1.2. Script writing

A phrase that you’ll hear many times in the world of film making is: “It’s all about the story.” - and it is. An audience will forgive shaky camera work or poor sound quality if the story is gripping but if the story is poor then no amount of special effects or fancy filming will make your film a success. Thankfully, there’s a simple formula that we often use as the basis fo story telling - one that goes back to the ancient Greeks. It’s the ‘three act structure’ and it is just as valid for modern film as was for the comedies and tragedies of Greek drama.

The three act structure

The three act structure works as follows: the first act establishes the status quo of the protagonist. The second act disrupts that status quo, giving the story its essential conflict. The final act establishes a new status quo where a balance has, once more, been achieved but where life has changed, in some way, for the protagonist.

The first thing to do, therefore, is to come up with an idea that follows this basic principle. Ask yourself these questions:

1. Who is my main protagonist?
2. How do I establish their status quo in the first act?
3. What conflict arises to disrupt that status quo?
4. How do I resolve that conflict and establish a new status quo?

Treatment, synopsis and pitch

Unless you are going to press ‘record’ on the camera and then stand in front of it acting out a ‘one-person’ film, you are going to need to convince other people to get involved in your production. For this reason, and to ensure that the story is clear in your own mind, you need a pitch, synopsis and treatment.


There was a successful company in the USA who found that they were wasting too much time on meetings with sales people from other companies. They were located in the upper levels of a skyscraper and it took a minute for the elevator to make the journey from the ground floor to their offices. They adopted a policy that became known as the ‘elevator pitch’. They would meet the salesperson on the ground floor in the elevator and ride up with them. If the salesperson could not convince them that they had something worth listening to by the time the elevator reached the office level then the salesperson didn’t get to step out of the elevator and was sent back down. They reasoned that if the idea was good enough and the salesperson had a clear idea of how it could benefit their company then they should be able to communicate that in a minute. The same applies to your film. You need to come up with a one or two sentence summary of what your film is about. For the purposes of this curriculum I’ll be using my short film “Whatever Turns You On” (when asked for a password type “dlq”) which qualified for the Oscars © in 2010 and won a number of awards around the world. My pitch for ‘Whatever Turns You On’ was:

The smooth running of a large electronics store is disrupted when a homeless man enters to make a purchase in this comic but poignant story of our need to belong. The pitch gives potential audiences an idea of what the film is about but does not give away the ending.


The synopsis is a longer version of the pitch - perhaps a paragraph or two rather than a sentence or two - and dif fers mainly in that it tells the complete story, including the ending. Potential funders and production companies can get hundreds of scripts across their desks in a week so they will first read the synopsis to see if they like the idea enough to read more.


This is a ‘short story’ version of your film. It is written in narrative form and outlines what will be shown onscreen as if an imaginary viewer were describing it as it unfolds. This can range from a few paragraphs for a short film to perhaps 15-20 pages for a feature film. If a funder or production company has already liked the synopsis this will be the next step for them. The treatment also lets you plan out your story before writing the script.

The script

Scripts are formatted in a particular way  and this format should be adhered to when you are writing your script. For an example, see Appendix 1a. You can use a standard word-processing package such as Microsoft Word or the free equivalent available from www.openoffice.org. Otherwise there are several scriptwriting packages available. A popular one is Final Drabut a decent free screenwriting package is available at www.celtx.com.

Remember these key points when you are writing your script:

1. One page of properly formatted script equals about one minute of film
2. Ensure that you have the entire film worked out in a treatment before you begin to write the script so that you know exactly where the story is going.
3. Read the dialogue you have written out loud to yourself to make sure that it sounds authentic as we often write different to how we speak.
4. Apply the rule: ‘Get in late and get out early’. In other words, don’t waste time with unnecessary preamble and finish you film when the story is finished rather than dragging it on.
5. Think of the parts of the script outside of the dialogue as an instruction manual. Don’t try to be poetic with it and don’t tell the actor/director/camera person/director of photography their job. For example:

“The camera pans slowly over a field of daisies, tossing gently in a light afternoon breeze as John, his mind a raging storm of mixed emotions, comes into view.”

…should be:

“John, looking distressed, walks though a field of daisies.”

When you have completed the first draft of your script it is very useful to have it read so you get an idea of whether or not it works well. Find a different person to read each part and another to read the narrative in between the dialogue. Have someone listen to the reading with you to give you unbiased feedback. Try to ensure that this person will be honest with you. My mother, for example, tends to praise anything I write – no matter how terrible – so she would not the best choice!


Written Assignment
1. Write the pitch, synopsis, treatment and script for your chosen project ensuring that you use the correct format for the script.