When dealing with independent film, there are a couple things that can happen with a completed screenplay. It can get sold, but the odds against that aren’t that good, or it can get filmed, albeit at lower budget than a big studio would provide. There are advantages to filming a screenplay independently.
1. You have more control of the look of the film, especially if you direct it yourself. You know what it’s supposed to look like, where the actors are supposed to be, how they’re supposed to say their lines, everything.
2. If you know some actors, or people who want to be actors, parts can be written with them in mind and their dialogue is that much easier to write, since you can hear how they’d say it.
3. Finding locations that are free in the area can lead to some interesting scenes.
4. When people find out you’re making a movie, they tend to want to help, whether it’s as an actor, production assistant, grips, they have a cool car you can use, they have some space you can use, they have props you can use. Free stuff is always good.
On the other hand, selling the screenplay has advantages as well:
1. You get paid for it quicker.
2. You will get paid more for it.
3. While it might not get made (some are just bought, but never filmed), you still have a sale under your belt.
4. If it does get made, you will collect royalties forever, as long as people keep buying it on DVD, Blu-Ray or whatever the next type of home media is.
5. A bigger budget from a Hollywood studio.
But we’re here to talk about making it without the big budget or Hollywood studio. It’s important to only write what is available to you that you can use. This is where a Rodriguez List comes in.
A Rodriguez List, according to Wikipedia, is a term coined by Stu Maschwitz and consists of “a list of things you have access to like cool cars, apartments, horses, samurai swords and so on, and then write the screenplay based on that list.” Not everything on the list has to go into the screenplay, but it’s nice to know what is available.
Shorter films are easier to write, but to be considered a “feature length film,” a screenplay has to be a minimum of 80 pages in length, according to the Screen Actors Guild (PDF). Why 80 minutes? A screenplay averages out to about a page a minute. Therefore, 80 pages = 80 minutes. Even though the 80 minutes can also include the credits, it’s better to have an 80 page screenplay.
As for structure, there are two main schools of thought for how a story in a screenplay should be presented: the Three-Act structure and the Five-Act structure.
The Three-Act Structure
Quite simply, Beginning, Middle, End. That’s it. Every story has this set-up, even if it’s written out of order like Quentin Tarentino’s Pulp Fiction. It’s the most basic and easiest to do. It was first noted in Aristotle’s Poetics who put forth, “A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end.”
And it’s not just screenplays that use this. Stories, television shows, comic books, audio dramas, chapters, paragraphs all use the Beginning-Middle-End. An alternative naming of this is Intro-Story-Resolution. It means the same thing, but gives it a bit more description in the names.
The Five-Act Structure
While it is based off the Three-Act Structure, the Five-Act Structure breaks down the pieces a little more to provide a tool in writing. According to Gustav Fretag, author of Die Technik Des Dramas (The Technique of Drama), a definitive study of the Five-Act Structure, the Five Acts are, in order, Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Revelation/Catastrophe. This is the structure I learned way back in high school English class.
The Exposition/Introduction is where the characters and background are established to understand what’s going on. The hero, the villain, the setting and the “why” of the story.
In the Rising Action, the hero must overcome various obstacles to reach for his ultimate goal. This is the longest part of the Five Acts and the main meat of the story, so to speak.
The Climax is the main turning point, according to Gustav Freytag. It’s when the hero changes internally. It’s when the hero stops being acted upon and starts acting upon his circumstances. It’s when the hero becomes proactive in his story. Today this is commonly known as the mid-point.
The Falling Action is where the final resolution happens. The hero fights with the villain and wins, or loses, and everything is resolved. Most people today talking about a movie’s “climax,” the main event that the hero is striving for, is actually in the falling action.
The Denouement is usually short, if it’s there at all and comprises the last scene or two of the film. In the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, the Denouement is the award ceremony at the end. All the conflicts are resolved, or a new question is raised for a sequel. Most modern work doesn’t have denouements because of surprise endings like Lord of the Flies with the arrival of the adults.
Putting a Five-Act structure into a Three-Act structure is normal. The Introduction is the Beginning of the Three-Act; the Rising Action, Climax and most of the Falling Action are the Middle; and the remainder of the Falling Action and the Denouement are the End of the Three-Acts.
Where to break the Falling Action to put into Act Two or Act Three is up to the writer. This isn’t a formula to follow to the letter, but a guideline as to how a story is set up. Once a screenplay is written, it can be analyzed to see if it fits in this structure. This analysis is done more by readers and critics of the work rather than the writer. It is just a tool to be used, but shouldn’t be forced on a screenplay.