By Lee Hamilton.
There are tons of things to consider when first tackling the ambitious job of writing a feature screenplay, but once you’ve decided on the story you want to write and have begun to put virtual pen to paper, there are a few important things that you need to be ultra-aware of, particularly in terms of structure and dramatic momentum.
Let’s take a quick look at the beats, the format, and the narrative tools that every feature script requires.
1. Genre. Understanding what type of movie you’re writing and who your target audience is will not only help you make your script more marketable, it can also make your script more rewarding. Watch other movies and read other scripts written in your chosen genre to get to grips with what each of them has in common. Learn the tropes, but remember you need to put your spin on them too. Don’t underestimate genre fans! They have certain expectations, but at the same time, they don’t want to see carbon copies of the same old thing. It’s up to you to give them the ‘same, but different’.
2. Your First Page. First impressions count and page one is where any experienced reader will be able to make a quick and accurate judgment about your writing ability. Being able to grab the reader’s attention is essential. There are many ways to do this, from introducing an intriguing character or setting or creating a compelling conflict right from the start. There is a lot of advice about what exactly needs to be included on your first page (and in your first ten pages), such as introducing the protagonist, establishing the theme, having a strong opening image, etc, but the only thing you need to be concentrating on is hooking the reader, so much so that they’ll want to keep turning the page!
3. Character Arc. In a feature, you’ve got a set amount of time to make sure that your protagonist shows clear change, they evolve, learn a lesson, and conclude their story. A character arc should be closely knitted to your story structure, and there are several structures that work well with features; such as the traditional 3-act structure, the hero’s journey, and the sequence approach. What they share is that conflict is at the heart of every beat along the way. Conflict is what drives a story; it poses a question that needs to be answered, an obstacle that needs to be overcome, a dilemma that creates struggle, etc. The more conflict, the better, so make sure you’re throwing everything you’ve got at your characters to force them to grow or change.
4. The Inciting Incident. The most common definition of the “inciting incident” is the moment in your story that propels your protagonist out of their ‘normal world’ and starts them on their journey. So, like when the tornado descends, whisking Dorothy off to Oz. It’s important to note, that you usually need to spend a little time establishing the ‘normal world’ for the audience beforehand, but the emphasis is on ‘a little’ here, the quicker you can get to the inciting incident the better, so no later than p15 if possible. The inciting incident should tell the audience what your movie is going to be about, such as “Three buddies wake up from a bachelor party in Las Vegas with no memory of the previous night and must find the missing groom before the wedding”, meaning it’s also very likely the moment you describe in your logline too.
5. The Mid-Point. This is a pivotal story beat that’s often forgotten or missed by the writer, and it’s another one that every reader will be watching out for. It’s a key moment in the protagonist’s character arc and often referred to as the ‘point of no return’ because something should happen, whether it’s a decision or action, that leaves the protagonist with no other choice but to carry on as if it’s now impossible for them to turn back. A strong midpoint signals to the audience that things are about to change and halfway through your script is also a great place to up the stakes, throw in a big reveal, add a time constraint, and it’s also often where the protagonist’s goal may change to a completely new one.
6. The Climax. This is the moment that the audience has all been waiting for. It’s the moment where your protagonist either wins or loses and it should be the most intense, exciting, and dramatic sequence of your screenplay. Usually occurring close to the end of your script during the third act this is where your protagonist faces off with whatever has been against them, and usually, they do this alone. This is also where you can throw in the biggest obstacle yet, or the payoff a culmination of setups, or throw in a last-minute twist to surprise the audience. Keeping the audience’s attention is pivotal when writing this beat as it’s where your movie will make its overall last impression, so you need to gauge what the audience will be hoping for and whether you decide to deliver it to them or not.
7. The Resolution. This is the aftermath of the climax. Unlike short films, where there isn’t often the time, or TV Pilots that use an end of episode cliff-hanger, with features you have a bit more time to explore the consequences of the climax. The resolution is where you tie up any loose ends and conclude all of the story threads, and it’s also another story beat that’s essential to the protagonist’s overall character arc as it’s the place where we watch their transformation complete. A good tip is to go back and look at your opening image to make sure that your closing image works well as a visual bookend to your story here too.
8. Page Length. The recommended maximum length of a spec script is 120 pages but the average script length has shortened over time to being anywhere between 90-110 pages long. Different genres average out at different lengths. A comedy or a horror is going to be a lot shorter than a historical epic, for example, so do your homework and research the average running time of the genre you’re writing. In general, one page of script equals one minute of screen time, but again, this won’t ring true for every story. A page of dialogue is going to take less time to unfold on screen than a text-heavy page of description, so don’t take the rule too literally. That said, go over the 120-page limit at your peril. If you demonstrate an awareness of expectations, you may be read as an indication that you lack the discipline to tell a story within the desired perimeters.
9. Narrative Devices. There’s a lot more freedom to play around with plot devices when writing a feature script than with other formats. There’s often not enough time to include flashbacks, montages, dream sequences, time constraints, false endings, etc, in shorter formats, but when used well, these devices can greatly enhance the dramatic structure of your story. They’re great to have in your writing toolbox, so make sure you learn about them and which of them could be useful when telling your story. Though, if in doubt, don’t use any, or at least use them sparingly. When used incorrectly they stick out like a sore thumb, so make sure you understand how to use them before you do.
10. Set Pieces & SFX. Although TV is fast catching up, feature films usually come with a much bigger budget, allowing a writer’s imagination to go wild. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to, of course, but movies made for the big screen are by default supposed to be cinematic treats for the eye. Different genres have different needs. Not every script needs a thrilling action sequence or heavy use of CGI, and the sky is the limit when writing a spec script, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn to keep the budget in mind as you continue to write. Studios are less likely to take chances on new writers who have high-budget scripts.
We hope the tips above have helped you review or plan your feature screenplay. And also shine a light on what others expect when they read a feature script. And if you have several stories to tell and are thinking of entering our Feature Contest, we hope that these tips will act as a guide when considering which of your spec scripts you are going to submit and which will help you to take your next steps as a screenwriter.
Lee Hamilton is a script reader, developer, and author. Lee was one of the original readers to join Shore Scripts and has since moved into education and development, penning numerous articles, workbooks, and writing courses.