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Story Is King

Writing a dramatic screenplay is both a challenging and rewarding experience. Aspiring screenwriters may find the writing process intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. A screenplay is simply a story written in a unique format. The screenplay is the only element in a movie that must stand on its own. It’s what lures investors to a project during the financing stage and what attracts audiences when the movie is finally released. Star appeal and great cinematography cannot save a poor story. Planning and writing a screenplay is a step-by-step process:

Step 1: Develop a Dramatic Plot
Step 2: Create Believable Characters
Step 3: Outline the Scenes
Step 4: Write the Scenes

Selecting your story is very personal and depends on the kind of narrative you’re interested in dramatizing. If you’re searching for an idea, there are hundreds of sources: your own personal experiences, anecdotes about friends and acquaintances, historical events, and reports you have read in newspapers and magazines. Sometimes a real-life experience becomes a jumping off point for creating a plot with different twists and outcomes.

Once you have chosen a story idea, you’re ready to begin developing the plot line. The story for your screenplay should be structured into three main stages of action:

The Beginning: Act I
The Middle: Act II
The End: Act III

The beginning (Act I) of the screenplay is comprised of action scenes in which the main character (protagonist) and the antagonist (villain) are introduced. The conflict that pits both characters against each other is then defined. The middle (Act II) of the screenplay is comprised of action scenes that depict an ongoing struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist. The protagonist must do battle with the antagonist again and again and appear to be losing the battle, which creates ongoing conflict and drama. Numerous obstacles should prevent the protagonist from achieving his goal. Those obstacles should include his tragic flaw something he must overcome personally to win the final battle against the antagonist. The end (Act III) of the screenplay is comprised of action scenes that lead to a climax and the resolution of the main conflict. Act III is the final showdown between the protagonist and the antagonist. During this showdown, the protagonist recognizes his tragic flaw and triumphs over it to defeat the antagonist and achieve his goal.

To summarize, the action scenes in a screenplay are structured into three main stages:

Act I: The Conflict
Act II: The Struggle
Act III: The Climax and Resolution

When you note that down that in your paper you’re ready to develop your story and your theme.

Story is how the concept is developed through the use of character and action. The most common pitfall in creating a story is making it one-dimensional. Stories that concentrate too much on action tend to be shallow, while those that concentrate too much on character tends to be dull. The best stories avoid this by developing clearly defined action and realistic, complex characters. Both of these ingredients are essential to a screenplay’s entertainment and thematic value. To achieve this balance, the main character, or protagonist, must be involved in two story lines. One story deals with his/her outer motivation and the other deals with his/her inner motivation. The inner and outer stories are fleshed out through conflict and theme. Let’s take a closer look at these elements:

The outer motivation is about the protagonist’s outward goal or desire. This goal must be tangible and manifests itself in physical action. The action need not be high energy, but it must be clear to the audience. The outer motivation is resolved when the protagonist succeeds or fails at achieving his goal. In Rocky, the outer motivation is Rocky’s desire to win the championship fight. The outer motivation is about physical action, so it provides most of the script’s entertainment value. It moves the story forward by keeping the audience interested in the outcome. Without a strong outer motivation there is little momentum and it results in a boring script.

The outer story is about:

a tangible goal

The inner motivation is about the protagonist’s inner need or character flaw. It is not fully recognized by the protagonist despite the fact that it governs the negative way he treats himself and the people that care about him. The inner motivation can be guilt, ambition or selfishness, to name a few. It is resolved when the protagonist recognizes and overcomes it. The inner motivation usually caused by a traumatic experience in the protagonist’s past. In Sophie’s Choice, Sophie is haunted by guilt after being forced to choose which of her two children must die in a Nazi gas chamber. The inner motivation is ultimately about relationships, so it is how character and theme are explored.

The inner story is about:

a character flaw

The inner motivation gives depth to the story because it explores character and theme. It is, however, slow moving and depends heavily upon the outer motivation to hook the audience with exciting action. For this reason, the outer motivation is called the spine of the script.

Conflict is opposition between characters. When faced with conflict, the protagonist is forced to take action. As the story progresses, each new conflict must become seemingly more insurmountable and provocative than the last. Ultimately, the protagonist must develop a plan of action to succeed. Both the inner and outer stories must contain conflict. The outer story involves conflict with an opponent who prevents the protagonist from achieving his goal. The inner story involves conflict with an ally, such as a love interest or friend, who is trying to help the protagonist. The inner story deals with personal struggle so it gives the protagonist depth and realism.

Conflict can be in the form of a dispute, challenge, deficiency, decision, threat or an obstacle. It creates tension in the audience and curiosity about the outcome. This makes for a quick moving, interesting story. Conflict, therefore, is the single most effective story element for keeping the audience involved. It is the essence of drama!


is the opposition of characters
drives the story forward
keeps the audience interested

Script Formatting

You’re ready to develop your story theme!

Theme is an idea presented in a story, usually about the meaning of life or the human condition. By its nature, theme embodies your opinion about issues dealt with in the screenplay. All great movies explore one or more themes. Theme is developed through the inner story line, which deals with character growth and interpersonal relationships. In a properly structured story, action converges as the protagonist encounters increasing conflict. At the same time, theme expands as the protagonist’s values are revealed and tested. If theme is too obvious it will dominate the story and seem pretentious. It must, therefore, be implicit in the action. Any use of symbols, metaphors and motifs must be woven subtly into the fabric of the story. The least effective way to convey theme is through direct dialogue.


is a statement about life
is developed though the inner story
must be implicit in the action

If you got that you’re ready to develop the Characters. Characters are the heart of your story. Their actions will dramatize the events and breathe life into your story. Before you begin writing the individual scenes in your screenplay, you must understand everything about each character you create:

The Protagonist (Hero)
The Antagonist (Villain)
The Supporting Characters

It’s essential to write a detailed biography of each character in your script. A biography should include the main characteristics that define each character: physical appearance, personal experiences, habits, and relationships. Writing detailed biographies is essential for understanding the physical and psychological motivational forces that define your characters. When you understand your characters, you can create believable dialogue for them.

The protagonist is the main character of the story. As discussed earlier, he is driven by an inner and an outer motivation, resulting a in two distinct but related story lines. The outer motivation is the protagonist’s goal and it is manifested through physical action. It is resolved at the end of the story when the protagonist succeeds or fails at achieving it. In The Searchers, Ethan’s goal is to find his kidnapped niece. A strong outer motivation provides the screenplay’s forward momentum and entertainment value.

The inner motivation is the subconscious need or character flaw of the protagonist. It is often selfishness, pride or guilt, and it causes the protagonist to hurt himself and those who care about him. It exists because of some traumatic event in the protagonist’s past. In Ordinary People, Conrad is haunted by misplaced guilt because of a boat accident that killed his brother. The inner story is resolved when the protagonist realizes and overcomes the need. The inner story adds character depth and thematic power to a story. It is the key to a superior screenplay.

Growth is the process by which the protagonist realizes and overcomes his character flaw. When a character grows, he changes his point of view about life or himself. This change is commonly referred as the character arc. Growth can be conveyed to the audience by a heroic act, a few simple words or even a subtle gesture. For example, in Ghost, Sam was finally able to say “I love you” rather than “ditto.” Sometimes the character can verbally express his growth, as in It’s a Wonderful Life, but this can seem preachy if not handled properly. An effective way for a protagonist to demonstrate growth is by choosing to overcome his flaw rather than achieve his desire.

The antagonist provides the conflict in the outer story by blocking the protagonist from achieving his/her goal. The character must be an active figure in the story. A common mistake is to introduce the opponent and then forget about him for large blocks of the time. For instance in detective stories, where the opponent is revealed later, a mystery must take the place of the opponent until he is revealed. A classic example is Chinatown.

There should be only one opponent. Having more than one will fragment the opposition and, thereby, weaken it. If the opposition must be a group, there should be a clearly defined leader. Classical drama identifies three basic conflicts: man against man, man against nature, and man against himself. The opponent, therefore, can take many forms. The most common opponent is another person. This must be a realistic, three-dimensional character. He/she must be powerful and worthy of the challenge. If the opponent is based on a cliché, it will reduce the protagonist’s credibility. The protagonist, therefore, is only as good as the opponent.

Scripts employ various supporting characters. In addition to moving the story forward, supporting characters are used to achieve the following goals: Define the protagonist, usually through contrasting values. Establish various viewpoints in the story (i.e., in terms of conflict, theme). To create an amazing supporting character that hooked and creates continuous twists to the plot do a list with supporting characters and their roles in the story. If a supporting character performs one or two actions in the story, you can combine the actions of several supporting characters to create one composite character. A composite character is several characters rolled into one to perform the necessary action. Keep in mind that too many supporting characters can make your story confusing and then write a biography for each important supporting character.

Your next step is writing your script. The trip is long. You can start exercise yourself from start writing today. Don’t put it off. If you have reservations about the quality of your work, it’s normal. The quality will come, but you must practice for it to do so. Make it a point to write every day, even if only for a few minutes. Note that you’re not ready yet to write a full screenplay but you take the bases to start!

Screenplay books and Techniques: Writer’s Store

— Bibliography:

Syd Field, The Screenwriter’s Workbook: Exercises and Step-by-Step Instruction for Creating a Successful Screenplay, Dell, 1984

Elaine Radford, Dramatic Screenwriting: A Step-By-Step Guide, The Scriptologist web Magazine 2005

David Trottier, The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Silman-James Press, 2014

© 2016 Emmanuel G. Mavros

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Check the Dates:
May 2022