The first thing you need is a plot, a concept or an idea. For some people, this is easier said than done. A plot is basically a person (the protagonist/good guy) who has a big challenge to overcome. And against all obstacle’s, he/she overcomes it. This plot can happen in different types of movies. There are tons of different types of movie plots. There is the buddy movie, the heist movie, the who done it, the thriller, the romance, the fish out of water, the rite of passage, man vs world, make a wish movie, revenge movie, survival movie, world destruction movie and monster movies to name a few types. Everyone has different types of names for these movies, but you get the idea.
So, what is your character or characters’ challenge? Is an asteroid coming to destroy the earth? Is your character stuck on an Island? Are your characters trying to survive a killer? Was your character wrongly imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit? Are they looking for lost treasure? Look at the premise of any movie. There are lots of options. You don’t want to just copy a movie that’s out there, but can you change the elements of something and make it different? Or add two concepts together and make it new? Romeo and Juliet on a sinking ship is the Titanic movie. You’ve probably heard press reviews of a movie saying this movie is “Blank meets blank” or this movie is “Die Hard on a Plane”.
A good way of approaching making a plot is to start with a “what if?”. Like for the movie Pixels you could say, “What if video game characters came to life, attacked earth and only video game nerds could stop them?” Or “What if there is a superhero who is drunk and unlikable? Can he change for the good?” That would be an example for the movie Hancock.
You can also take something that is universal that we all deal with and change it to something bigger in scope. Or take something common and place it in an uncommon situation. Men in Black does that in the respect that Will Smith is a new recruit at a policing agency. So you have the normal training, and getting in and having to earn the respect that you’d get from being a new recruit. Then, you mix that with the fact that the agency polices intergalactic alien criminals. Is there something in your own life that you could add a twist to that would make an interesting challenge for a character?
There are lots of resources for inspiration. Just brainstorm and write down ideas. I like to have journals that I write down my various ideas in. Once you have some ideas, you’ll need to ask yourself what the end goal of the screenplay is. Some people say you shouldn’t worry about that. You should just write and not worry about that other stuff. I feel that depending on the end goal, it may affect what you write. If you are writing a screenplay for something you’re going to make yourself, you’d write it differently than for a studio.
If you are writing for the hope to pitch to a studio or production company, there a few things to keep in mind. If you know ahead of time the type of company you’ll want to pitch to, see what type of movies they produce. Is it mostly historical dramas? Is it mostly limited location horror movies? It helps to know what type of films they like. You can dissect those films and see what they have in common. When making a script for pitching or selling, you’ll need to make sure it’s formatted right. You’ll also want to leave out any camera directions from your script, so try to stay away from phrases like “Camera zooms into a close up of a watch before panning to her reaction.”
If you are writing for something, you’ll produce yourself on a limited budget. You’ll have more flexibility. You can add camera movements to the script. You’ll also want to simplify the story to have fewer locations and fewer actors. You will probably want less effects too unless you know of a cheap way to produce them ahead of time. That’s why a lot of indie films focus more on the plot twist, surprises, and shock value – because they don’t always have the budget for big effects and multiple locations. Also, indie films have the luxury of doing serious drama low action in a way a big studio can’t.
Now that you have some parameters to think about, you find the plot and story you want to write. You’ve brainstormed ideas. You know what the end goal is (pitching to a studio or self-producing). So now pick the idea that is the most fun for you to work on. Which one will you most likely complete and finish? The biggest challenge of writing a screenplay is finishing it.
If you know the challenge your protagonist will have to your story, figure out what would be the best person to meet that challenge. Sometimes it is better to have a flawed person who doesn’t seem cut out to meet the challenge. This will create more drama, or possibly comedy, depending on how you write it. In Armageddon, the heroes are not astronauts. They are a band of hardened misfits who work on an oil rig. Part of the reason you want an unfit character is that it allows them to grow. Part of the importance of the plot is for the character to have an arc. They should be fragile and broken in the beginning and find some type of peace and resolve or growth by the end.
Now take your character, their flaw, and mix it with the challenge. Now you have something that resembles a logline. The logline is the one or two-sentence statement that describes your whole movie. Loglines are used for pitches, to help with marketing and to help explain the concept to potential crew and actors. The logline could be something like, “A claustrophobic man is buried alive” or “A clumsy introverted teen tries to win the affections of the hottest girl in school.” You can take it one step further and add how the protagonist will solve the problem. For a great look at loglines, check out the “On the Page” Podcast by Pilar Alessandra (www.onthepage.tv). She has a regular longline competition where she reads out and critiques various loglines.