People always say that you need to walk before you run and run before you fly.
It makes sense, the more prepared you are to do anything, the easier and smoother the actual doing will be. Screenwriting (or any writing for that matter) is no exception. Which is why screenwriters across the industry rely on pre-writing to succeed in the bumpy process of screenwriting.
The What’s, Who’s, and How’s.
The first thing you need to think of when preparing to write a script is, what the story is going to be about (plot), who it is about (characters) and how the story will be told (genre). Once we’ve defined these key elements, we can start outlining the smaller parts that will, combined, make our script.
In the game of pre-writing, there are several screenwriting terms that you need to know.
Loglines are important. They are widely used in terms of production because they summarize the script. This allows busy people, like producers and executives, to know if the script is something they might be interested in, before they commit to reading it in full. But aside from producers, the logline is very important and useful for you as a writer. It allows you to clarify and always keep in mind what it is that you want your script to be.
A logline is a one-sentence summary of the whole story and therefore it can be intimidating. However, it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. And, believe me, you will need it.
- The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.
The Godfather (1972)
- Set in unoccupied Africa during the early days of World War II: An American expatriate meets a former lover with unforeseen complications.
- The capo of a New Jersey syndicate goes to a psychiatrist to deal with the changing nature of his business, a wife who no longer trusts him, kids who are growing up, and his murderous extended family.
The Sopranos (1942)*
A logline should tell us who the main character is, what does he want, and why can’t he get it.
The most famous and used of the screenwriting terms. You’ve heard about this one before, probably many times. A synopsis is a summary of your story and varies in length and content according to its objective. Producers, executives, directors and judges will most likely want a long synopsis. Basically, the people that will need to know the story completely, including the ending. This kind of synopsis is usually about a page long.
For pitching and telling the story when unsolicited, you’ll need a short synopsis. This is usually half a page and may or may not include the ending. Again, this depends on who you’re showing it to.
Finally, there is the sales/pitching synopsis which is short and concise. It doesn’t include the ending, and leaves some sort of cliffhanger. As the name suggests, these are meant to sell your story. This is the one that you’ll see on the back of the DVD box and VoD platforms.
During the pre-writing process, it’s best to work on a long synopsis so that you have a clear path of where your story is going and how it ends.
The outline or beat sheet
This will be a map of the hidden treasure, or else, the path your script will follow from beginning to end. This is a list of scenes, moments, or beats, in chronological order, that take the story from point A to B to C (and so on). At this point, you don’t need to be very detailed. However, it has to be clear to you why things are happening in this order and how they move the story forward.
There are many ways to create an outline. From bullet points, to complete scene descriptions to actions, it’s solely up to you how you do it.
You might be familiar with the Save the Cat outline – or beat sheet, this is one of the most famous forms of outlines. You can learn more about it here.
As we get closer to writing our script, our pre-writing will become more detailed and so it’s the treatment. Another well-known screenwriting term. The treatment is a longer document. Here, the beats are described in detailed prose. This is still a summary though, so you shouldn’t take more than a page for each scene. It includes descriptions of actions and can have some sparse dialogue. Anyone should be able to understand this document, whether they have screenwriting knowledge or not. Think of it as a guideline for the whole story.
Like the logline, treatments are important to present your project to potential producers, agents, and executives, so that they have a complete idea of your story without having to read the complete script.
Depending on your style and your story’s specific features, the length and information of your treatment will vary. You might focus on character description or the world your script takes place in, this also, is up to you and you will find your own voice as you write and rewrite it.
There’s really no wrong or right as to how long you should spend on pre-writing. What matters is that you feel prepared and comfortable to move into the actual writing of the script, in the right format, and with the proper software. It’s also important not to get overwhelmed with all the screenwriting terms, but rather use them in your favor.
You can always go back to these documents even when you have started the script and make changes from there, without compromising the progress of your screenplay. Also, not all projects require necessarily all of the documents, try them out and stick to whatever works for you.
Happy (PRE) Writing!
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