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.”

Understanding the three basic components of script writing not only enhances your storytelling skills but also highlights the benefits of ghostwriting, where a skilled writer can help bring a script to life while maintaining the original vision and emotional impact intended by the creator.

Examples and Case Studies

To better understand these three fundamental components, let's take a look at the screenplay for the movie "Inception." In this film:

  • Character: Dom Cobb, a skilled thief in the art of "extraction."
  • Desire: To return to his family by performing an "inception" on a target.
  • Conflict: Various obstacles, including the complexities of the human mind and a formidable adversary.

By examining "Inception," we can see how these three components come together to create a compelling narrative.

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.”

Practical Tips and Exercises

To get started on your own screenplay, try the following exercises:

  1. Character Sketch: Write a one-page description of your main character. This exercise helps you understand your character's motivations, background, and personality, making it easier to write a compelling story.
  2. Conflict Identification: List three major obstacles your character will face. Identifying these conflicts early on will help you create a more structured and engaging narrative.
  3. Dialogue Exercise: Write a one-page dialogue scene that reveals your character's desire. This exercise will help you practice writing natural dialogue that serves the story and reveals character motivations.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

New screenwriters often make the mistake of:

  1. Overwriting: Keep your script concise. Every line should serve a purpose. Overwriting can make your script cumbersome and difficult for readers and potential producers to engage with.
  2. Ignoring Structure: A well-structured script is easier to follow and more engaging. Lack of structure can result in a confusing narrative that fails to hold the audience's attention.
  3. Poor Dialogue: Dialogue should be natural and serve the story, not just fill space. Poorly written dialogue can distract from the story and make characters feel inauthentic.

Additional Components to Consider

While the three basic components are crucial, also consider:

  1. Dialogue: How characters speak can reveal a lot about them. Well-crafted dialogue can add depth to characters and make scenes more engaging.
  2. Pacing: The speed at which your story unfolds can greatly affect engagement. Proper pacing keeps the audience invested in the story from start to finish.
  3. Structure: Consider the three-act structure as a foundational framework. A well-structured screenplay can make it easier for the audience to follow the story and for producers to visualize the final product.

Conclusion and Summary

In summary, scriptwriting is an art that requires understanding its three basic components: character, desire, and conflict. By focusing on these elements and avoiding common pitfalls, you can hire a speech writer to write a screenplay that resonates with audiences.

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