Screenwriting Basics by Dakota Fawcett - Part 1: The Idea | Script Revolution

Screenwriting Basics by Dakota Fawcett - Part 1: The Idea

Introduction: 

How do professional screenwriters come up with ideas for a project? What’s their process? How are they able to take a simple thought and develop it into a full-fledged concept? That's exactly what Dakota Fawcett will answer in the following article and YouTube video, which is planned to be the first part of a three-part series. Here he talks about how to create story concepts that will guide you through your first draft, and further drafts to come by building an already existing story from the ground up - CJ

So, you’re a Screenwriter now? That’s great, in fact, it’s awesome. That means that your goal is to take a blank page and fill it with words. After that, you get to take another page and also fill it with words, repeating this process hundreds and hundreds of times for many, many, many months. “But what is it I’m supposed to write on these pages?” I hear you ask. See there’s the issue. Most of the time, you’re not going to have the slightest idea what you should be writing. You have to create an original film, but not completely original, because every story has been done before, so it has to be like something we’ve already seen, but different, because it has to be unique - and so on. It’s a tedious process that takes a lot of time to learn, and even more time to master. But that’s okay, because as long as you have an idea, and you’re motivated to write it, anything can be done, all we need is a spark of inspiration!

Inspiration

Inspiration, in its nature, is evoked spontaneously without any intention of doing so. Getting that initial spark of inspiration will feel like a moment of evocation, serving as transcendence from our everyday life to provide a moment of clarity and awareness to new fresh ideas. This moment of clarity is often vivid, it might feel like a vision of sorts, seeing something that you’ve never seen before (but was most likely already there). To push past all of the divine intervention talk, inspiration is just the interaction between your current knowledge and the experiences you witness from the world. And that’s the key...

Outside of your damp bedroom, beyond that blank draft, there’s a world. A world that’s full of stories and creating more stories every single day. Every conversation, every word spoken, and every person you meet is a part of another story, and those stories are a part of other people's stories. This pattern of stories continues infinitely until the beginning of time, but we often neglect all of this to finish a couple more pages of our scripts. Outside in this world, that is where you’ll find your story, it’ll be the place you find your own unique voice. The things you experience, the memories you make, the music you listen to, the films you enjoy, it’s all part of a big plotline that is your story - your life. Nobody has lived your life, not in the exact way that you have, which is exactly why we’re going to utilize it to find that film idea that’s unique to you.

In an interview with the New York Times, Thomas Harrison, the author of The Silence of The Lambs stated, “I don’t think I’ve ever made up anything. Everything has happened. Nothing’s made up. You don’t have to make anything up in this world.”

The Snowball Method

How we’re going to manipulate your life into a film idea is with a method that I’m going to dub The “Snowball” Method. This process I use involves two very simple steps: Collect and Allocate.

Step One: Collect. We’re going to be collecting as much material as possible from as many sources as we can, because your conscious mind gets very resource-hungry when you’re writing, which is why you need to be sure your unconscious mind is always full of new material to work with. Pull from everything. Your favourite films, your favourite books, read the news, pay attention to the things in your life. Take a look back into your memories, the things you’ve seen, heard, felt. Tap into those feelings, be a man. What we’re doing is overflowing our mind with stimulation, packing it full of fresh memories, something you haven’t felt before, because it’s under these circumstances that we find new ideas that we haven’t thought of before. Take a deep dive into these unexplored sources. Leave no trail unexplored. We’ve got to pick up the snow from the ground before we can make something out of it, and that’s what we’re going to do...

Step Two: Allocate. Now that we've got our hands full, we’ve got to start shaping all of this material into something we could use. This is when we take out a notebook and start writing. Not the film, but everything else that comes to mind. Don’t limit your scattered thoughts to film concepts and scene ideas, write down as much as you can, filling in as many lines as possible. Write down anything that stands out, anything that pops into your head, so we can give all of our scattered thoughts a medium to exist in. We’re not just brainstorming, we’re performing a system format for our mind, dumping all of this information to make room for more. It’s written down now, so you can forget about it and it doesn’t go anywhere.

How many times do you repeat this method? As many times as you like! It makes a habit out of writing down all those bad ideas, so you can move past it and onto better and more interesting ones.

Building the Idea

The Trick of the Brainstorm

The process of writing down all your thoughts onto a page goes beyond a simple brainstorm, you won’t immediately notice the difference you’re making. In order to be seen as a Pro-Screenwriter, you’ll need to be constantly building that portfolio of screenplays, experimenting not just with different stories, but different kinds of stories. Writing down all the thoughts in your head provides the perfect opportunity to view something from a different angle, creating a story you wouldn’t have thought of writing prior. Not every idea is going to be an Oscar-winning idea (that’s obvious), but when you’re in this constant information dump, you continuously allow yourself to be open for more information. More ideas. This means you’re readily available for new concepts the second they appear, never losing a thing and never missing out when that Oscar-winning idea does roll around. Even having the physical paper in your hands, filled with hundreds of ideas, allows you to begin to tear them apart, repurposing them, and dive deeper into them. Now that we’ve dug deep into our minds, we can start searching through all the cluttered ideas to find the pieces of gold that stand out...

Start Writing Premises

When you search through your list of thoughts, circle the ones that stand out to you, because these keywords, these scenes, these feelings, all these scattered thoughts, it’s our job to unscatter them and start building our premise - our story. The exact purpose of the premise is to express the foundational idea of the plot in simple terms. You want to be able to describe the basic details of your entire story in a few sentences, not only for everyone else, but also for you. If you can simplify your story into a few sentences, you’ll save yourself from overcomplicating the plot, and confusing the viewer when it finally reaches the screen. Take your scattered thoughts and start trying to piece them together, see how they fit into a logline. The easiest way to do this is by studying Professional Screenwriters’ existing loglines. See how they’re able to convey their stories, copy they’re basic format, see how it fits your ideas, and start making your very basic premise...

In The Silence of The Lambs... An FBI Agent has to find a killer.

Now that’s basic, skeleton bones perhaps. Clearly, this is still completely unusable, but that doesn’t mean it’s useless, because it’s still something we can build off of. Let’s ask our premise some questions and see what it tells us: What’s the theme of our story, what’s our character’s motivation, who’s our antagonist, what’s at stake?

Start With Character

Here’s what we know for certain. We’ve got an FBI Agent that needs to find a killer. How do we make it more difficult for our character? Let’s take it to some extremes. The character might not be fully-trained, in fact they’re still a trainee, and let’s mess them up a little bit, give them a rough childhood they need to overcome. Let’s do the same thing with the antagonist, taking it to some extremes. Instead of a normal killer, let’s make him a serial killer, completely psychotic, killing women all around him. For the stakes, we know he’s already killing women, but we need to create some sense of urgency to the plot, we need this guy to be caught now and not later. We need a time limit. We already know he’s killing women, maybe he keeps them for a few days before actually ending their lives? Perfect! Even better, if he’s only killing women, let’s make our main character a woman, to add to the danger. After a simple brainstorm, here’s what we now know...

A young, female FBI trainee must track and stop an active serial killer before his latest victim is murdered.

It’s better, but doesn’t it still scream “television movie” to you? How we make this more unique is by utilizing our voice. Ultimately, the meaning of the story is what is going to make it ours. That meaning could be anything for you, because everybody is different. In Ted Tally’s case, the writer of The Silence of The Lambs, it’s how the main character, Clarice Starling overcomes her childhood trauma, and to come full circle, how do people overcome childhood trauma? Therapy. Which is the exact way Clarice, our main character, is able to find our killer - by befriending a Therapist. To take it to more extremes for dramatic tension, let’s also make this Therapist an incarcerated serial killer. This leaves us with...

A young, female FBI trainee must befriend a notorious incarcerated psychopath and use his knowledge to track and stop an active serial killer before his latest victim is murdered.

Which is exactly what the logline for The Silence of The Lambs is!

Polishing the Idea

Beyond the premise, all that’s really left to do is to fine tune some of the details we’ve previously put a minimal amount of work on.

Think About Character

Let’s take a closer look at the characters of our story, especially our main character, the one most of the audience will have their attention on. What we’re not going to do is write an entire biography about them. Anything outside of the main story is unimportant clutter. We have no reason to know what a character’s favourite colour is, or their favourite food, or what they do each Thursday night. Unless it is absolutely vital to the story, we don’t need it written down anywhere. All we really need to know is the answer to three simple questions: What’s their Want, what’s their Need, and what Defines them? These three questions are the root of every character in cinematic history. They all have an external goal they’re working towards, they each have a secret internal goal that’s the cause of their struggles, and they have something unique about them that makes them interesting. From the look of our premise, our main character wants to rescue this kidnapped girl. That’s her external goal, but there’s also something motivating her to do that, there’s something inside that is making her believe that if she were to get what she is wanting, she’ll figure out what she needs. That would be her internal goal. Typically, the internal goal is closely tied to what defines them as a character. As we’ve mentioned previously, Clarice has a rough childhood she’s trying to overcome, this is our internal goal and what makes her unique as a character. Clarice is motivated by her past, she believes if she can save this girl, then she will overcome her childhood trauma. The pieces always fit together.

Think About Conflict

Now that our character is built, we can peel back the layers of conflict that are going to make up our story, because conflict is one of the key elements to make any boring story interesting. Think about it, you’re hanging out with one of your friends and they ask if you want to know some tea that’s been brewing. You’re going to agree, because that tea is gonna be damn interesting, because conflict is damn interesting. Ask yourself, what’s the thing at stake in your story? It could be anything, life, love, an opportunity. What it is that your main character fears to lose the most, should be exactly what’s at stake for them. The thing at stake should affect the character externally and internally, linking back to our character’s Want and Need. The external conflict of the story should challenge our character’s external want, while the internal conflict should challenge their internal need. For example, Clarice is hunting down a killer, while that killer is actively evading capture, challenging her external want. During this, Clarice is faced with struggling with her past, often refusing to face up to it, and holding her back from overcoming it, therefore she cannot achieve her internal need. On top of all of this is an unknown concept called Philosophical Conflict. This specific kind of conflict challenges the worldview and beliefs our characters have in place. It is often challenged by opposing characters that share differing beliefs, forcing the main character to rethink how they view the world. In The Silence of The Lambs, Clarice Starling believes that ignoring her past is what will allow her to move on with her life. Throughout the story, she actively hides from her childhood, she tries to shed her West Virginian accent, she is clearly still bothered by her past, but she acts as though it never happened. Hannibal Lector challenges this by making a deal to exchange information about the killer if Clarice talks about her youth, because he believes the only way to overcome trauma is by facing it. Throughout the course of the film, the only thing that brings her closer to finding the killer is the story of her upbringing. Clarice refused to face her trauma, but facing it is what ultimately brought her what she wanted, needed, and desired. Conflict makes it interesting, Philosophy makes it better.

Think About Emotion

And before we send this idea to the writing room, it’s important to consider one last concept: Tone. Tone is something we need to consider, so as to not differ between multiple tones during the runtime of the film. Let’s consider what it is you’ll be writing, more specifically the genre. Genre itself categorizes stories that share similar elements into a system that makes it easy to identify without digging too far into the story. Basically, an audience should know what to expect without having to actually consume the story. The elements that define genre are story, plot, character, and setting - everything we’ve been discussing. This is good, because it allows us as Screenwriters to be able to determine what it is an audience would be wanting going into a film, so we can provide it during the runtime. In this case, we’re writing a Horror piece, the elements an audience would be expecting would be those such as an exploration into fear, a sense of inevitability. It should frighten, shock, or disgust the viewer, while creating an atmosphere that seems off in a way. These types of expectations allow the Screenwriter to play with the viewer, trick them, subverting their expectations. Although, the writer can only subvert expectations so much before the audience may start to feel cheated and unfulfilled. At the end of the day, a Horror film with no sense of fear isn’t a Horror film at all. Looking at it from a different angle, we can’t rely solely on the fear-factor to make up the entirety of the film. If the sole purpose of the film is to be scary, then it’s really not that scary at all. The audience builds up a tolerance to this sort of thing, eventually the atmosphere becomes dull and boring, the sense of fear seems more distant than it first did, the stakes don’t appear to be really at stake if we keep getting told how scary the film is. Stand in the dark long enough and your eyes adjust to it. What the audience wants is to be taken on an emotional rollercoaster. They want to be scared, yes, but they also want to feel joy, sadness, anger, all of the other emotions on the Emotion Wheel, so let that happen. Have scenes that feel warm and bright, so when the dark comes back, it seems even darker than before. Understand what it is your audience wants, and use it to your advantage to craft your story.

The Final Idea

And with that, we have the basic foundation of The Silence of The Lambs, and the exact formula that could be applied to building any other film concept. Including your own! We’ve all heard that reading other screenplays will improve our own writing, but it’s really when we perform such a precise surgery like this do we really discover the inner-workings. Get surgical with it, craft that foundation, and write that story.

 

 

All the best!

About The Author

R. D. Fawcett's picture
Real name: 

I've been drinking coffee and writing screenplays since I was in my youth. I can't really seem to shake off that addiction. I'm not sure if I want to.Read more

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Comments

Bamutiire Jerry Edmund's picture

A magnificent lecture, Fawcett! I had never realized a premise reflects tremendously a lot as you've demonstrated using that of 'The Silence of the Lambs.'

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