Last week in Part 1, I explored story origins, and the tools you use to shape an idea into a movie plot with a beat sheet. Now I’ll talk about tools, like the step outline, which are used to convince others to read and hopefully, buy your screenplay.
One big difference between screenwriting and literary writing is the way they handle the pitch. While in literary writing, they teach us to do the pitch for our story only when we’re close to having a finished product to sell to an agent or publisher, in screenwriting you write the pitch from the idea, before you ever start writing the actual script. This is because of the difference in the pitch itself, for in literature, your pitch is usually written and submitted in the form of a query, in screenwriting, you must be able to talk about your movie in a brief one line description and in expanded forms that explore more depth and detail, so writing pitches is something we practice a lot. The thing is, often after all the revisions and rewrites, the final product turns out to be something different from what you were pitching. Until I figured out how to write this movie from Bonnie’s perspective, I was just pitching the same movie everybody already knows.
It was during the time I was trying to get my pitch right that the title changed. I had been referring to The Life and Times of Bonnie and Clyde, until I finally figured out that this was really Bonnie’s story, from Bonnie’s perspective. I’d been saying it all along, claiming that was what set my story apart from all the rest, but I hadn’t been doing it. I was still looking at it from the perspective of the two of them as a couple. While I couldn’t change the real life events to fit the formula, I could show different events that gave the story a different perspective, and even a different tone, starting with the title.
In both literary writing and in screenwriting, your pitch is your calling card. It’s your key to the kingdom of either publishing, or production, and it must reach out and grab the reader’s attention and hold it, making them want to know more. They’ll see the pitch first, and it has to tempt them to continue on and read your script or manuscript, and that’s a goal that every writer understands.
A treatment is the outline for your script. It tells everything you want an interested buyer to know about your script. My treatment starts with my logline. A logline is a one to two sentence description of a movie or television series. As a rule, it’s 25 words or less, but it can be presented in longer paragraph form. My logline for The Life and Times of Bonnie Parker is: “The Life and Times of Bonnie Parker is the tragic story of a young woman in the depression era who falls in love with a petty criminal, and is caught up in a whirlwind of lawlessness in their struggle to survive. When theft turns to murder, they’re swept into a life on the road which can only lead to tragedy.”
Character triangles are one thing that actually works in literature a well as in screenwriting. Every character in every story ever written or thought of has a want or desire which motivates them to take action and move the story forward. Likewise, every character has a fear or flaw, which stands in the way of achieving whatever it is that motivates them, and obstacle to achieving their goal, which must be overcome. And, once their flaw has been overcome, a transformation takes place and the character is changed, creating a character arc for your story. At this point we usually learn what it is that the character actually needs, which is usually something different from what the character’s want is, but it’s achievement must be acquired to achieve the completion of the character arc. The need might be a lesson learned, or self-discovery of an aspect of their personality they were unaware of, but it’s always an inner need. As a general rule, the character’s desire is usually an external want, while the need is internal. This applies to storytelling of any type. It works when applied to both literary writing and screenwriting.
My instructor and screenwriting advisor, J.S. Mayank, always has us determine the character triangles for at least two or three of the main characters before we try to write, because he believes that if you have your triangles figured out, the rest will fall into place. Triangles are an area I have a lot of difficulty with for some reason, and I usually make several shots at it before I get it right. My triangle for Bonnie looked like this:
Want: To be with Clyde
Unfortunately, Bonnie never achieves her need.
Also included in your treatment are character bios for at least two or three of the main characters. In storytelling of any kind you must know your characters well. It’s a secret to writing well-rounded characters who readers or viewers can relate to. Characters without background, feel flat and two-dimensional. For my characters, the bios are already written, since they are true life characters, but I still had to write a sketch that tells how I see them.
Then comes the actual treatment, or outline, which tells what happens in your movie beat by beat. I like to write mine like a beat sheet, placing each scene in the beat it should be under. Some beats may have more than one scene, but with the formulaic nature of screenwriting, it’s fairly easy to label each beat once you have all the scenes laid out.
Again, there were a lot of revisions and changes in the rewrite, so my original treatment was different in many ways from how the final product turned out. Some scenes were thrown out and replaced by others, some scenes were just tossed out, and some scenes were added where I felt they were needed. The necessity of a revised treatment once the final screenplay is completed is obvious.
These are the tools of persuasion, or explanation which are used to try to sell a screenplay. Next week in Part 3, I’ll take a look at the research that goes into writing a screenplay. It’s the fun part, so don’t miss it.
Writing for the screen is very different from literary writing, but there are also many similarities. Although my thesis project, The Life and Times of Bonnie Parker, is for the screenwriting emphasis, I obtained the first emphasis for my M.F.A. in Creative Writing in genre fiction, so I tend to make comparisons with my literary experiences naturally. Screenwriting is visual, whereas literature employs the use of all five senses. Screenwriting is also much more formulaic. Where literature tells us we must have a beginning, middle, and end, and we must throw a climax in there somewhere, screenwriting outlines all the beats and tells us approximately where each one should fall within your script. I think you get the idea. What you’re about to read is what goes into the creative process of writing a full length feature screenplay, from a literary perspective.
My thesis project, The Life and Times of Bonnie Parker, is based on the true life story of 1930’s bank robbers, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. It’s not an idea I brilliantly plucked from the idea tree that grows in the backyard of my mind, but rather a different version of a story that’s been told many times before. It is the result of viewing the 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde, with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, as well as numerous documentaries on the couple and their infamous crime spree. From my research, as I compared the many conflicting stories and the different portrayals of this story, it occurred to me, that really, this was a tragic love story, a contemporary Romeo and Juliet, but no one had ever shown that side of it. Their story had always been portrayed with car chases and shoot outs, glamourizing the gangster life, but to me, that wasn’t what Bonnie and Clyde were about. Hence, the idea was born to tell the story of Bonnie and Clyde from Bonnie’s perspective, the story of a young girl caught up in the circumstance of the times, willing to anything for the man she loved, including die for him.
The Beat Sheet
As I mentioned, screenwriting is very formulaic. So, where in literary writing you make an outline before you start writing your novel or book, in screenwriting, you create a beat sheet before you start. The beat sheet outlines each event which propels your story forward, and as I also mentioned each beat is supposed to occur at a certain point within the script.
Now here’s where I had a lot of difficulty, because true life events seldom conform to the formulaic sequence of a screenplay. The story of Bonnie and Clyde was no different. Because of this, and because I still thought of their story as the crime spree they embarked on between 1932 and 1934, the beat sheet I created turned out to be different in many ways from the final script. Once I began looking at things from Bonnie’s perspective, it turned into a very different movie.
In addition to this, a screenwriter must also be able to do a step outline, which chronicles each scene, step by step, very similar to a chapter outline for a literary work. While the beats can be noted in the step outline, this is not the same as the beat sheet.
There’s a lot more that goes into writing a screenplay, but this is how you get started. The beat sheet is a tool for your own use, while the Step Outline is a tool you use to convince a producer or director to buy your screenplay and hopefully, make a movie out of it. Next week, in Part 2 of Making a Screenplay, we’ll talk more about the tools you use to sell your screenplay.