Just as football has offense and defense, running and passing, screenwriting has: material, three-act structure, actions, and dialogue.
If you're competent at all of them and can keep your eye on all of them at once, you're basically doing pretty well.
If you're great at one of them, you will probably ignore your deficiencies in the other areas. Everyone's seen these scripts that have wonderful dialogue but no structure and no actions: nothing happens and you don't know where the thing is headed. This is because the writer was so fond of his own dialogue that he ignored the rest.
Most people who try to screenwrite aren't even competent at one of them. And if you don't use all of them, you can't be competent.
Material. This is the stuff of life that you know about and bring to the story world.
Woody Allen's material is being a neurotic New York Jewish intellectual. He brings that material to the future (Sleeper), the Russian Revolution (Love and Death), and even to Spain (Vicki Christina Barcelona).
Kevin Smith has his material: suburban white guys who love comic books.
Martial arts films may be about Chinese cops or about medieval monks who eat tofu, wear robes, battle evil spirits, etc.
In novels, Phillip Roth has his characteristic material--as Eugene O'Neill did with sailoring and drinking and whoring.
You can provide your own examples.
The great downfall of most sci-fi is that there is no real material. We don't know what the future is like, and most writers' inventive powers are not strong enough to produce the grit and feel of a whole other world. Even the Star Wars franchise simply lifts and transposes Western bars and farm life and medieval swordsmanship into "a galaxy far, far away."
The material is not your story: it's the stuff your story is made from. Look how many stories Woody Allen gets from his same material.
You must be able to take your material and stretch it across some structure in order to write a movie. It's from inside your material that your actions germinate. They took root in the worlds you know and grow organically, using all the material you have at hand.
To use a different metaphor, the material is like soil and water which will nourish your script-plant.
These are the basic tent-poles across which your material is stretched.
There are many books and web pages on three-act structure. It's impossible to say Who Is Right. And it doesn't much matter how you understand it: it's just gotta work.
For my money, three-act structure is:
- a normal universe with latent unsolvable problems,
- an adventure that promises to solve the problems but actually brings more new problems,
- and then a New Normal--which has its own problems but is somehow acceptable.
(If the ending is: the protagonist gets everything and loses nothing, that's a fantasy. I find realism's more interesting: in realism's choices are hard, there are no perfect solutions, everyone loses something, and you don't always get what you want.)
The close of the adventure and the return to a new normalcy must be richly emotionally satisfying.
- The journalists returning to their daily chores while Kane's secrets burn and lie forgotten within the vault/crypt of his earthy possessions is to me richly striking (Citizen Kane).
- Joe Gillis getting his comeuppance for trying to cheat a crazy old woman, and the old woman herself getting a fantasy of love and acceptance: to me that is both satisfying and perverse (Sunset Boulevard).
- Guido makes peace with all his wives and lovers and all the specters of his past that haunt him--even though he's not in the least a better person (8 1/2).
Also for me, this is where the first Star Wars falls down: just getting a medal and a fancy new white Judo outfit and everyone thinking you're cool is strikingly un-rich for me. But then I'm not an adventure fanboy.
So you need some kind of beginning-middle-end that is the frame for your story.
Actions. This is the bulk of your work. Your story must unfold primarily in actions. Dialogue is secondary. Go watch a silent movie and see how little is down through words. Likewise for your own work: you should be able to write your story as a silent movie which the audience can 75% understand simply by watching it.
Try it. Pop in your favorite DVD and turn off the sound. Look at the tremendous number of things you can figure out just be watching. (In addition, watch any George Cukor movie and you'll notice the tremendous number of thoughts and feelings you can read through the body language! That, kids, is directing.)
The basic skill here is using actions in a plastic way. You must be able to stretch or shrink actions, to combine any two or more actions, and to use one action to suggest something else.
Take: a wedding or a divorce, a party or a funeral, going to work, getting drunk, eating too much, exercising. A good screenwriter can write any of these at any length--and combined with anything else: falling in love, losing one's mind, discovering happiness, anything.
Inflection is a key skill here. One action is inflected when it is bent or shaped to reveal something other than itself.
- A woman gets ready for work. She is nervous.
A bad screenwriter writes that as a stage direction or dialogue direction: nervously.
A good screenwriter inflects the actions. She asks herself "How does a nervous person get ready for work"?
Do we need to know what she's nervous about? Not really. It's interesting simply seeing someone mess up a relatively simple task. It provokes curiosity.
Dialogue. This is actually very distinct from the other three. Beginners think screenplays are "just dialogue." This is completely wrong. If you have no three-act structure or actions, your dialogue isn't doing anything: it isn't doing any work or serving any purpose.
The best dialogue does not directly point to the actions or the three-act structure--or does so only minimally.
One of the key tricks of dialogue is attitude. Attitude is a kind of space between a person and an experience. Attitude is how the person feels, thinks about or perceives the experience. And it comes out nicely in dialogue.
A competent screenwriter gives the actors dialogue which lets the actors express their attitudes towards what's happening. The character loves or hates what's happening. And it's not even that the dialogue states as much. It's more that the dialogue lets the actor take an attitude that will make the scene interesting.
A competent screenwriter can write a date at a restaurant in which one person hates the food and the restaurant but loves the other person, and the other person is the opposite--hates the person but loves the food and the restaurant. Ideally, none of this would be stated directly--as with "This restaurant is awful" or "Gee but you're beautiful."
If you can't do that, just go home: you can't bet, you can't play--you're not even at the table.
If you can operate on these four levels competently and seamlessly, you are bound to keep an audience interested. And that is job one for the writer.
--Edward R. O'Neill