Evolution of a Screenplay

When I was first bitten with the urge to write, it was fiction I had in mind. I guess this was inevitable as I’d been reading the stuff since I was old enough to hold a library card … and pay a fine for a late return.

Whilst I still love fiction, it’s fair to say that non-fiction work has netted me a greater financial return and, if I’m being honest, has been a joy to produce — both in terms of research, getting words down on paper and selling the end product.

Another unexpected diversion has been in the form of screenplays.

I’d first dabbled in the fundamentals of screenplays as part of my Writers’ Bureau creative writing course. The excellent course, which also included the basics for writing radio and stage plays, covered all forms of creative writing except poetry. That suited me fine. I’m no poet.

It wasn’t until I attended a night school course at Grimsby college, however, that I really became interested in the medium of screenplays.

The course’s overall aim was to teach students script-writing basics for each to produce a script for a ten minute film. The script is offered as a downloadable PDF file below.


Creating the script became an emotional experience. At the time I approached this project my mum had recently passed away and my grief remained raw. Consequently, the subject matter, visual imagery and character emotions were all distilled from my own experiences and sentiments. This, of course, fulfilled the well-known edict for any writer, to ‘write what you know’.

What follows are the steps I took in producing the finished article, from the germ of an idea to a finished and correctly formatted script.


THE IDEA

The original idea came from a writer’s prompt set by American writing magazine Writers’ Digest. It said:

What’s inside the box you found in the back of your mother’s closet? Open it and describe what you see.

At the time I approached this assignment I’d recently completed a non-fiction article about the collision of two Lancaster bombers over my home village of Ulceby in 1943. The piece was later published in the magazine ‘Lincolnshire Life‘, and is included among my feature articles on this site under the title ‘Black Thursday‘.

Researching the events had a profound effect on me – and still does. Even now, whenever a blanket of freezing fog descends during a winter evening, I’m always reminded of the two young aircrews who lost their lives here all those years ago.

Fulfilling the ‘write what you know‘ maxim once again, I therefore decided to adopt a wartime theme. I then wrote a short story based on the prompt’s idea, and I enjoyed doing so. When later tasked with the production of a screenplay it seemed fitting that I choose this as the basis for my script.

Basic Idea Sketched out as a Three-Act Structure

THE PREMISE

Once I had the idea nailed down, the first screenplay-specific task was to produce a premise — something completely new to me. I learned that, in the film industry, the premise is a marketing tool that always takes the following form:


This is a story about 1 who 2 but 3 and 4.
1 – describes the hero
2 – states what he wants
3 – states what is stopping him
4 – hints at the end

For ‘Two Wings’ the premise became:

Grieving fifty-something Francis, aided by his supportive girlfriend, must sort his deceased mother’s possessions. So doing, he discovers a box containing photographs, letters and wartime memorabilia. The contents explain his once turbulent relationship with his late father and provide shocking revelations of his actual parentage. Grief is then turned to hope as a search for his actual father begins.


THE PITCH

As with the premise, I knew nothing of pitches. I learned that this, too, is a marketing tool. Here, however, the pitch is limited to twenty-five words and falls within one of two categories:


1: High Concept – A high concept pitch adapts an existing story or film to describe the idea. A classic example would be the high concept pitch for the film Alien:

Jaws in Space


2: Low Concept – Here, the nature of the work must be expressed in no more than twenty five dramatic words. Using Alien again, the low concept pitch used included the following phrase:

In space no-one can hear you scream

If you are familiar with the verbage on this site you’ll appreciate that I found the pitch to be incredibly difficult. Following many re-writes, I managed it:

1943. A young Wren’s momentary recklessness triggers a family puzzle. Sixty years on, she leaves the pieces in a box for her son to find.


CHARACTERISATION

As I’d been writing fiction for some time I’d already encountered many examples of character sheets — templates, profiles, call them what you will. Some were brief and gimicky while others swung the other way, being lengthy, over-burdensome and consequently unusable.


Without doubt, the Twenty-Two Point Characterisation profile suggested by the course tutor was the best I’d come across. I used it for ‘Two Wings’ and have continued to do so whenever I’ve needed to draw a character, whether it be for a fiction project or screenplay.


The concise yet detailed profile allowed me to build believable and credible characters, provide them with back-stories, add flesh to their bones and make them ‘real’. In order for me to write about them, breathe life into them and understand their emotions I had to know them fully and be able to see the world through their eyes.


Here is the profile for Leslie Keyworth, one of the main characters. Using the 22-point template I had more than enough detail with which to build a three-dimensional character:


A further requirement was the production of a ‘Treatment’ – a concise scene-by-scene overview. Like the pitch and premise, this too was to be tightly-written within a specific word-count. This was one heck of a challenge for one such as me – someone who never uses one word when a dozen will suffice.

Finally, I learned also that a general rule-of-thumb is that each page of a screenplay is representative of a minute of screentime. I was therefore tasked with portraying my drama in only ten pages. This was simply a challenge too far. ‘Two Wings’ weighs in at thirteen.

Here it is, presented as a PDF downloadable file:


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