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 is 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.