Turn Your Idea into a Screenplay (Part 1) by L.J. Sedgwick

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LJ Sedgwick

L.J. Sedgwick

You have an idea. It’s nibbling away at the side of your brain begging to be written. But it wants to be written for the screen. It’s a feature film, maybe or a series for TV. How can you tell if it has what it needs to make a good script.

Let’s face it, screenwriting is a tricky medium. Many scripts are started; of those that are finished and rewritten and polished, some are chosen for development. A percentage go on into production. I’m not saying this to deter you but to point out that your idea, your script has to really stand out.

And why shouldn’t it?

But first, how can you tell if it’s worth the effort, that it wouldn’t be better as a book or a stage play?

1. Do you have strong, credible, sympathetic characters?

My experience reading, writing and pitching scripts is that if the characters are strong and compelling this can be enough to incite a face-to-face meeting with a producer who is interested in your writing. Even if that particular script isn’t chosen for further development by the people you are talking to, it should lead to an open invitation to talk about other ideas.

For films, you’re talking a maximum of four to six characters. This is the highest number of characters we can get to know well in the time allowed. For a TV series, you could be talking 6-26, if it’s a returning format but even so, those first four to six will be the crucial and central characters we come to care about.

(And caring can mean hating, so long as there is an emotional response that keeps us hooked.)

2. Is this a story you are passionate about and willing to live with for two years

The best work is often driven by obsession. Ideally you feel this is a story only you can write. Now answer these three questions:

  • Why do you need to tell this story?
  • Why now?
  • What’s your particular angle?

Regarding the old adage of ‘write what you know’, I would alter this to, ‘Write what interests you to know’. Don’t be intimidated by what don’t know. Human nature will drive your story; everything else can be researched or learnt.

However, if it requires research, only write that story if the research interests you, because it can be time-consuming. The tricky thing then can be to make sure you discipline yourself to stop researching and write when the time is right.

Now you have your idea, how do you make sure your story will translate to the screen?

Dramatic narrative

It may sound obvious, but your story must have a dramatic narrative that will keep us turning the pages and, ultimately, watching the screen. The first part of this is that your central character needs a goal. There is something she wants more than anything else. It’s worth noting that she may not realise how badly she wants it at the start of your script, or may even be in pursuit of some other (lesser) goal.

Once she has a goal, you have the dramatic question that will frame your screenplay: Will she succeed or fail?

To make this question interesting, you need to make it difficult for your central character to succeed. Conflict will come from obstacles you create and can place in her path to make it extremely and increasingly difficult for her to succeed in reaching her goal.

Obstacles should come in all sorts of forms – mental, psychological, physical. Their purpose is to keep your central character on her toes and your readers on the edge of their seats.

But note, it’s not enough to simply keep firing obstacles into the path of your central character. You have to create tension by ensuring that the stakes keep rising, that no matter what action she takes, she faces increasing jeopardy and that each obstacle costs her more to overcome.

(c) L.J. Sedgwick

Read Part 2 of this article here.

About Write That Script:

Ever thought you wanted to write a script but weren’t sure where to start? Do you have a story in you that you know would be fantastic on the screen? After working as a screenwriter and teaching screenwriting for over two decades, I have written this book to help you to turn your ideas into screenplays, moving from an examination of what you need in terms of an idea that will work on screen all the way through to first draft. Screenwriting is a tight and demanding medium but it is also one of the most exciting forms in which to write. In Write That Script! I’ve brought together all the theory you need with examples to show you how the theory works – and tons of exercises to stimulate those writing muscles that will see you through to the end. After all, you can’t write your second script until you’ve written your first!

“Lindsay was my first screenwriting teacher way back in 1996 and set me on my way to becoming a professional screenwriter. It is a delight to see all her knowledge, experience and enthusiasm distilled into a book that will add richly to the education of screenwriters everywhere.” – Christian O’Reilly, screenwriter.

Order your copy online here, and also direct from Lindsay via books@lindsayjsedgwick.com. Her website is here and her blog is here.

About the author

Lindsay is an award-winning screenwriter and creator of Punky, recognized as the first mainstream animation series worldwide in which the central character has special needs (Down’s syndrome). Two series later, it is available in over 100 countries with circa 5 million hits on YouTube. Having taught screenwriting throughout Ireland for two decades, she published Ireland’s first comprehensive guide to screenwriting in April 2019, Write That Script. This isre available worldwide from Amazon, but also in bookshops including the IFI, Dublin 2, Hanna’s, Rathmines, Books Upstairs, Dublin 2, the Winding Stairs Bookshop, Dublin 1 and Charlie Byrnes in Galway, along with her novels (Dad’s Red Dress and The Angelica Touch). Her next course on screenwriting will be with the Irish Writer’s Centre, starting February 20th and with Animation Skillnet, date tbc. Www.lindsayjsedgwick.com

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