Set aside a time and place to write preferably every day

Making a commitment to write is different from planning to write. Even an hour a day can be very productive. Set aside a regular time, so that you don't need to make this same difficult commitment every day.

2. Put your story idea down on paper. While some of you might think this is obvious, many novice writers (and some screenwriting "consultants") start straight in on the screenplay. I'm here to tell you it is very difficult to go from the idea in your head directly to the screenplay format; and if you do, you run the danger of having a shapeless mass at the end of your toils, which will require endless rewrites.

A more methodical approach, while time-consuming at first, will save you a lot of time later on. And it is easier to rewrite at this stage than to rewrite an entire screenplay.

What follows are two approaches to easing yourself into writing the script:

the synopsis/ outline/ index card approach; and the synopsis/ treatment approach.

As you can see, both approaches begin with a synopsis. There are many misconceptions out there about what constitutes a synopsis. That confusion stems from the fact that there are two kinds of synopsis, namely, the working synopsis, and the selling synopsis. A working synopsis is a tool to help you write your screenplay, and is between you and God, or you and your writers group (or your script consultant). A selling synopsis is what you write based upon the final draft of the screenplay, to be used as a marketing tool.

A working synopsis should be preliminary, including only the bare bones of your story, including the beginning, the middle and the end. This will function as a tent pole, to help you start putting together the major elements of character and plot. This synopsis may look very different by the time you finish the script, at which point you should revise it to reflect the completed screenplay. That would be your selling synopsis, which you will need in case a producer requests the synopsis before committing to read an entire script. Many do.

So what does a synopsis look like? It can be a paragraph or a page or two, summarizing what the story is about, highlighting what you know about the plot at this point (what happens). Ideally, what it's about will also be who it's about, although, unfortunately, that's not always the case. But even in "event movies" or "disaster movies" you can ground the story firmly in character.

Let's take a completely commercial and inconsequential movie like DANTE'S PEAK, for example, the "other" volcano movie. But, if you look closely, the story isn't about a volcano, it's about a discredited volcano expert whose predictions come true, and who has

to save a town from disaster (okay, so I watch too much late night cable). So yes, it's about a volcano; but the volcano is really a backdrop (a spectacularly visual one, with lots of possibilities for action) for the human drama. What the story is about, then, is a man, not the volcano, and then that becomes the premise - "discredited volcano expert saves a town from the onslaught of an erupting volcano." We will take a closer look at what a premise is later on. Suffice to say that your working synopsis for this movie should establish the character, the manner in which he's discredited, the path open to him to redeem himself, the major turning points, all of the major characters who will have a part in the story, and how the character resolves a larger problem, thereby solving his personal issues as well.

Ideally, the synopsis should be based on your main character, because his journey is ultimately what the movie is about. This is, of course, easier said than done; often you'll have an idea for a story that seems to be more about the story than it is about a character. But taking this approach will often land you in hot water, since, without a main character, we don't really know where the story should start and end. Writing your synopsis as a series of events, that don't follow the travails of any particular person, will create problems for you later on, when you've written a screenplay that doesn't seem to be about anyone in particular. I call this the "and this happens and then that happens" premise, which is always the kiss of death to a screenplay. Unfortunately this happens more often than not. Here is an example of a -

BAD MOVIE PREMISE: "This tour group goes on vacation to the Bahamas, but weird things start happening to them, and one guy drowns, and, like, the captain goes crazy, and another one runs away with a supermodel, and then, well, a hurricane lifts their cruise ship up and sets it back down IN THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE. After they finally get blown out of the storm, they go home, where the supermodel learns that her little brother has died of leukemia. She starts a foundation."

I can see the development executive's eyes glaze over, a pained smile glued to his ashen visage. Contrary to popular opinion, studio executives aren't idiots (well, most of them). You may not like them, you may rail against their opinion of your precious screenplay (based on your pitch), something you're sure should be nominated for an Oscar. And you can't even get anyone to read it, much less buy it! But they are your first audience, a highly specialized audience, trained to sniff out a great premise for a movie, that then delivers with the kind of skilled execution that will attract funds and major talent, enthrall an audience, and make all concerned piles of money in the process. So the last thing you want to do is bore them to death before they've even read your script.

What was boring about the Bermuda Triangle premise? Why is this a bad premise? It has action, a supermodel AND the Bermuda Triangle. What could be bad? Simply put, it suffers from two common problems:

1. The "and then this happens, and then that happens," premise, with situations occurring that seemingly have nothing to do with each other; and an ending that has nothing to do with anything that's taken place thus far, or with the main character's central task; and

2. The fact that it isn't clearly about anyone, or anything, in particular. There is no point to this scenario.

Sure, the Bermuda Triangle is cool; but what we need is to be made to care about at least one person in the story, so that we care about what happens to them and want to see what happens next, and how things will turn out.

Can the above premise be turned into a movie premise (and then a synopsis, an outline or treatment, and a screenplay)? Absolutely. All of your story ideas (well, most of them), while they may not work in the form you've devised, can be reworked into a screen story. In fact, I can honestly say that I've never read a script that couldn't eventually become a screenplay, IF the writer was willing to rethink and revise as needed. And since all successful screenwriters get critiques and notes from the producer/director/star/you name it, a willingness to rethink and revise is critical to your future success. So you might as well start now.

EXERCISE 2:

Using the above example of a bad movie premise, figure out how you would tell this story, who the story is ultimately about, whether it's a comedy, sci fi mystery, action-adventure or thriller (unclear from the above premise), and then rewrite this premise. (A tip: what's not important in the story is the supermodel, clearly put in purely for eye candy, unless she becomes not just a supermodel but a superhero (the as-yet unheard of "Bermuda Triangle Effect", or unless a real-life supermodel is the reason for the movie in the first place); and while the Bermuda Triangle might be interesting, it's going to have to be pretty perfectly integrated into the plot, and into our hero's task and transformation.

There are no right answers here - every writer will come up with a different take on the story. But if you would like my reaction to your one or two sentence take on this, and whether you've managed to turn this into a workable and convincing movie premise, feel free to email me your response to this question, at [email protected]

If the Bermuda Triangle idea gets you so excited that you want to start on a script immediately, be warned: there are lots of B.T. scripts out there - and none of them have been made. Not that yours wouldn't, but...

Not all movie premises have to be brilliant, hilarious, deeply moving or earthshakingly profound, although it helps. In fact, many are simply variations on the tried and true (TITANIC, for example, can be seen as ROMEO AND JULIET on a sinking ship). And, despite my earlier instruction that what we need to be made to care about at least one person in the story, so that we care about what happens to them and want to see what happens next, and how things will turn out, sometimes the thing we care about isn't a person: E.T., for example, or even Los Angeles, in VOLCANO (premise: a volcano erupts under the La Brea Tar Pits, threatening to bury L.A. - although they do introduce a lame story - and I do apologize for my current volcano fixation), or life on earth (a meteor hurtling to earth may destroy life as we know it - ditto re: the lame story). Remember, the premise is the concise version of what the story is truly about - the central idea.

Although you may have a premise in mind while writing the script, by the time you're ready to send your script out into the marketplace your premise should be an idea rooted in a character. So, for example, a classic premise might be:

"Ruthless ambition sows the seeds of its own destruction."

This is the premise for Macbeth. But if you tried to start on your synopsis from this premise, you'd be stumped, since it doesn't start with a particular character or situation. A movie premise has to be more specific, i.e.:

"A Scottish lord's ruthless ambition leads to his own destruction."

This immediately establishes a character we can follow, in a particular setting, and the premise then drives the story forward by making character central to the plot.

Below is an example of a much less lofty premise, from one of my screenplays. Many books and movies use this "identity switching" premise in different ways (THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER, THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, PYGMALION, MY FAIR LADY, to name just a few). Don't blink after reading it - there is an identical premise out in theaters now, Disney's THE PRINCESS DIARIES (based on a different novel), which was greenlit just as I finished my script, now languishing on a deep, dark shelf.

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