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The 5 Immutable Laws of Screenwriting

Picture it...

A guest article by Danielle Davis

Hollywood 2005. A young, struggling writer has just completed a 120-page screenplay. The writer submits it to an agent. The agent loves it, thinks it's the greatest piece of movie fiction since "Gone With the Wind." Excited, the agent sends it to a producer. The producer reads it and is equally riveted. The agent negotiates a deal between the writer and the producer. Result, the writer gets paid a handsome amount, the agent gets commission, the producer gets a blockbuster movie and everyone lives happily every after! So how can this Cinderella story happen to you?

Follow the 5 immutable laws of screenwriting:

Brainstorm Your Screenplay

Brainstorming is the art of generating ideas. Both professional and amateur screenwriters use brainstorming techniques to produce fresh, new ideas. These ideas can be for a complete script or for a particular scene or sequence. A brainstorming session can be a solo event or group activity if you have a writing partner or team. It can be conducted simply with pen and paper or more elaborately with brainstorming software. The latter can literally spawn thousands of ideas in a matter of minutes.

Here's an example of a simple brainstorming session you might conduct on paper or with a
computer software program:

You want to write a science fiction movie. Write or type the words "science fiction". Let's say "science fiction" triggers the words: robot, monster, outer space, heavenly bodies. You decide to write a screenplay about a "monster" from outer space. Now you need to decide on the type of monster. Repeating the previous step, you generate several possibilities including: gremlin, giant squid and giant insect. You pick "giant squid".  So far your story is about a giant squid from outer space. Next you brainstorm where the giant squid lands on Earth. Trigger words could be: a river, ocean, lake or an above-ground swimming pool. You like the idea of an "above-ground swimming pool". Your science fiction screenplay is about a giant squid from outer space that lands in an above-ground swimming pool. Get the idea? Feel free to finish the story, I'd love to see it on the silver screen!

Outline Your Screenplay

An outline presents a picture of the main plot points of your screenplay. It's a way to organize the ideas you developed in your brainstorming session. You get to describe the major events and character interactions of the story. A screenplay may be written without an outline, but the story may not be cohesive. Outlining helps you visualize how the main story and subplot will play out on the big screen. It will also help you see the holes, strengths and weaknesses. Again, screenplay outlining can be a simple pen and paper process or created in a computer program.

Sample outline of our giant squid story:


A large, slimy tentacle surfaces from below the water and hangs on the side of pool. Moments later another tentacle surfaces and latches onto the pool, then another, and another until the weight of the tentacles crushes the side. Water gushes onto the lawn.


A young woman stands at the sink washing dishes. There is an open window in front of her. The sound of the pool wall collapsing and rushing water catches her attention. She leans over the sink to get a better view of the backyard. She runs to the back door.


The woman steps onto the patio into calf-deep pool water. She walks slowly through the water toward the crushed pool wall. Suddenly, a large tentacle wraps itself around her ankle. The woman looks down and screams for help.

Story Development

Story development is essentially structure. It's how your screenplay builds from beginning to middle to end. Let's look at each. The beginning provides the audience with basic information or exposition. It reveals the who, what, when, where, why and how. Using the giant squid story as an example, the beginning must show audiences where this creature came from, why it landed in a backyard pool, how it landed on earth in the first place and so on. The middle of the screenplay is the confrontation stage. This is where our giant squid encounters problems and obstacles. Finally, we move to the ending. How is the story resolved? What happens to the giant squid? Does it get destroyed? Return to outer space? Find its soul mate in the Pacific Ocean?

Character Development

Every screenwriter dreams of creating memorable characters but not every screenwriter is willing to do the work to develop such characters. As creator, you must challenge yourself to look beyond name, age and occupation. You must go deeper and ask, "What are my characters' wants?", "What are their needs?", "What are their motivations?" The answers will produce unforgettable, three-dimensional characters. And yes, even our giant squid can be more engaging if we understand its wants, needs and motivations. Remember E.T.?

Format Your Screenplay

A completed screenplay must adhere to industry standards. If it does not, your script will be flagged as "amateurish" and may not get read. Screenplay format is relatively simple and can be accomplished in one of three ways. First, you can purchase a book on formatting and then set your word processing software according to it directives. Next, you can buy a formatting add-on program for your existing word processing software. Lastly, you can buy a stand-alone formatting program like the popular Movie Magic Screenwriter or Final Draft. Whichever method you choose, be sure the final product meets the standard. You don't want to give anyone an excuse to overlook your script.

Generally, a feature length screenplay is between 100 and 120 pages, uses single spacing for scene descriptions, between the character's name and dialogue and within the dialogue itself. Double spacing is used between the scene location and description, between the description and character's name, and between speeches of different characters. For exact tab and margin settings, consult any of the resources above.

The five immutable laws of screenwriting will help you write a screenplay. If you skip any one of the steps, you risk writing a script that may not get produced. Take your time. Explore each step to its fullest extent. If it takes you a day, week, or month to brainstorm an idea, so be it. Stock up on the tools you need to get the job done a screenwriting software program or book or ream of paper and a box pens. Be patient. Write everyday.


Danielle Davis is the creator of http://www.screenwritertools.com and
is currently writing an historical suspense drama. Follow her progress at



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