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Take One - Turning Ideas into Scripts

At the close of Part one, I left you all pondering ideas for your next (first?) fiction film.

I can now imagine some of you holding a cold compress to the forehead and popping a couple of Paracetamols in the mouth. Never fear, I have a few more suggestions before we continue with stage two.

In the past, my film making closely followed the calendar year, roughly divided into four unequal sections.

  1. January to March. Ideas
  2. April and May. Turning the ideas into scripts
  3. June to September. Filming
  4. October to December. Editing, Soundtrack compilation and Premiere show

Using this system, following Christmas and New Year celebrations, I knew that I had three months or so to come up with the ideas. This was all based around the presumption that most movies would be shot during the warmer and sunnier (?) summer months.

This is in fact less so now as more actors have become available to us and movie production has increased. Several projects have primarily used interior locations and therefore the time of year is less important. However, the first part of the year is still the time when most new ideas come to the fore.

This ideas process seems to work largely by itself. Perhaps this is because I have now trained my subconscious to do it semi-automatically. Somehow inspiration can strike at any time without me actually thinking about it.

I have never found it to work, sitting at a typewriter or computer keyboard or with a pen and paper in hand, staring at a blank screen or page. On the couple of occasions that I have tried it this way, it has been a dismal failure.

Of course, different methods will work for different people, but my system is to wait for an idea to strike and then to work on it in my head until it is about 80% “written”. Then and only then, do I sit at the computer to actually write the script, to flesh out the plot, add the dialogue and all the fine detail until it is completed.

As suggested in Part one, what we are looking for at this stage is the germ of an idea. Perhaps a single line of story, or a brief synopsis, which will be developed into our final working script. Anything can be used to begin this process if you have imagination.

Why not try to write a page of one-line stories? Before you reach for the cold cloth again, lets look at a few suggestions.

“A man has a dispute with his neighbour”. "A woman has her purse stolen”. “A child goes missing”. “The girl is being followed by a stranger”. “The car breaks down on a lonely country road”. As discussed previously, this is all we need to begin our film.

As an example, I will now explain how “the car breaks down…” idea was developed several years ago into one of our well-known thrillers, Demons.


All along the development route, we need to ask ourselves questions. These will be similar to those asked by the audience as they watch the finished film.

Starting from the basic premise, we need to ask the who, what, when, where and why questions which will expand the single line idea into our story.

Taking “the car breaks down” idea as my starting point, the first thing I needed to answer was: who is in the car?

Although this series will try to maintain a logical sequence from writing the script until the final edit of the finished film, sometimes we will have to look ahead to another stage further down the line. In this case it is important here to mention the actors.

In working out the plot for Demons, I also had to keep in mind, who was going to be available to play the parts in the film.

Back in 1996, we had perhaps a half dozen possible actors who would be interested in taking a role and this had to be considered when working on my story.

Assuming that your group like ours, does not have unlimited actors available, then plot development should progress bearing in mind who is suitable, willing and able to appear on screen. Suitable being far more important than available!

In most cases, all the leading roles in our films are cast in my head as the script is being written. We have never held auditions. Most of our new actors come from amateur theatre and therefore their work is known to me prior to asking them to play the part. This is simply a method which I have always found to work for me.

I also find it much easier to write a part with an actors face in my eye and voice in my ear, as I sit at the keyboard. Comedy roles especially are written for a specific actor including their own manner and style of speaking.

Undoubtedly, the method of developing and writing a script are many and varied and will all be equally valid. Perhaps you would prefer to write down your ideas and worry about how to cast it at a later stage. A perfectly feasible method to use. Also you may find a writing partnership useful or even to work in a team. Whatever system you think will work the best.

However, for me, the writing and editing stages of film-making, are lone pursuits which ideally should be undertaken in a quiet environment with few interruptions.

Ideas from the cast and crew can be suggested at a later stage and if appropriate incorporated into the film at the time of shooting, though to be honest, in practice this is rarely done for reasons which will be discussed in a later issue.

So it was that writing Demons I had to bear in mind the actors who would be available and also take into account the fact that the cars' occupants were ultimately going to find themselves in ever increasing danger, I quickly decided that Carol (my wife) and Yvonne Crann (P4 regular) would be the lead characters. The two girls would be our “heroes”.

More questions

In developing your plot, you should ask yourself all the other questions which will help to tell you what is going to happen in the story. In the case of Demons it had to be: Where were the “girls” going? Why does the car break down? What happens afterwards?

The breakdown would come at about the halfway point in the film, so my first tasks were to build the story from the middle, back to the beginning.

Where were they going?

Several ideas were considered. To work, maybe, or visiting a sick friend? There were many possibilities, but ultimately as long as the reason was believable, it was fairly irrelevant to the plot. Call me sexist if you like, but If two women were setting out together on a journey, I decided that the most obvious and simple explanation was that they were going on a shopping trip!

Likewise, the reason for the breakdown is equally unimportant and is merely a plot device. It does, however, need to be explained.

I would advise simplicity at all times when you reach this stage in the plotting of your film, as you don't want to clutter the narrative with unnecessary details. In addition, as most amateur films have short running times, brevity should be the watchword. It would though be useful to bear in mind the trap of using cliches to give us that important short cut as someone (usually a competition judge) will pick you up on it when the film is completed.

My solution in this instance was to use a tyre which is punctured by broken glass in the road. (I also added a reference to the damaged spare tyre too!)

There were then two major stumbling blocks which held up the completion of my script for some time.

The first problem was to explain why, on a (presumably) familiar route on (probably) main roads, the pair would become hopelessly lost when their car breaks down.

The second was to give a logical reason for the two to split up when they are left stranded in an obviously lonely place.

Typically, a potentially good idea will come to such a grinding halt as it is almost completed, at just the point when you think everything is going so well. This is one reason why I often “hold” partly formed stories in my head for weeks, months or even years, until the solution comes to me.

My advice at this juncture, is not to despair. In almost all cases if you periodically return to the idea and think it through, there will be a solution to hand. If an answer is not forthcoming, then the idea was probably a poor one anyway!

After what I suppose was a few weeks, both answers were eventually resolved.

Answer 1 was “a traffic jam”. The girls are on the return journey when they get stuck in heavy traffic. The radio announcer reports a major hold up with long tail- backs and they turn off the road on to country lanes to avoid long delays. (Something which I have done myself on several occasions.) This explained how they would become lost.

Answer 2 proved to be more tricky. Once again taking my cue from real life, my explanation was to include Carols' regular problem of finding comfortable shoes. In the finished film, we open as she searches in the wardrobe for a pair of shoes. In her next scene, she tells her husband (played by me doing my “Hitchcock” guest star piece only with dialogue), that she is going shopping for new shoes due to her sore feet. Thus, at the point of the car break-down, when the pair realise that they must get some help, it is logical that Carol should stay with the car and rest her blistered feet and Yvonne should set off to walk and find a phone.

The hairs on the neck moment

The “hairs on the neck moment” comes when suddenly all the pieces seem to fit, like the last piece being placed in the jigsaw. All the weeks and months of turning an idea over in your head are at an end when at last everything falls into place. All the little neck hairs bristle as you realise that at last, you have a fully rounded script.

The story felt logical and built nicely to the point in the middle where my idea had started. From here, the last stage was to resolve the situation. Tension was built in the two parallel threads of the story as we followed both Carol and Yvonne separately. Two other characters were introduced (played by other regulars Phillip Crann and Steve Trowell) and a flashback tells us of a murder on the moor. There was also a red Herring (not a real one of course) and a couple of those satisfying shock/ jump moments. The finished film came in at around 12 minutes, which is a good length.

A rough guide to calculate running time is to allow about one and a half minutes per single side of A4 paper. This of course depends on type size/ spacing and how much description you use. A single line may say: “There is a chase…” which would entail perhaps five minutes of screen time or long descriptions of a scene which may only be a single shot.

In our case as I am often the writer as well as cameraman and editor, one script with fairly minimal descriptions of camera angles/ position or actor movements is all that is needed. If you are in a group where these key positions are undertaken by different people, then obviously much more written information will be required on your scripts.

As most of the details are held in my head, the script will concentrate more on story, dialogue and general guides such as Ext (exterior) Int (interior) Day/ Night/ Evening,
which will benefit the actors as they rehearse.

Professionals (and some amateurs) will use storyboards. These are sketches or layouts which depict each scene and shot. They are obviously a good idea, but for the record, they are not something that I normally use.

In conclusion to part two, I would like to add that it is always a good idea, when time permits, to put the script away for a week and forget about it. After this, if you re-read it you will see it with fresh eyes and will therefore stand a better chance of spotting flaws or areas where it can be improved.

In Part three we will be finding locations, planning the shoot and contacting the actors.

In other words: Pre-production.

- By Ken Wilson (first published in FVM)

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Page updated on 11 October 2011
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