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How To Write A Screenplay – Theme, Character, Plot

Once you have your concept, there are three core components to writing a screenplay: the theme, the characters, and the plot.

Themes

The theme is the deeper meaning of your script. That inner truth.

For example, Skyfall is not just another James Bond movie. Sure, it involves the usual Bond-hunts-down-villain-and-saves-the-world shenanigans. But that is not what it’s about. Rather, it’s a film about relevance versus irrelevance, usefulness versus uselessness, and tradition versus innovation.

Similarly, The Dark Knight… Yes, Batman plays cat-and-mouse with the Joker. Thematically, however, the film contrasts rules and order with chaos and disorder.

Basically, your main theme will support your entire screenplay. It binds everything together.

It’s possible to choose a theme and then come up with a concept to fit around it. Alternatively, you can take a concept and then work the theme into it. The former is ideal, but the latter is often more realistic. I’ve used both processes – sometimes you just can’t control the route your mind takes.

It is also possible to find your theme during the writing of the screenplay. Possible but difficult. Unfortunately, this is something that frequently occurs when you’re hired for a writing job, where there can be strict deadlines in play. In these situations, you are under pressure to start writing as soon as possible. You need to hit the ground running and don’t get as much development time as you might like. Ironically, from the producer’s point of view, it’s a counterproductive strategy as it extends the writing period on the longer term and usually results in a sub-par script.

Film Theme

Starting to write a screenplay without a chosen theme is like going for a drive in your car without knowing the final destination. You may eventually end up somewhere interesting, but it’s frustrating, inefficient, and you could just as easily wind up in the middle of nowhere.

In other words, if at all possible, avoid the writing stage until you have at least a basic idea of your main theme.

What you can do fairly easily during the writing process is add additional themes. These sub-themes will serve to enrich your screenplay.

Big Little Movies

Now then, have you ever watched some ‘big’ movie and then been left feeling emotionally empty when it ends? Chances are it’s because the movie lacked thematic depth. Just because a film has a massive production budget doesn’t necessarily make it truly big.

These sorts of films remind me of a shaven, pampered bodybuilder with all that fake tan and steroid-induced muscle. Fact is, that guy probably won’t be much use in a real fight – he’ll just pull a deltoid and run away crying.

At the same time, you can watch a ‘small’ movie that packs a huge emotional punch. American Beauty and The Wrestler are both low-budget films that operate on an epic level – and that’s because they have deep and meaningful themes.

That’s not to say only small films have depth. There are plenty of relatively expensive blockbusters out there with strong themes. For instance, from the most recent years and off the top of my head: American Sniper, Captain America: Civil WarDeadpoolDjango UnchainedKingsman: The Secret ServiceLoganRise of the Planet of the ApesThe Revenant, and Toy Story 3. Obviously, this list isn’t complete, but you get the idea.

Characters

Characters support themes. Think of them as theme-carrying vehicles.

In a good screenplay, all the major characters should feed into the main theme. In some instances, a character can even be a literal manifestation of that theme. Think Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Roy Batty in Blade Runner, Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, the Joker in The Dark Knight, Harry Lime in The Third Man, and possibly Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.

Many script guru types claim that a character should always be more than a symbol. To some extent, I agree, but if executed properly, symbolic characters can work very well. As you can see from the iconic characters listed above, that’s particularly true of antagonists.

Still, it’s a method you should avoid for protagonists as it makes them far harder to relate to – and given that it’s the protagonist we’ll be rooting for, relatability is pretty important.

Generally, it’s better if a character carries the theme rather than becomes the theme. In other words, use your theme to shade your characters. It’s the theme that dictates the character’s belief system and drives their actions.

Ideally, every major character should help portray a different aspect of the theme. This will add textural richness to your screenplay and ensure that each character feels unique and fresh.

One of the best examples of this is Unforgiven, where all the major characters serve to embody different aspects of the theme.

A more recent example would be Captain America: Civil War. While Steve Rogers and Tony Stark are essentially on the same side, they feed into the theme from opposing angles, thus creating the story’s conflict.

Character Arcs

You’ll often hear film industry people referring to “character arcs”. This is just jargon for a character’s spiritual or emotional journey during the course of the story. It’s about how that character changes and evolves.

An Officer And A Gentlemen and Kingsman: The Secret Service are both movies where the protagonists learn that being a gentleman isn’t about having the right accent or clothes, but rather it’s about integrity, becoming comfortable with who you are, and living by a moral code.

At the start of Unforgiven, Bill Munny is in self-denial over who he truly is. He’s trying to convince himself that he’s a peaceful farmer rather than the aimless cold-blooded killer of his youth. As the film unfolds, however, he gradually accepts that deep down he is okay with being a killer (it was his late wife – not him – who had a problem with his past). Finally, during the climactic sequence, he returns to being a killer. Yet the killing is no longer aimless. Instead, he now has a worthy motive – avenging the death of his friend, Ned Logan.

In Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films, Peter Parker starts out as a goofy kid who accidentally acquires a superpower. He then goes on to learn that “with great power comes great responsibility”. In understanding this lesson and embracing its ethos, Parker moves away from being the goofy kid and transforms into the bona fide superhero.

So when it comes to creating a major character, and particularly the protagonist, you need to first figure out what part of your theme they represent. You then need to work out their starting point and their end point. The journey between the two, in which they will service the theme, is their arc.

One trick that helps define the arc is to think about your protagonist’s initial appearance within the script. What’s the location, what’s the character’s physical or social status within that location, and what’s their state of mind? This is the first impression the protagonist will make on the reader (the same’s true for antagonists and other major characters). Next visualize the protagonist’s final appearance in the script and how they have changed – both physically and emotionally – from when we first met them. Character Last AppearanceThis is how the reader will remember the protagonist after finishing your screenplay.

A good example here is Tony Montana in Scarface. When we first meet Montana, he’s a penniless Cuban refugee being interrogated in a squalid US immigration holding cell. During this scene, he comes across as alert and rationale. He’s clearly a guy on the make and doesn’t miss a trick. He has an answer for every question. By the end of the movie, however, now filthy rich and living in a Miami mansion, he’s become corrupted by his own ego and the cocaine that pumps through his veins. He no longer has the answers, has lost all sense of rationality, and is dimmed to the world around him – making him oblivious to the final fateful assassin strolling up behind him.

Plot/Story

Finally, we come to plot. Many people use the terms “plot” and “story” interchangeably, and that’s absolutely fine. Personally, for clarity’s sake, I tend to think of the story as the chronological order of events. The plot, meanwhile, is the way the script depicts these events, which may or may not be chronological.

For instance, in Chris Nolan’s Memento, the story involves a man with recurring memory loss being manipulated into killing the wrong people. The plot, however, starts at the end of his tale and then goes backwards, so that the film essentially ends with the beginning of the story.

Anyway, don’t get too hung up on the semantics. I know people who actually define the two in the complete opposite way to what I’ve just described.

Moving on, if you’ve come up with a good theme and the characters to carry that theme, the plot/story should to a large degree write itself. The theme and characters become the plot to some extent. They create their own story. You’re then left with filling in the gaps between the thematic and character-based moments.

Unlike themes and characters, plot is more of a mechanical process.  It is therefore something that you can change and re-imagine throughout the writing phase.

Of course, it’s good to have an idea of the basic plot before you start writing. It makes life easier and speeds up the writing. But often a lot of your initial plot ideas will just be placeholders until a better one comes along. During the writing stage, you should always be striving for better ways to present action set-pieces and story twists. And inserting these improved ideas into the screenplay shouldn’t be too hard.

Coming up with a fascinating concept, wrapping a rich theme around it, creating dynamic characters to carry that theme… These are the genuinely tricky things that will drive your plot. Sometimes you may never find the answers and the project just dies on the vine. It’s happened to me countless times – and that’s absolutely okay.

Plot, by comparison, is relatively easy. The answers may not come immediately, but if you keep at it, they should eventually pop into your head. And if they don’t, that suggests a deeper problem with one of the other core elements of your project.

That’s all for now, folks.  Hope you enjoyed this article. If you have any questions or thoughts, please leave a comment below.

Best, al

18 Comments

  1. This is a very informative and interesting article. Writing a screenplay is much harder than it looks. This will be very helpful for those trying to write a screenplay as well as college students writing for class. You have really explained the parts of a screenplay and why the are important very thoroughly.

  2. There’s just so much more to making movies that most people aren’t aware about (myself included). We just tend to watch a movie and judge it based on how much emotional impact it has made on us.

    Thanks for writing this article on writing a screenplay. At least now, I can better appreciate screenplay writers for their hard work. You have explained the whole writing process in great detail.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Hi Farhan, really glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, it’s a cynical old business. That “emotional impact” that you mention is carefully calculated, not just by the writers, but by the director, producers, and executives. It’s a bit like the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy finally gets to look behind the curtain 😉

  3. Was very interesting to read as I have myself struggled to write stories. Was always so hard trying to fit everything in together, but after reading this I think I will give it another go. Agreed that it is very informative.

  4. This is really cool. I loved writing in school and always been a dream of mine to write and act in my own screen play. But writing a movie is on a whole another level than writing an essay. Its so many components that come into play, so its hard to find a starting point. But you cleared it up for me in detail on what i needed to do to turn my dream into an reality.

    • Hey there, Garrett. Writing a feature-length screenplay is definitely something you can work towards. 

      As for the acting, I too wanted to try that out… And then I did and discovered that I had the dramatic range of a thousand year old dead tree 😉 

      When it comes to screenwriting, maybe start with short scripts that are just a few pages long. You can then film them and release them on YouTube – and naturally, you can be the actor (and the director) if you so choose. These days, thanks to technology, it’s never been easier to get started as an all-round filmmaker.

      Anyway, the most important thing is to live life and to follow your dreams. And if you’re particularly fortunate, you may even get to live your dreams 😉

  5. My sister used to write stories and this blog post might help her come up with a new idea. She’s working on a new story but she can’t seem to find new inspiration. I will recommend your blog to her as I’ve read, this will surely help her find new inspiration 🙂 Thank you for this!

    • Thank you so much, Clark. That’s the main reason I started this site – to help other writers.

      Writer’s block happens to every writer at some stage, so I understand exactly what your sister is going through. The main thing is to not force the issue. It’s a bit like one of those old sailing ships. If there is no wind, they can end up stranded in the middle of the ocean for weeks at a time… But sooner or later, the wind comes and the journey continues!

  6. I thought your article was very informative and very thorough. It really was an eye opener to just how hard writing a screen play really is.
    I am having a hard enough time getting this blog writing down.
    Have you ever written a screen play before? Also are you in the process of writing now.I am very interested in how you got started if you would reply back it would be appreciated.

    • Hi Jody, really glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, to both your questions – I’ve written many screenplays over the years, sometimes for money, sometimes for the sheer love of it.

      As for writing right now, I’ve got one script that is about to go to market and I’ve got another one that I’m very close to finishing off. As a professional writer, it’s important to always have something in the works.

      How did I start… Well, I’ve had a love for films for as long as I can remember. Right back to my childhood. Over the years, I’ve tried my hand at many different disciplines – acting, directing, producing. I even worked as a sound engineer on a few shorts. In the end, however, writing was the thing I enjoyed the most and for which I had a natural talent. Since then, it’s just been a question of learning the craft and developing my skills. It hasn’t been easy by any means, but looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing!

  7. At the moment I write books – fiction – but I’ve been trying with the idea of trying my hand at writing a screenplay. Therefore I’m searching for information on how to do this. I’ve found some material that details the layout required for scripts, but now I want to learn more about how to build characters, plots and stories. I’m glad I found this post and I’ll be bookmarking your websites as a reference source. Cheers.

    • Hey Darren, many thanks. Over the next few months I’ll be adding lots of new content, covering everything from How To Write A Screenplay to what script-writing software to use. 

      Given that you already write fiction, you’re probably well aware of just how satisfying it can be. I would definitely give screenplays a tryout. A screenplay or teleplay involves less physical writing then, say, a novel. The medium, however, can be more challenging in certain respects. This is because you have fewer creative tools at your disposal. For instance, with screenplays it’s very difficult to get inside a character’s head. The character can say and do things, which implies what they’re thinking, but that is all. In prose writing, by comparison, you can give the character an ‘inner voice’. 

      Still, no matter the challenges, I think it’s something worth pursuing. Best of luck!

  8. Interesting read and you mention a lot of films I really like. Out of interest how would these principles apply to series or something ‘longer’ than films?

    I have a huge film collection but I find myself moving into things like Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, etc, .etc more and more I would imagine the principles are similar but more pronounced as the audience’s investment is greater.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts…

    Thanks
    Dan

    • Hey Dan,

      Increasingly, I think there’s less and less difference between features and TV in the sense that both mediums are beginning to converge. Fewer movies are standalone and whenever a project is green-lit, the studios are hoping for a franchise. I mean, there was even a talk of a Gladiator sequel back in the day! 

      So, for instance, what’s the difference between Fast & Furious and a TV show like The Walking Dead? In the case of F&F, you get a 150 minute movie every two years. With The Walking Dead, you get 14 episodes every year. So it’s really just about the sheer amount of content. But both share the same episodic nature.

      Now, to answer your question, I think the same principles for a movie SHOULD apply to a TV show. You’re just working on a wider and deeper scale because you need more content. So more plot, more characters, more themes, etc. In other words, there needs to be strategic thinking irrespective of whether it’s a film franchise or a TV show. 

      I say “should” because in reality a lot of TV shows aren’t planned way ahead. I’m not an expert on TV writing, but I have been involved in developing a few projects. From my experience, during the pitch stage, the vast amount of focus is on the characters. Now characters are very important, but I’m not sure you can develop characters in isolation. In my opinion, development should involve a holistic approach – you develop the characters alongside the themes, plot, and structure. This way all the key elements support one another and resonate properly. If you try to develop characters without any idea of the themes and plot (and often only the bones of a concept), those characters will always be hollow. They’ll have a few bells and whistles (quirky attributes, a cool job, etc.) but they will lack real depth.

      For me, the best TV shows – Breaking Bad, The Shield, etc. – are basically feature films stretched over five seasons (or 50 odd hours). I would probably put Sons of Anarchy and Game of Thrones in this group – except they feel a little too stretched. Both should have probably stuck to five seasons. SoA went on a little too long, while GoT could have probably missed out a couple of the middle seasons. Then you get other shows like Dexter and Lost that start brilliantly, but because the writers hadn’t planned ahead, the shows ended up losing their way. Unfortunately, I suspect Walking Dead may be heading down this route. I loved the early seasons, but more recently it seems to be meandering – again, just my personal opinion.

      Anyway, speaking of meandering, hopefully some of the above answers your question?

      Best, al

  9. Hi Al, I really enjoyed your article! I can honestly say that you definitely know what you are talking about and you did a superb job lining up examples from actual movies to back up your advice! I really loved your Scarface comparison to a character arc! I just watched the ending half of Scarface btw, and I need to watch the whole movie now!

    I have spent my entire teenage hood and adulthood imagining an animated series I would create, but I have never found a way to truly release these ideas. I have dabbled into some animation software, I started at 12, but still have not managed to find a way to get my ideas out into the world due to jobs and other distractions. This article challenges me to find a way to get back to it!

    • Hey Jacob, 

      I’m really glad you enjoyed the article. 

      Yeah, Scarface is a great movie. One of Pacino’s finest moments. Definitely go back and watch the first half if you ever get the chance. That’s when he’s on the rise.

      I know exactly where you’re coming from – life is a series of endless distractions 😉 We all have these big dreams, but keeping focused on them is a HUGE challenge. If it weren’t for my wife and a couple of really dear friends, particularly my literary manager, I would’ve given up long ago. If animation is something you’re passionate about, you should really go for it. I mean, we’ve only got the one life, right?

      All the best, al

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