Screenplay – laying it down (iii)

The first time I redid my kitchen floors I read the instructions on how to lay linoleum tiles and all the measuring of the room and penciling the lines to fit the tiles into just sounded like too much work to me. I thought, hell, I’ll just lay them out. They’re square; it will be fine. As I glued them down, they started to wander a bit. Eventually I had to cut away pieces to make them fit. It probably added a great deal of time and tedium (not to mention a great deal of frustration).

~ ~ ~

I always recommend that my students do plenty of pre-work before they sit down to write their screenplay. This thinking on the page (and out loud) helps to flesh out the story, the structure, the characters, and a lot more. There are quite a few books on screenwriting, and in every one they’ll tell you the same thing. Knowing what you’re writing about, what the key turning points are, and what the players are all about is tantamount to measuring out that kitchen floor before you lay the tiles.

After I chose which story I was going to write, all I could think of was that I didn’t even have a fully-formed idea. It was just an opening scene that had gotten stuck in my head. I didn’t know about the story. I didn’t know exactly what the conflict was, what the dilemma was, if there was a ticking clock, and what my protagonist’s goal was…. so I started my writing exercises using the start lines I’ve posted in previous posts.

After two weeks,  I still wasn’t feeling it. It wasn’t gelling. I couldn’t SEE the story, which is vital to me.

So I decided to get back to basics.

In Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat, he says not to do anything else until you’ve written the “one-line,” otherwise known as your logline. Screenwriters are notoriously nervous about writing loglines. They’d rather have dental surgery. I mean, how can you reduce your entire story to one measly sentence?

The thing is that the root idea of your story should be simple and basic… and strong so that you can build your story from it. It sharpens your story into a clear point… And you’ll know when you get it right, because a big light will go on in your head. BINGO!

So I sat down to do just that. And in a moment of inspiration, a logline emerged, and I knew exactly what my story was about:

The Van Goes

A freespirited woman must choose between her gypsy lifestyle and the son who has grown too old to live with her in their camper van.

As soon as I wrote this down… the heavens opened and the muses poured golden sunshine upon me… I could SEE my characters. The protagonist (the mother) popped almost fully-formed into my head. I knew this woman, and I knew the relationship she had with her son, and I knew that relationship was about to change.

Take a moment during your pre-exercises this week and write down your logline. You may have to do it several times. For me, the key is in the MUST part… what MUST your character do, what choice MUST she make, and what will be the consequences for doing this thing or making this choice.


  1. Chico Mahalo
    Feb 4, 2009

    mm, excellent… we share a similar passion for writing the Great American Screenplay… and you’re right on about the logline… I took a screenwriting course in college… the instructor advised us to read the movie descriptions in TV Guide, the ultimate example of high concept…

    at a glance, looks like you’re doing some compelling work over here and I wish you all the best…

    keep writing…

  2. openchannel
    Feb 4, 2009

    Thanks for stopping by, Chico.

    I can write a fairly compelling logline (and script, for that matter), but I rarely consider my stories “high concept” (in the hollywood sense). I’m more of the indie, Station Agent / Lost in Translation, character-driven kind of writer.

    (and Blake Snyder may cringe at that because he sees a film like Miss Congeniality as more “successful” than a film like Momento because of how much MONEY it made. Personally, I would rather have written Momento.)

  3. Chico Mahalo
    Feb 9, 2009

    hm, success… everyone has their own definition of it… it’s a trap, anyway, trying to define it… for others or for ourselves…

    i’m with you, though… if we’re talking concept, i prefer the Jim Jarmusch / Charlie Kaufman / Woody Allen approach to the screenplay…

  4. openchannel
    Feb 11, 2009

    i luuuuurrrve jarmusch. Dead Man and Ghost Dog are two of my favourite films.

    i agree, i’m not going to live anyone else’s idea of success… living, loving, writing… that’s it to me. 🙂


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