. But a huge part of my process is writing a treatment, and I suggest you do it too.
I don’t like to sit and write without knowing where I’m going. A treatment eases that stress and allows me to fix story beats or add nuance on the screenplay page, without thinking too hard about what needs to happen next in the story.
If you’re having trouble finding the beats in your screenplay, try using our Story Map.
- Unraveling The Map - Do you have an opening scene that defines the movie?
- The Launch Point - Where are we, and who are we with?
- The First Leg - What’s a normal day look like in this world?
- Change Course - What sets our characters off on their journey from normalcy?
- The Foot of the Mountain - Okay, we’re going on this journey together
- Climbing The Side - It starts hard, but you get used to the problems as you go
- Through The Cave - Do you have a B story? Set that story off on its own now too.
- Reassess the Problem - You’re at the middle. Is there another way to get it done?
- Try and Fail - Things begin to fall apart; can they handle it?
- The Fall - The worst thing happens, something so bad you don’t think you can get up.
- The Hidden Clue - What do your characters discover about themselves/the problem that they never saw before?
- Race To the Finish - They’re up and running no matter what.
- The Treasure Chest - Did they get what they came for?
- Where We Go From Here - Show us the world in a new light, hint what’s next.
Once you have your logline and treatment, it’s time to open that software and get to writing.
Free Screenwriting Seminar Page Goals: 1-10.
Sitting down and writing a feature-length screenplay can seem like a daunting task, but if you take it in increments, it can seem a lot easier.
I like to print out my treatment and have it next to my laptop.
Okay. We’re here.
So what do people expect from pages 1-10 in a screenplay?
Let’s be real; we learned from an Acquisitions Executive that most people know if they like a screenplay within the first few pages. So you have to nail these.
Generally, you want to introduce your characters, their central conflicts and show us the world.
If you look at movies like Se7en, the opening of the movie sets up the cops. We learn who they are, their dispositions, and we even get some case details.
Same thing with Superbad. We get the guys, their friendship, the tone, and the fact that they won’t be together in college next year.
How about we check a drama out?
The opening of No Country For Old Men starts with a question. Who is this man out in the back of a police car? What did he do? And what’s that air tank?
You want your opening pages to grip the reader. Get them emotionally involved, laughing, or just absorb them in the world. If you can execute that, you’ll be able to carry them along for the rest of the script.
I try to make my opening scene emblematic of the entire story.
One adage I like to employ is “arrive late, leave early.”
I don’t need to see these characters when they wake up; I like all my opening scenes to start on some sort of conflict that can show who these characters are, and where we will go with them on their journey.
If you open on conflict, you already have the reader engaged.
After you’re done with the opening scene, I try to use the rest of the opening ten pages to establish the world.
This works on a Lord of the Rings level, but it also works on a Stand By Me level. When I’m talking about the world, I don’t mean a land far, far, away.
I just want to set up what can happen here.
In Lord of the Rings we know there’s magic, and in Stand By Me, we know we’re in the real world. Comedies can have some elbow room.
Home Alone is in the real world, but given Kevin’s antics, we know this is a heightened sense of reality.
Just like Up! Asks you to believe that a house could fly. It plants that possibility in the first ten pages by showing us how those kids live their lives. Be it balloons that travel through windows, or just a house surrounded by skyscrapers.
Use your first ten pages to tell people about the world, characters, and tone.
This is your foundation. The whole story needs to build from here.
Where Are You Now?
You should have written the first 10 pages of your masterpiece. Well, it’ll become a masterpiece with rewriting, but we’ll get to that.
Pages 1-10 were important because you had to hook the reader right away. But now it’s all about immersing them in your world and showing them what they’re in store for as they keep going.
But now you’re hitting 11-20. The focus has to be immersion in the world and setting up the characters' problems.
We’re still in the first act (read what’s ahead), but now that we’ve met most of the characters, it’s time to show them in their world and plant some stuff that may pay off later.
Plus, we need to set up the thrust of the movie.
This sounds like a lot, but let’s check out some examples to inspire our own writing.
Screenplay Examples: Pages 10-20
Okay, we’ve seen your dynamic opening, and we’re entertained. Now we want to go along for the ride. Pages 10-20 are where we really get a sense of the world and prepare for an adventure.
First up, let’s take a look atRaiders Of The Lost Ark. After we’ve seen Indy in action, we have to learn he’s a college professor and now we’re going to get the mission.
We know Indy is a professor with a bit of a rep, but this scene shows how far-reaching it might be. When Army Intelligence shows up, you know things are going to kick in.
The mission is presented to Indy, and we get the legend as well.
What are we planting here? The powers of the Ark. Indy’s expertise. Hitler’s motivations. So in one scene, we get a sense of the villain, the stakes, the protagonist’s drive, and nervous anticipation of what the Ark can do...level mountains.
But this kind of scene is really explicit to one genre. What about something a little less straightforward?
In Enemy At The Gates, we use these moments in the movie to set up the thrust of the story. Vassili is good with a gun, but in this war, it takes more than that. After he saves the life of an officer, he’s able to move into the sniper ranks.
Since this is an action movie, we want an exciting set piece here, but it also has to show the theme and thrust of the story. This one is about Vassili being used by the Russians during the war.
In Black Panther, we use these pages to see more of Wakanda, understand the ritual for how to become king, and to meet the antagonist.
Killmonger’s entrance here sets the theme for the movie.
This story is about a people who were left behind, fighting people who have closed their doors to the world. The protagonist and antagonist are mirrors of one another. But we set up the eventual plan in this scene.
It’s engaging and exciting.
So far, these have all been action-based scenes. But what about stuff in dramas?
In There Will Be Blood, these pages are used to get Daniel Plainview to the part of the country that will eventually make him one of the richest people of all time.
In an elongated scene, we set up why these guys would move, how good they are at prospecting for oil, and the general thrust of the movie...which is that Daniel Plainview is going to try and cheat some farmers out of their oil.
Check out this dissection of the scene that puts the whole story in motion.
So does that all make sense?
In pages 10-20, I want to see your world and characters expand. Show them trying to do one thing and letting failing (or succeeding) at that one thing be what pushes them off on their adventure.
Have your finger on the pulse of the movie, as we need to make sure it’s alive and rife with thematic scenes and exciting turns.
Where Are You Now?
You should have already written the first 20 pages of your opus. We should know all about the characters, world, and tone.
We should even have a semblance of the theme.
Now it’s time to finish act one and send the screenplay off into Act II.
You’re hitting 21-30, so think about everything we need to know as the story moves forward (read what’s ahead). As I mentioned in week one. You may be a few pages ahead or a few pages behind.
The idea here is to write in chunks, so don’t worry about having your page count exact.
So what are we trying to do in pages 21-30?
As your first act comes to a close, you want your characters to be in a situation that drives the story forward.
If you’ve read Save The Cat, you’re probably familiar with the phrase, “The Promise of the Premise.”
This is just a fancy way of saying, what kind of movie are you promising the audience?
Have you taken the steps to deliver that film?
So let’s look at some ends of first acts to inspire our writing and then focus on getting back to the grindstone.
Screenplay Examples: Pages 21-30
So as you get ready to thrust the audience into the main parts of the story, you have to write yourself to the point where people are pushing off on their journey. This can mean pushing The Goonies on the search for One-eyed Willie, or sending Clarice Starling to interview Dr. Lecter.
So let's look at a few movies that use pages 21-30 to get their characters on the way to fulfilling the promise of the premise.
One of my favorite comedies of the 21st century is Tropic Thunder. The movie's plot is simple. A team of actors, trying to create a realistic Vietnam War movie, get lost in the jungle and have to face real rebel forces who are not sure the fight is over. This is an amazingly goofy premise, but the first act has to set up the actors, their flaws, AND get them out into the jungle believing all the real danger around them is fake, and part of a movie.
To do this, the writers have to trick the characters.
What's fun is, this is all set up within the first 20 pages. We know these guys are a little dumb, and we know the director is obsessed with realism. So to get the story going forward, you need a scene that both showcases the danger of the jungle, and thrusts these guys away from safety into it...
As great as this works for a comedy, I think it's harder to pinpoint scenes like this in dramas, or less genre-driven movies.
Another underrated movie of the 2000s is You Can Count On Me. Instead of having a mission that would clearly define the break into act two, this movie is about a family coming back together. The first act sets up the world of this single mom and then shakes it up when her brother visits after being gone for a long time.
So how do we know we're in the meat of this movie?
We introduce the brother to his nephew, and we show what's at the core of this film; those two characters bonding. The way we show that is a scene that sets up who these guys are, and how we will dedicate the movie to them seeing eye to eye...
Which might not be a great thing in the long run...
Lastly, I want to look at a more elevated take on the end of the first act in a genre movie.
The Matrix blew everyone away in 1999. It was a complicated movie that had plenty of people looking into computer simulations and whether or not we could be turned into batteries. Other than that, I thought the structure was very sound.
The first act of this movie is dedicated to showing us the multiple worlds, introducing characters, and letting Neo know there was something else out there. But what really needed to happen was that a choice had to make its way to Neo.
The first 20ish minutes are leading up to this scene, and without it, we can't fulfill the promise of this movie.
Free Screenwriting Seminar Week Four: Pages 30-40.
You did it, you passed through act one relatively unscathed, and now you’re ready to enter act two. Act two is everyone’s least favorite act.
When you start writing, you’re usually pretty clear on where you’ll begin and where you’ll end. It’s everything in the middle that can throw you off.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re approaching the hardest part of the script to write. I hope you have a solid treatment handy because you’re going to need it.
Now that you’ve set up the characters and world, we need to see how they’ll work to accomplish their goal.
If you’re writing a particular genre, like a heist, mystery, or treasure hunt movie, there might be specific tropes of the genre that can help you map out where you’re headed.
If you’re writing a personal drama, act two might feel more fluid.
But don’t fear!
Act two, no matter the genre, is about uncovering the inner demons of your characters, watching them try and fail to solve their problems, and taking them on a journey to their lowest point.
You’re going to need to break these people.
One of my film professors once said, “there are no compelling stories about a village full of happy people,” so get ready to make your characters suffer.
I’m talking Passion of the Christ suffering.
Which, coincidentally, has a great and right second act.
We’re also looking for the b story. What else is going on in this movie parallel to the main plot? Is McLovin going to travel with the cops while Seth and Evan try to get to the party?
Will the suffragettes get the right to vote as Mary Poppins takes care of the children?
And what about the fight between Fox’s book and the little shop around the corner? Who wins in that story of conglomerate versus mom and pop?
Okay. Let’s look at some examples from different genres to see how they tackle the bridge into act two and make these screenplay pages sing.
Pages 30-40 Screenplay examples
We've talked a lot about “breaking into act two,” but haven’t actually come to define what that means. Basically, at this point in your script, your characters should have their mission.
We should know their desires, some of their personal and professional failings, and be ready to push them into uncomfortable situations where these are exposed even further.
These pages also give you a little elbow room to reaffirm the tone, and to bring in a B story.
First up, let’s tackle one of the greatest comedic masterpieces of the 21st Century, Bridesmaids.
Bridesmaids is a great friendship comedy that pits a maid of honor against other members of the bridal party as it crumbles from within.
But the B-story is a sweet rom-com between a woman and a cop.
To get there, we have to set up the characters, the world, and then naturally lead into it.
So after we get some act two shenanigans, we seamlessly transition into the romantic comedy b-plot. This sets us off into two and also gives us another story we can cut to, so the comedy stays fresh.
But how can you break into act two if you’re writing something a little more…epic?
Saving Private Ryan is a behemoth of a film. Each act is around an hour long. So for this exercise, I’m going with an adjusted page 30-40.
Basically, we get the news that Ryan needs saving, and the group heads off to find him.
As you can understand… this is a hotly debated topic.
Instead of leaving the tension under the surface, this movie puts the tension on front street.
Are their lives worth Ryan’s lives?
I guess we’ll know if they... earn it…
So far we’ve covered two popular genres, but what if you’re writing something more dramatic?
Something without prescribed tropes that we can lean on to move into act two?
One of my favorite movies from a few years ago was 20th Century Women. It was about a mother who brings in two other women to help raise her child in 1979.
Because this movie becomes rough biopic of all three women, we need the break into two to be about how their stories all circulate inside the boy’s life.
So as we break into two we have to see how the Mom views these women.
And how the women will interact with her son.
And how they will affect his life moving forward.
Free Screenwriting Seminar Week Four: Pages 40-50.
So here at No Film School, I've been using this thing called the "Story Map" to beat out screenplays. We have a great post on Rocky, and when I get to the middle of screenplays, I like to dig into the map and see where it can take me. Also, I like the idea of following a map to tell a story, since you are technically taking an audience on a journey.
Hate it? Do whatever works for you.
By the time we get to page 40, we should be climbing the side of the mountain, going through the cave, and about to hit the midpoint. You want your characters to be dealing with their issues, and you want the things you've been planning to start to pay off.
Think about the middle of your favorite movie. What happens?
I'm a massive fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The middle of the movie is devoted to getting Indy and Marion close to the ark, and then taking them to a midpoint where we think Marion is dead.
This wrecks Indy, and we see all the deep-seated issues he had with Marion come to the surface.
What can come to the surface with your characters? We need to see them fail in these pages. This is the time where they, like you, should be frustrated at their missions falling apart.
How are you advancing your plot? How can you create roadblocks for your characters?
Let's take a look at a few examples to learn how to write screenplay.
Pages 40-50 Screenplay examples
We all have favorite parts of movies. We pick out scenes that are memorable and exciting. But these pages you're writing now are the blue-collar pages. They're the workhorses that help move the story forward.
So ask yourself, "What's my story about? What do my characters need?" And now...take that away from them.
Let's start with an easy example: The Goonies (one of the best coming-of-age movies).
The plot of The Goonies is simple to follow. They're legit using a map to go where they need to go. They want One-Eyed Willie's gold. We take it away from them by putting obstacles in their way and tracking all the fighting within the group. This is where the flaws we've seen in these characters take center stage and they have to overcome those flaws to move forward, to get to the midpoint and decide to keep going forward.
Again, if your movie has a formula or a set of tropes, this is where you can lean in. Think about Oceans 11. We get the guys to the casino. We introduce Tess, then what happens in the middle of the movie?mThey set their plan in motion so they have to start practicing, and they need to see what problems they'll have going forward (namely needing more parts to help break into the casino).
Okay, what about one of the most moving dramas of the decade?
Manchester By The Sea.
Pages 40-50 here are trying to get you to the midpoint, to this jaw-dropping scene:
How do you get there?
Again, these are the foundation of the second act. We need to build up our love of Casey Affleck's character and then pull the rug out from under everyone.
We need to set up that Lee has to stay there and that he's got to take care of his nephew. You also have to show that there was some tension with his wife.
In these moments we begin to unravel everything we planted early on. We start to explain why Lee has so much pain in his life, why he doesn't want to be in this town.
So as you write pages 40-50, ask yourself how you can stop your characters from getting what they want and how you can use the B-story to help that.
Could a villain get in their way? Or maybe having two girlfriends and being in a band could too?
Remember, no one wants to watch a movie about the village of happy people. So make things hurt.
Free Screenwriting Seminar Week Six: Pages 50-60.
Here's what I love about the middle of a screenplay; it's where you get to reinvent the wheel. It's where the audience gets thrown for a loop, a big twist happens, and you have to evaluate where to go from here.
The middle portion of a lot of screenplays is when the audience is yelling at the page.
It's when our heroes start to fall out of love, think they saw Commissioner Gordon die, and learn they're going to need that one last piece to rob a casino.
Screenwriting gurus like Blake Snyder suggest having a "false victory" or "false collapse" at the middle. Either pretend your character's high point is the middle and then ride the pages down from there, or give them a defeat, and let them spring back from that.
False victories can be hard to pull off. If you look at Body Heat, their false victory is where they think they've pulled off the most amazing con ever, and then the rest of the movie is about it falling apart.
Look at a movie like Invincible starring Mark Wahlberg. He thought it was just about making the Philadelphia Eagles' squad. But in the middle, he's on the team and realizes those challenges keep coming.
While not every movie has a dramatic shift at the midpoint, I would encourage you to see this midpoint as an opportunity to really shake things up. Even if it's not completely altering character trajectory, at least try to reveal an emotional bombshell that could shake the audience too. Keep us on our toes.
As you can tell from our Story Map, the parts of your story you've entered are...
Reassess the Problem - You’re at the middle. Is there another way to get it done?
Try and Fail - Things begin to fall apart, can they handle it?
Last week we learned that the characters had finally started to gel together and things were going well. Now it's time to fracture those relationships, to create the cracks that will lead us to the break.
If you've been planting things along the way, we'll be paying off more here.
Let's jump into the examples to push these points home.
Pages 50-60 Screenplay examples
As you know, I love setting off with a genre entry, and I can think of no better midpoint that the T-Rex escaping in Jurassic Park.
Up until this point in the screenplay, we've spent most of our time exploring a tame park. But the real shakeup here is when the park is able to escape the boundaries and begin to interact with the guests. This is the first big step in that arena. These pages are also used to begin to pay off Nedry's decisions to sell the embryos.
Remember when I said we were going to test the characters?
Well, after the midpoint, we see Dr. Grant have to confront hating kids, then Ellie confronts being underestimated, then Nedry confronts his greed, and then Hammond confronts his hubris. That's a helluva shift.
What about something without dinosaurs but with lots of desserts?
One of the greatest screenplays of all time comes from the 2007 movie, Waitress, written and directed by Adrienne Shelly. It's a movie about a waitress stuck in a bad marriage, trying to save money to leave her husband, when she finds out she's pregnant.
As if all those problems aren't terrible enough, at the mid-point, she begins a torrid affair.
This affair is unexpected and throws the best-laid plans right out the window. Now, instead of escaping her husband, she's trying to navigate a new love. She has to keep all of this hidden from her best friends and best customers. It catapults into a more emotionally complicated arena and opens the movie to lots of twists, turns, and laughs.
We've focused a lot on dramatic shifts that cause people to see the world in a whole new light. But what if the world your characters inhabit is already awful?
I caught the recent re-release of Schindler's List in theaters this week, and its midpoint happens when Amon Goeth arrives.
This is where the movie turns. Up until now, Schindler has been able to save lives without much legwork by using his factory. He's getting unbelievably rich. His motivations are monetary. But when Goeth arrives, there's a new world order. The camps become even more deadly. The ghetto is liquidated.
Schindler, who had seen these people as commodities, now sees them as human beings.
The list Schindler made, which was about free labor, now becomes a list he's going to make to save the lives of thousands.
The midpoint in Schindler's List is about the arrival of a person who changes the way Oskar views the world. While there is not a major shift in how he goes about his business, we begin to see the humanity within him come out.
That humanity becomes the defining theme of the movie.
Free Screenwriting Seminar Week Seven: Pages 60-70
So you survived the midpoint, and you're ready to round out Act II. Congratulations. But don't start slapping yourself on the back yet.
Act II is pretty complicated. We already went over some of the Story Map for it, but let's focus on where you've been and where you need to head.
Last week, at the midpoint, we learned our character had to reassess their problems.
In these pages, our characters need to try and fail.
Think about Indiana Jones. Once the Nazis have the ark, he chases after it.
We should feel like our heroes are getting ahead, but they should still be asking questions. These pages need to lead us to the fall, so get their spirits high.
- Reassess the Problem - You’re at the middle. Is there another way to get it done?
- Try and Fail - Things begin to fall apart, can they handle it?
- The Fall - The worst thing happens, something so bad you don’t think you can get up.
These pages are crucial, because they're going to take your character right up to the brink, and then dash them against the rocks.
After all the trying, failing, learning, and succeeding, things might be looking up for your heroes. But they'll still have doubts.
I can't think of a better example than when Greg brings home the fake cat in Meet The Parents.
Greg has a problem; he needs Jack's blessing to get married. He thinks he can fix this situation by finding Jinx the cat.
The cat is gone, and in a desperation move, Greg uses one he finds at the pound to trick Jack. In pages 60-70 in the script, we see Greg reap the benefits of being the cat's savior. He enters the circle of trust, he's definitely in a good position to ask for Jack's daughter's hand, and it's all going well...
...until he hears the real Jinx has been found and has to race home.
Let's look at a few more examples to play around in pages 60-70 in your screenplay!
Pages 60-70 Screenplay Examples
I cannot believe it's been 25 years since You've Got Mail was released. It's impossible not to love a Nora Ephron movie, and I think the best parts of them are how tight and cumulative her second acts feel. They're all about building up ammo to crush you when the characters don't get together.
You've Got Mail does that especially well.
I love the way we transition from the characters flirting, to know who one another is, to the rival businesses, to maybe liking each other.
The movie sets them up to fail, but we have to see them winning too.
That means getting protestors outside Fox books, pushing her Mom & Pop shop forward, and getting us right on the brink of believing everything is okay...
Before we realize it's not.
But what about the culmination of a second act that has a little more pizzazz?
I'm talking about the original Mission: Impossible.
I think I watched this movie 50 times as a kid, and it still makes me cheer as an adult.
We went through Ethan hunt's trying and failing. We found Job. We learned where the list was held, and in the culmination of the second act, we're robbing the CIA.
This is an incredible was to thrust us toward Act III. We think our team is going to pull it off, but nothing is more fun than getting the audience's adrenaline going, and being ready to pull the rug out next.
And it's not just about action or comedy.
It can work in dramedies as well, like in The Birdcage.
Structurally, The Birdcage is incredibly unique. Most of the second act takes place at a dinner planned between the Senator and our gay couple, who are hiding their identities.
What's fun is, the dinner starts going well right off the bat, and keeps getting better. Sure, there are some close calls, but as the evening wanes, we need to build suspense in the audience's eyes.
You know something has to go wrong, so their second act is about nervous anticipation. That's how to write screenplay.
Free Screenwriting Seminar Week Eight: Pages 70-80
We're entering Act III. Our characters have been through the wringer, and now it's time to break them.
We go to the movies for many reasons; to laugh, cry, cheer, and feel love. But to get the audience to feel these emotions, we have to show them a world without these feelings. That means pulling the rug out from under the people we love the most and seeing them at their lowest lows.
I know you've heard this before, but no one wants to watch a movie about the village of happy people. They barely want to read about a screenwriter's quest to be happy.
So we can't pull punches on these pages.
You have to be mean, even when it's so hard.
Think about a movie like Bridesmaids. That movie is mostly about friendship. The worst thing you can do to the characters is to completely rip the central friendship apart.
Once that friendship is burnt down, you can use the next few pages to show the aftermath. It's not only time to rest, but time to explain the audience how badly the first fall hurts.
Even in different genres, we need to see a dramatic fall. Sometimes quite literally.
In Arrival, the theme of the movie is communication and non-violence. So when things fall apart, they blow apart. A bomb is sent into the alien craft. While we need things to fall apart, it's smart to also show how the fear of another culture and communication can completely blow away the audience.
We also benefit from the theme of the movie being reinforced, so the audience has a reminder as the pages wind down.
Let's look at a few more examples to play around in pages 70-80 in your screenplay!
Pages 70-80 Screenplay Examples
Frequently, I see a lot of first-time writers being way too easy on their characters. I was like that when I started too. I thought I went too far lots of times, but it was a rude awakening when I started reading the pros and seeing how awful they made things for their leads.
And how much better those scripts read than mine.
Case in point, the Alexander Payne movie, TheDescendents. The movie is already bleak, but it takes everything to 11 when Clooney has to face his comatose wife.
Not only is this hard, but it's excruciating for him. He has to confront his failings—the things that drove his wife to cheat. It's powerful, intimate, and heartbreaking.
There are times when you think you can get away with making a character not have to face the music. Or the singing bad guy.
I think a lot about The Lion King. Not only because they're remaking it, but also because it probably could get away with Simba not having to face his worst moments.
The movie already has him see his father die, be exiled, and to lose a possible love.
But that's not enough.
Even in a kids' movie, you have to crush the hearts.
Simba still has to be faced with his part in all the bad things that have happened...so he can rise and take his place among the mature adults.
Even if that means looking within to move forward.
Sometimes characters look within, and it zaps all the air out of the room.
When Boromir tries to steal the ring from Frodo, it ruins the heart of the quest. We always knew Orcs would come for it and that there would be a battle. But it hurts the most to see the Fellowship crumble from within.
This harkens back to my advice on the movie's theme.
If you can make this moment echo the theme, it puts you in a stronger position for the rest of Act III.
The Fellowship was built on friendship and trust. The rest of the movies will be about alliances that fracture.
This is just a precursor or hardships and an excellent moment.
Free Screenwriting Seminar Week Nine: Pages 80-90
Welcome to one of the hardest parts of your screenplay. Outside of act two, these pages are always the hardest for me to write. I love the challenge of racing toward the ending of your movie because it makes you focus on what needs to be tied up.
There are times when I enter these pages and realize I need to go back and rewrite. It can be a necessary step to help my new progressions make sense.
Still, since this course is about always writing forward, I encourage you to continue ahead while we are in the process and do a massive rewrite after you finish.
So, what are we looking for on pages 80-90?
We're in the direct aftermath of the worst possible thing to happen to your characters. And the audience should be at their emotional low as well. You need to take us through how your characters react. And then give us a glimmer of hope as they crusade forward.
In our Story Map, pages 80-90 cover the following beats:
The Hidden Clue - What do your characters discover about themselves/the problem that they never saw before?
Race To the Finish - They’re up and running no matter what.
Let's look at a few more examples to play around in pages 80-90 in your screenplay!
Pages 80-90 Screenplay Examples
The best way to find examples for pages 80-90 in screenplays is to think about all the moments where characters lose everything... and then study what happens immediately after.
This is where people come to terms with whether or not they're going to make it.
One of the most startlingly real versions of these pages came from Manchester By The Sea. Where we find out the lead character just can't beat what he's been feeling.
What we get at this moment in the movie is a discovery of theme. This is a movie about getting over a trauma, and our character realizes here that he will never be over it.
But that doesn't preclude him from being a better uncle and involved in his nephew's life.
We see him sulk, we see him fight, but ultimately he realizes that the people who are alive are more important than anything he feels.
And that realization reinforces the movie's theme of mourning and redemption.
Oof that's a sad start.
Let's jump into something funnier.
Superbad is a masterclass in comedy. After Seth and Evan fight at the party, we think their friendship might be over. The next pages show us how the duo function without each other.
Seth gets hammered and passes out and into Emma Stone's face.
Evan is a good guy and passes up having sex with a too-drunk girl only to get hammered and pass out himself.
Then the cops come in.
Again, we know the theme of this movie is about friendship. So it only fits that when the cops show up to bust everyone, friends put aside their differences and get back to what matters...friendship!
In saving Evan, Seth can make up for some of his selfish acts. And to deal with the idea that even if they are apart, they will always be there for each other.
We also close the loops to the B-story with McLovin and the cops.
Earlier, I mentioned using these pages to reveal a clue these characters new knew. In Superbad that discovery the characters make is that they genuinely love and care for one another.
In Manchester By The Sea, it's that you never get over some grief. You just have to move forward and try to grow from it.
But if you're dealing with a genre movie like The Sixth Sense, this is much more of a reveal. Thanks to some handy plot devices.
We think the low points are over. And as we race toward the finish, this script needs to assert what it has been about — not just Cole's redemption, but also Dr. Crowe's.
Again, use these pages to reflect on what you need the audience to find out.
Maybe it's that in 500 Days Of Summer we need our protagonist to finally be over Summer. You have to sell the audience on the idea that they moved on. So you put a scene here to show what each person found out about themselves. And how those discoveries can catapult them into a catharsis that ends the movie.
No matter what, if you get stuck on these pages, go back to the theme and lesson.
What do you want the audience to understand life?
How can you show them that idea through the power of your story?
Free Screenwriting Seminar Week Nine: Pages 90-100
As John August and Craig Mazin once said, good screenplays start with great endings.
As you cross page 100, it's time for your screenplay to come to a close. These are the moments when you decide how to close the themes, payoff any last plants, figure out if there's a big twist, and decide whether or not you want to leave hope for a sequel.
And in 40-Year-Old Virgin, it's where they break into song...also, that happens in Bridesmaids too.
As you end your screenplay, I'd like to refer to the Story Map to see where we are in the plot beats.
The Treasure Chest - Did they get what they came for?
Where We Go From Here - Show us the world in a new light, hint what’s next.
You've taken your characters through the worst. Now is the time to figure out if they get Keyser Soze, or if he limps off into the sunset, ready to kill again.
Let's take a look at some examples of memorable movie endings to help you land the plane (or have your pilot admit he needs help, like in Flight).
Pages 90-100 Screenplay Examples
Creating a memorable ending is about more than just closing up the story beats.
Sure, everyone wants their questions answered. We have to know if the guy gets the girl, the girl gets the job, and the job becomes the career.
But you also have to deliver your characters to a place where the audience understands where their lives are going — or not going.
At one point in my life, I did some work with Mickey Rourke. A lot of the stories I have probably belong in our Ultimate Hollywood Assistant Survival Guide, but during the times we weren't arguing over Sprinkles Cupcakes or sparring at Golds Gym, we talked about The Wrestler.
The Wrestler has one of the greatest endings in modern movie history.
Randy "The Ram" makes his peace with his family, his legacy, and the woman he loves. He finds a priority in his craft, and we know that as that movie ends, he's solidifying his legacy and legend.
Is there going to be a sequel? Hell no.
Did Randy get the treasure? Yes. Just listen to his speech.
While the story is ambiguous about whether he lives or dies, we get a sense of closure and we will never forget Randy's leap of faith.
What about a more conventional ending?
Or a movie with a sequel?
At the end of Horrible Bosses, we see Charlie Day's character, Dale, finally standing up for himself after one boss is dead and the other is in jail. We get closure. The gang gets what they wanted, to be ostensibly rid of all their bosses, and we get the hint that these men's lives have changed. Nick is promoted to president of the company under a sadistic CEO, Kurt retains his job under a new boss, and Dale blackmails Julia into ending her harassment by convincing her to sexually harass a supposedly unconscious patient, while Jones secretly records the act.
What I like here is that while we don't officially set up a sequel, we get the sense that these men have changed for the better, and their newfound confidence gives them the win they've been looking for the whole movie. We can kind of surmise that a sequel could fit into this world if it had to and if the movie was successful. It was, and that's why we got Horrible Bosses 2.
But what about a movie that ends AND directly sets up the next chapter?
Let's go to one of my top 10 all time movies...
Back To The Future.
Holy crap, is there a more fun movie than BTTF? Maybe Raiders, but don't get me sidetracked.
What makes the Back To the Future ending so perfect is that it pays off everything we've been looking for the entire movie. We see that not only has Marty's family gotten back to normal, but all of his actions paid off. The real kicker is that just when we think the adventure is over, Doc Brown shows back up and lets us know there's room for another chapter.
This sets up a bigger world, and in today's studio realm, where everyone is looking for a new franchise, it's a great way to show how profitable your idea can be in the marketplace.
And above all else, Back To The Future leaves us with one of the top three movie lines of all time...
"Roads? Where we're going...we don't need roads!"
I got goosebumps just typing that.
Imagine reading it and seeing the franchise's potential...
Great endings do that.
Summing Up How to Write a Screenplay...
Well, there you have it. That's how you end a Free Screenwriting Seminar on how to write screenplay.
As I mentioned in the opening, no matter what page you're ending on, you've ended it.
All writing is rewriting, so after you reward yourself for finishing, get back into this draft and make it something special.
For those of you eager to keep writing, we're going to push ahead with a Free Pilot Writing Seminar starting next week. So get ready to make 2019 the year you finish a ton of screenplays.
I'm honored to be a part of your hero's journey and hope I have been more Dumbledore than Voldemort along the way.
Till we write again...
- How Long Does it Take to Write a Screenplay? ›
- What Is a Spec Script? (and How to Write One) ›
- How To Write a Screenplay ›
- writing a movie script ›