by Tom Lazarus
I've written seven movies that have been made, eight movies of the week and over a hundred hours of network TV. I've taught and been a script consultant for many many years consulting on scripts for writers around the world. Writers I've consulted for and taught have had features and movies of the week made, won screenwriting contests and have thrived under my tutelage. My training is non-academic. I learned my craft in the trenches and have written everything from features, TV, documentaries, informational films and educational films. I've directed five features, 20 hours of television, ran my own TV series for five years and worked in motion picture marketing for ten years. When I do a consultation, not only do I supply the writer notes, but I work with the writer preparing the rewrite. I draw on my varied background to give notes that are relevant, concise, thoughtful and helpful and have many returns consultations.
Okay...you have an idea for a script....you're excited. You can see it. It's a movie!
Where do you start?
Let me tell you what I do...and it works.
From the moment the idea occurs to me...I start writing things down. I get four lined, legal pads...label one IDEAS, another SCENES, and a third CHARACTER. The fourth is MISCELLANEOUS. Now, I'm ready.
I think about a log line...what's the essence of the script I want to write?
My idea...well, it's something about a boxer...and a referee.
I list those two characters on my CHARACTERS list.
It's about the boxer getting injured in a fight refereed by our other character.
Names? I put the Boxer's name as JOHNNY BRAVO...and the referee's name as SINCLAIR.
My mind is racing...ideas...characters...scenes...so I start adding to the lists.
I never censor my ideas...I let them flow.
I never say 'that's a lousy idea.' It may be lousy, but if I don't censor it and write it down on one of my lists, it may open the door to a great idea. Or, because I've downloaded the idea on to my lists, it has left room for a truly good idea to enter my mind.
So I let myself go...snippets of dialogue "I remember you...no, I don't." ...the image of a mouthpiece being spit out, a groupie who seduces boxers.
The boxer shows signs of brain damage. I put that on my SCENES list with a star. An important scene.
And I flow with ideas...for a day....for two days...for a week...then, inevitably, because the mind instinctively starts finding order out of chaos, the movie starts to coalesce...and I start organizing a SCENE LIST, A CHRONOLOGY OF SCENES. No details...just the conceptual load of the scene. What does the scene do...why is it in the script...what's the information.
I know I have BRAVO GETS INJURED IN RING. SINCLAIR REFS.
That's a scene....
Which one is my main character? I think...Bravo gets brain damage...the referee has a moral issue...does he let the brain damaged fighter fight?
Interesting character dilemma. I decide Sinclair, the referee, is the protagonist.
Another sure scene FIVE YEARS LATER, SINCLAIR TO REF A SECOND BOUT WITH BRAVO – SEES BRAIN DAMAGE. A key scene. Has to come near the end...maybe the end of Act 2...maybe in the middle of Act 3. I put it both places in my scene chronology with a question mark.
Okay, now I'm getting excited. I've got a pretty good idea of what the overall movie is about, so I create a LOG LINE. The LOG LINE is a very valuable screenwriter's tool. The LOG LINE is the essence of the movie idea...one or two sentences that say precisely what the movie is...
TITANIC – A love story on the doomed super liner.
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA – T.E. Lawrence goes to the Middle East and becomes a legend.
2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY – A mission to Jupiter goes wrong and the crew is forced to fight for their lives and their immortality.
CITIZEN KANE – A Reporter tries to find out why Publishing Giant Charles Foster Kane said "Rosebud" right before he died.
The log line for my idea...
A REFEREE REFS A FIGHT WHERE JOHNNY BRAVO GETS A SERIOUS CONCUSSION. FIVE YEARS LATER, THE REF IS TO OFFICIATE AT ANOTHER MATCH WITH BRAVO BUT NOTICES HE'S BRAIN DAMAGED.
Not as concise as the others....but it's a process. I will shape and hone the log line and then, as I write, judge everything against it. I know that the log line is my A story. My spine. The script I want to write. I know I seriously have to question the validity of a scene if it doesn't, in some way, involve or relate to the log line.
Where do I want to start the movie...? I'm not sure so I put PLACE HOLDER... movie starts here....on my list.
Here's the start of the list....
MOVIE STARTS HERE
INTRODUCE SINCLAIR – HOW?
ANOTHER SINCLAIR SCENE.
THE BRAVO – BRAIN INJURY FIGHT SCENE.
Okay, I'm off and running.
And I don't care if it's wrong.
And I don't care if I have to change everything. The idea is don't censor and keep moving forward.
I sprinkle information into my scene list and it's getting longer and longer. Because I'm going to revisit it a billion times, I don't care if it's right or wrong...IT'S A PROCESS.
The story development will continue through scene list, script, shooting and editing...always refining the story, rounding it out, maturing it.
So my scene list is getting long...(by the way, there is no correct number of scenes. Every story has its own scene rhythm)
As my scene list is maturing and to get a better perspective on the information I've amassed, I CODE THE SCENE LIST.
I put a big Ring next to all the boxing scenes.
I put an S next to all the scenes with Sinclair, our main character.
A B next to all the scenes with Bravo in them.
I have a love interest so I put a heart next to those scenes.
And so on.
After a while, I take my scene list...and paste them together - top to bottom - so I have three foot long list of my scenes...coded with letters and shapes and colors...and I'm able to read the movie like musical score. I can see the color rhythms, the letter rhythms, the ebb and flow of the story.
Now that I've lived with the story, re-written the scene list a bunch of times, I'm chomping at the bit...I can't hold back...so I write FADE IN: and start pouring out script pages using my scene list as my jumping off point.
I allow things to change in the writing of the script...it's just like filling in the lines...it's another facet of the process of writing this screenplay. I know that as long as I stay near the spine of the story, as indicated by the Log Line, I can't go very wrong.
And I power forward. Using all that pent-up energy I write pages of script. I crank them out, going forward...if I don't know something or I haven't got it solved, I don't let it stop me – I'll write a temporary solution to the problem and power on.
Finally, I stop. I've five pages or ten or fifteen pages. Whatever...I take a breath...and read them...and start rewriting them.
Then I move forward again...for a batch of pages...take a breath, rewrite them a couple of times, then move forward again.
THE KEY FOR ME IS ORGANIZATION.
BEING ORGANIZED ALLOWS YOU TO BE TOTALLY CREATIVE BECAUSE YOU KNOW YOU'RE ALWAYS CLOSE TO THE CORE OF YOUR SCRIPT.
OTHER THINGS TO THINK ABOUT AT THIS POINT...
RISING ACTION – YOUR STRUCTURAL MOTIF.
YOUR MAIN CHARACTER'S CHARACTER ARC OF PROACTIVITY.
THE LAZARUS RULES OF SCREENWRITING
SHOW DON'T TELL – one of real common issues with screenwriters is having the characters tell the reader what is happening...rather than letting the images show it.
Again, screenwriting is a visual medium.
ONLY WRITE THE MAIN CHARACTER'S STORY – The story you're writing – the 'A' story – is paramount, above all. Your script is the story of the main character. That's the movie. His or her or their journey.
Your main character either has a mission, or is thrown in over his or her head, or falls in love, or robs a bank, or invents a perpetual motion machine, or sees a flying saucer. It is their story.
TELL YOUR STORY THROUGH THE MAIN CHARACTER – The main character is how the reader viewer emotionally accesses your script. The main character is who the reader identifies with, relates to, empathizes with, roots for, cares about. That connection between the main character and the reader/viewer is vital to the success of your screenplay.
The main character and the actor who plays him or her, is one of the main reasons your script will get made or not. Write a great main character and a bankable actor will want to play that role and you have a much better chance of getting your script made.
EVERY SCENE MUST MOVE THE STORY FORWARD – Any scene that doesn't service the 'A' story – the main character's story – doesn't belong in your script.