Thursday, May 5, 2011

How to Make a Movie: Story, Part II

'Kay-so, yesterday's post was that a good story needs:

An interesting character who comes up against a series of obstacles until they win.

I should mention that the obstacles should get harder and harder. Maybe that's obvious, but I've seen people forget.

So, let's assume you've got a character, and a general idea of what your story is. Are you ready to write?

I'd say no.

Here's why:

Writing a screenplay takes time. I know people who do it in a week, or two weeks, or a month (and I know one guy who wrote one in a day, which is crazy) but generally, it's going to take some time to write 110 or 120 pages of script.

I tell my students that they need SOME kind of outline. That bit is pretty firm. You might be able to write a movie, start to finish, without one, but you'll probably stumble a lot more often, and cut more stuff, and if you get to the end you'll have to do a lot more editing.

Plus, if you get to the middle, and you don't know what comes next... then you're out of luck. Because it's your story, my friend. If you don't know what comes next, who can bail you out?

So, okay, you need an outline. What kind of outline?

That part, I leave to you.

A lot of folks use note cards. They write down a line or two that describes a scene, and they put it on the floor, and then they add another card, and put it on the floor, and then they keep moving cards around, adding some to fill in gaps, pulling some out, etc.

That works for some people.

Some folks write a synopsis type thing, where they type out the whole story in 10-12 pages. Usually, this is called a treatment, and sometimes Hollywood asks for them. But when you're nobody, they usually just want your script.

As for myself, I generally do some version of a treatment. But what I teach my students is how to make a beat sheet.

Lew Hunter uses the term "Two-Minute Movie" to describe a beat sheet. It is, essentially, every scene in your movie in one or two lines of text. Lew thinks that the write-up shouldn't be more than two pages, because ANYONE will read two pages if you stick it in front of them.

Then they can ask questions, or say it's good, or bad, or offer up suggestions.

Once your beat sheet, or synopsis, or whatever you want to make is done, it's just a matter of writing up what happens in a more complete fashion.

It's like a grocery list, in a sense. You look at what you've written, put it into screenplay format, and once one scene is done, you go on to the next.

And if you get stuck in the middle of the story, or realize halfway through writing your beat sheet that the movie idea is a stupid one, you can abandon it without having done quite so much work.

After this lecture, I give my students a copy of a beat sheet I put together from "Finding Nemo." Why? Because I had to watch the movie two-dozen times with my toddler. So I knew it pretty well. And most of them had seen the movie.

Is it two pages? At normal font type, it edges into three, but I generally shrink it down, because why waste paper? But this should give you a general idea of what one looks like.

Remember to watch for the rising action, the escalating challenges, and the character of Marlin - who goes from being an overprotective parent (which makes sense) to a dude who learns to calm down a little and stop being such a jerk to people:

Finding Nemo

Meet Marlin and his family.

Marlin’s entire family is killed – except for one egg. Nemo.

Marlin takes Nemo to school, demonstrating that he’s a smothering parent.

Nemo leaves with his school. Marlin follows.

Marlin makes Nemo angry because he says Nemo is “not being safe.” Nemo swims away and touches a boat against Marlin’s wishes.

Nemo is taken by the people on the boat.

Marlin pursues to boat, but it gets away from him.

Marlin meets Dory. Dory tries to take Marlin to the boat, but she has a memory problem and can’t remember which way the boat is going.

Marlin and Dory run into the sharks.

Dory and Marlin participate the shark meeting – Dory gets a bloody nose, and the sharks come after them. Marlin also finds and grabs the goggles that belonged to the person who took Nemo.

While trying to escape the sharks, the fish run into a bunch of land mines, and just barely escape with their lives.

Nemo wakes up in a fish tank, and learns to trust his new friends.

Marlin and Dory examine the diver goggles. Marlin can’t read. Dory can. Also, they’re being pursued by a fish with a light on its head. The only way to read the goggles is with the light, but the fish wants to eat them.

They manage to read the address on the goggles and escape the fish.

Nemo joins the brotherhood of the fish tank by swimming through the ring of fire.

Dory and Marlin don’t know where Sydney is. They ask a passing school of fish, but they don’t like Marlin. Dory intervenes, and they get directions.

Dory and Marlin swim through the jellyfish, because Marlin doesn’t trust Dory about not swimming through the trench.

Nemo attempts to clog the tank filter, and nearly gets killed. It looks like there’s no way for him to escape.

Marlin and Dory ride the East Australian current with the turtles. Marlin tells the turtles the story of everything that has happened to far. The story spreads far and wide.

Nemo learns that his dad is coming to get him. He decides to clog the filter.

Marlin and Dory attempt to find Sydney, but have to ask for directions. A whale swallows them.

The dentists decides to clean the tank. Escape is imminent.

The whale drops Dory and Marlin off in Sydney.

Everyone in the tank wakes up and discovers the tank is clean. Nemo gets scooped out.

Marlin and Dory are almost swallowed by one bird, but they fight back, landing on a dock. They are about to be eaten by seagulls, but another pelican, who knows where Nemo is, rescues Dory and Marlin.

Darla comes, and the dentist gets ready to give Nemo to her. Nemo plays dead, assuming he’s going to get flushed down the toilet (all water leads to the ocean). Marlin arrives, just as Nemo is about to be tossed in the trash.

Marlin is thrown out of the dentist’s office.

Nemo is dropped, but he manages to make it down a drain thanks to some help from his tank friends.

Marlin and Dory separate, and Marlin heads home.

Dory and Nemo run into each other in the ocean. At first, Dory doesn’t know who Nemo is. Then she remembers when she sees the word Sydney.

Nemo and Dory attempt to find Marlin. Dory has to threaten a crab with death by seagull to get directions.

Nemo and Dory find Marlin. Dory is immediately captured in a fishing net.

Nemo swims into the fishing net and tells all the fish to swim down. The fish do, the net breaks, and everyone is free! It looks like Nemo might be injured – but he’s all right.

Everyone heads home. (The movie is effectively over.)

Nemo goes back to school, and the movie revisits several of the characters we met along the way (the sharks, the turtles).

All the members of the tank also escape.


  1. Love the post! It is a VERY common thing for people to try to write a story or screen play, and have absolutely no idea what the heck they are doing. great insight!

  2. Thanks so much! Next week, I should be posting on screenplay format...