Your story should feature characters that have a clear opposition and goals, which in turn lead to a series of events and a resolution of some kind. As you are writing your script, you should be reviewing the core story, making sure that it will make for an entertaining read, and one that translates well to the screen. Not every screenplay needs to be punched up with superfluous action or over the top visuals, but most should be fairly lean (about 120 pages or so), and remember to include only things that will be shown on screen.
Your story starts out with everything as status quo. Most screenplays will begin with a day in the life of the central character, and seemingly nothing will be out of the ordinary. Then something occurs to throw the main character’s life out of balance. There are scripts that break convention, but according to “The Screenwriter’s Bible,” by David Trottier, generally speaking, the catalyst should come into the picture at about page 10-15. By then, you’ve established your main character’s basic life and personality.
Take “Into the Night,” written by Ron Koslow, and directed by John Landis, for example. Jeff Goldblum plays Ed Okin, an engineer for an aerospace company. The viewer sees the drudgery of his morning commute, the interminable meetings he has to attend, and the general lack of passion in his marriage. Ed has had insomnia for a while, and after a particularly mundane morning at work, he leaves early to try and go home and get some sleep. He catches his wife cheating on him during the middle of the day, and this triggers him to question his life and later that night (again battling insomnia) he takes a trip to the airport.
The Big Event
This is what changes your character’s life and sets the ball rolling for the rest of the movie, and according to Trottier, it should occur around page 20-30. Remember that the big event doesn’t have to be a devastating earthquake or a shocking murder (depending of course, on the type of script that you’re working on).
In keeping with “Into the Night,” the big event in Ed’s life occurs after he has taken his late night trip to the airport; he witnesses the murder or a man traveling with a beautiful blonde. The blonde escapes the four men who have murdered her traveling partner, and she ends up in Ed’s car and asks him for help.
The pinch comes in the form of a major plot twist; it can be seen as the point of no return for your central character. It requires him or her to make a major decision and sees them fully committed to something that is revealed as the major goal.
Ed has been helping Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer) half- heartedly for the entire night, as she goes from one problem to the next. She is desperately trying to find somewhere to stay, and a way to straighten her life out. As he drops her off at the high rise apartment of a friend, there’s a moment where he could just drive off and return to his regular life. But instead, he goes inside the apartment, only to find its occupants murdered and an English thug named Colin (David Bowie) holding Diana at knifepoint. Instead of leaving her, he went back into check on her and now he is completely committed.
This comes most often as the low point of the movie. Something forces your central character to make a crucial decision, sort of a moment to circle the wagons.
Ed finds out that the reason that Diana’s traveling partner was murdered was for the rare jewels that he was smuggling into the country. The four men who murdered him were from an Iranian death squad; there is a shady French criminal who wants them as well, and Diana hid the jewels in the pocket of a coat of one of her friends, who has been murdered (this is a particularly heightened crisis). Ed and Diana have to find a way to make a deal with the Iranians, escape the dangerous French mastermind Melville (Roger Vadim), and basically try to get out of the situation alive.
Also referred to as the climax, this is what your screenplay has been building up to for the first 100 pages. If there’s very little action in your screenplay, then it can be some sort of emotional bloodletting or catharsis.
Ed and Diana make a deal with the Iranians, and set into a motion a plan so she can get on a plane and leave the country. Of course Melville and his men come to the airport, federal agents get involved, and everybody feels like they’ve been double crossed by everybody else.
Sometime near the showdown, your central character should exhibit growth in some way. It occurs most commonly after the climax, almost like a big emotional sigh. But sometimes it occurs just before or during the showdown, because the big event is looming or happening around them and it causes them (and your audience) to see something.
Throughout the movie, as Ed becomes more attached to Diana, a genuine friendship evolves, and after the climax, he realizes he has deep feelings for her. He also realizes that he cannot go back to the life he was living before, because he is no longer that same person. Both of them have changed. Diana sees that she can rely on somebody other than herself, and Ed is no longer the boring aerospace engineer with the unfaithful wife.
Every screenplay is not going to follow these rules to the exact letter, and not just in a “Pulp Fiction” sort of way. But a screenwriter should be well versed in the elements of developing a story before they go off book. And the story, above everything, will be the thing that will hook a producer or agent into giving your script a chance.
Segments of this article can be found in “The Screenwriter’s Bible” by David Trottier