Story Distiller’s functions are based upon a number of rules or principles commonly held in the movie business. Remember that, in general, these rules have been established after years of careful examination and analysis of successful movies – not through the arbitrary setting of regulations by some higher authority.
Having said that, screenwriting is a creative process and, as such, these rules are there to be broken. Just ask yourself if your reason for wanting to break the rule is stronger than the reason the rule exists in the first place.
This page is offered as assistance to those new to screenwriting or to Story Distiller and under the understanding that, for the experienced screenwriter, much of what follows may seem obvious, old hat, in conflict with your own theories or all the above. Nonetheless, the following is offered in a spirit of helpfulness. Please keep an open mind.
Here are some screenwriting rules. You’ll find these themes cropping up again and again. If you’ve studied screenwriting or read the most popular books on the subject, much of this will be familiar to you.
A screenplay is story with (usually) three acts that serve to provide (generally) a beginning, middle and end. In fact, in Hollywood, it’s common to find a number of specific “plot points” are expected to occur at given moments in time (ie: on given pages) – you may see the number five mentioned a lot. In Story Distiller, our job is to, additionally, help you fill in the space between the broader five and so we give you fields for 11. Each field has a tool tip to give you some background and suggestions of what the plot point may consist of.
Don’t get too hung up on the potential for these to become formulaic. The decisions are there for you to make and besides, one of the fundamentals of Story Distiller is to write arcs for every character story and arc, every relationship story and arc, every plot and subplot. Once you’ve written 11 story beats for each thread in your story, you’ll see it’s practically impossible for all the “page 30” plot points to actually take place on page 30. Relax. Once they’re all Distilled into scenes you will probably find that “page 30” for one character arc is also “page 75” for another and “page 15” for a subplot. This is the purpose of the Timeline page.
A screenplay should tell the most important story in your main character’s life. It sounds strange to say this but many common screenplay problems can actually be traced to the author having written the wrong story. If there is a more important story your character has lived through, or will experience in the future, you should seriously consider writing that story instead.
The ending of the story should directly involve the main character. It should happen to them and should come about as a direct consequence of their decisions. If you find that’s not happening, one of two things may be at the root of the problem. One, you might be writing the wrong story (see above – perhaps whomever the ending focuses on could actually be your main character, hiding in plain sight) or two, you’re so invested in your main character that you’re too afraid to hurt them. If so, it might be time to toughen up.
You’ll find two fields on the character page entitled “Wants” and “Worsts”. Really think about these. If your answers to these two questions are, respectively, “To get rich” and “To die”, you need to try harder. If you can come up with something really thoughtful here and nail your story to those answers, you should be well on your way. For instance: The story should see the main character seeking their most important “want”. The ending should (generally) follow one of four patterns.
The happy ending. Your main character gets what they want and it makes them happy. Just because this seems such a formulaic ending (OK, it kinda is) doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong for your story, particularly if you can make it a big enough surprise or makes us care enough. If we’re invested enough in your main character, a happy ending might just be the only way to go.
The unhappy ending. The hero fails to achieve that one thing that would make them happy and this makes them unhappy – depressed or suicidal even. Although, at first blush, this may seem more original and less formulaic or predictable than a happy ending, similarly, its success may depend how well you disguise its approach. If the whole film is a “downer”, your audience may have become numb and ceased caring before the end is reached. Compare the movies “1984” and “Brazil”.
The ironic happy ending. Your protagonist fails to reach that goal they seek but realise, at the end, that they’re much better off without it. Hopefully, that revelation is informed by the experiences they gain throughout the passage of your story.
The ironic unhappy ending. Your protagonist gets exactly what they were seeking and realise, too late, that it was the worst decision they ever made. Once again, the wisdom needed to come to such a conclusion should be gained by experiences forced upon them by your story.
Of course, these are rules to be broken. Many fantastic movies have failed to resolve at all and many have set no such goal for the protagonist. The decision is always yours.
Which brings us to the importance of challenging your protagonist. You need to put your main character through the wringer. If they don’t suffer, you’re not trying hard enough. Remember that “worst”? Make it happen… And then save them, if that’s your truth. If they fear the death of a loved one, then kill that child or lover or, at least, they (and your audience) should at some stage totally believe that it has happened.
Although it’s common for a protagonist to be opposed and challenged by an antagonist, don’t be afraid to assign that role to a thing, a place or even the protagonist themselves. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.
On that note, characters based on real people usually work the best. We’ve all rolled our eyes as the hero tries to escape the aliens by running into the cornfield but, if their reason for doing something so obviously stupid is relatable enough to us, we’ll buy it. If we’re invested in the character, even more so. You will find a field in the Characters Page entitled “Like someone I know”. Try not to choose a character from another movie – this is where friends and family can come in handy without ever knowing. (You can always change the name later…)
Remember that your main character needs a character flaw to overcome in order to reach the ending. Without it, your film might only run for 10 minutes. Perfect humans make for boring stories. They might turn out to be a wonderful, rounded human being by the end but, in the beginning, they really need to be stunted in some way or other. Just make their shortcoming relatable. This is of great importance. You have to walk the line between a character who is too perfect and one who is so flawed we are unable to feel for them. If we love the character and all they face at the end is to lose in love, we will cry for them. If we don’t like them, when the gangster has a gun to their head, we’ll just say, “Oh, shoot him already so we can all go home”. Character development is never wasted.
The art of film making could be described as painting with time. How long it takes for something to happen can often be as important as what actually happens. Convention states that a page of a screenplay should represent a minute of screen time. Although many dispute this, consider it neither formula nor a rule to be broken. Fail to observe this convention at your peril. Every person in the chain after you (hint: that’s everybody) will almost certainly work to this with the expectation that you have adhered to it. Ignore it and you will pay the price. For instance, if you take a half a page to describe a beautiful sunset, expect 30 seconds of sunset in the movie. If the scene drags, it’s your fault. If what you actually visualise is a quick shot of the sun setting behind the waves, you need to describe it in a single line or less.
Remember, your screenplay is quite likely the one chance you have to communicate your vision to maybe hundreds of people you will never meet. Don’t leave it to luck and don’t rely on being given another opportunity for no other reason than it seems too hard.
Story Distiller gives you tools to set your page budget. It’s critical that you apply yourself to the task. Open the Scene Timing tool, close your eyes and imagine the scene playing on the big screen. Do it again and again.
You may find, once you’re in the thick of writing your draft, that your page budgets become a little fuzzy. Don’t sweat it. If you’ve put the time in to set the targets in Story Distiller and are mindful when you write, at least you know you’ll be in the ballpark.
A screenplay should tell the story in actions and words, as if you’re in the front row and relating the story to somebody as it plays out on the screen. If someone on screen thinks, feels or believes something or if something has happened in the past, or will happen in the future, you have to ask yourself how the audience could possibly know this. If a character has just come from the bar, how do we know this? Perhaps they’re staggering or fumbling with their keys. If they’re angry, what’s their “tell”?
Your job is to reveal the truth – across not just the story but in micro moments as well – but disguise your exposition. The adage goes, “if a scene is about what it’s about, take it out”. But you can make your scenes about something else and this is partly the role of scene beats. Each action and reaction should tell us something we may not have known, as well as triggering an action or reaction from another character. When you’re feeling lost about what a scene might comprise, think in terms of the truth.
Once you have that, the detail, the mis en scene, will reveal itself.
Careful not to commit yourself too early. Remember Murphy’s Law – “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong”. If you have a great idea for a shot or a location or a line, save it to a Nursery note until you have the truth its job will be to reveal. If you lead with those ideas you run the risk of losing them later on and that would be a shame.
If you get stuck, try to “play against type”. Who is your character? What would we normally expect from them? What happens if they do exactly the opposite?
Story energy – the level of drama in a dramatic piece, how funny a comedy – should build from beginning to end. If your first act is too exciting, your audience may find themselves checking their phones in the second act. You can’t make every scene more exciting than every other scene so steadily building intensity towards the end should be your goal. This may require the defusing of early scenes as much as finding more drama, action or laughs in later scenes. Keep your powder dry. Don’t shoot ’till you see the whites of its eyes.
And, finally, a tip on writing the strongest first draft from your Story Distiller output. Remember, Story Distiller has given you a script where every scene is mapped out in beats, each with a page budget to aim for.
At the end of each day’s writing, print out that day’s pages.
After dinner, sit down with a red pen and go through those pages. Correct spelling and grammar and rethink dialogue and action.
Begin your day by making the changes you’d made in red the previous evening. Redrafting in blocks of 10 pages (or however many you write in a day) and while they’re fresh in your mind makes the task more manageable.
By the time you’ve finished redrafting yesterday’s pages, you’ll find you’re already in the zone and today’s pages will flow more easily.
Writing this way, a 100 page screenplay at ten pages per day will take 11 days and require, perhaps, a “typo run” to finish it off. Knowing that you had the structure nailed before you typed “FADE IN” should give you enormous confidence in the strength of that first draft.