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The 3 Basic Components of Script Writing

Danny Rubin, writer of the Groundhog Day screenplay, is now teaching a screenwriting class at Harvard, and he shared some of his most fundamental lessons on how to write a script with Harvard Magazine:

WRITING A SCREENPLAY “isn’t that hard,” says Danny Rubin, Briggs-Copeland lecturer on English. “It’s only impossible.” In other words, turning out a 120-page script—the standard length for a two-hour feature film, computed at one page per screen minute—isn’t an especially difficult challenge, but writing “one that actually works, that reaches the audience, comes alive, engages us emotionally” certainly is.

Danny told the magazine the three essential components of any screenplay:

Movie storytelling, he explains, boils down to “three basic things: who is your character, what do they want, and why can’t they have it?” Suspense helps drive the narrative, and its most basic form is: “How does this story turn out?” Suspense can also energize a scene, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats: “You have to expect something to happen, and then it doesn’t.” Expectation alone can do it: an Alfred Hitchcock scene might show two people conversing, and then reveal a bomb beneath the table. “Now that conversation becomes filled with dramatic energy,” Rubin explains. To keep the audience hooked, “You ask a question and then don’t answer it. Keep that ball up in the air as long as possible. Once you answer the question, the dramatic energy is over.”

He also emphasized the importance of writing a script visually, not literally:

Perhaps the most fundamental tool is writing in a visual, not literary, mode. “One of the things I have to train out of prose writers is the idea that it’s about the language,” he says. “The script uses a visual language: that means scenes where people aredoing things, not saying things.” A novelist can describe the inner experience of a character in great detail—think Henry James—but that doesn’t exploit the power of film, which tells its stories in pictures, with a strong assist from sound. “We get a lot more information that way than we realize,” Rubin explains. “In the first 10 minutes of ET, for example, there isn’t a single line of dialogue. You don’t want characterstelling the story. Free up the dialogue to do more interesting things, like crack a joke or establish a character.”

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