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Three Approaches to
Developing Your Screenplay
by Gina Vanname

Before you sit down to write a screenplay you need to come up with a story. What's the best approach? There's no right approach, but there are ways to make your life easier as you create your story.

Let's look at three ways to approach the creation of a story:

  • Stream of Consciousness
  • Analytical Approach
  • Methodical Approach

Stream of Consciousness

This is when you have an idea that is not fully developed. It may be a logline, a premise, or a few scenes and you plunge into the script, writing one scene after the other in a stream of consciousness. It's almost like automatic typing, channeling, whatever comes into your head you write it. Full force like a steamroller.

Benefits to this approach

  • You get to write the actual screenplay without having to form the full story. No need to work out plot points or cultivate the characters' personalities. You just write the script.
  • This approach doesn't take much pondering time. Spontaneous writing is fun and easy.
  • You activate your right brain when using this approach. Some of the things you write will pleasantly surprise you. Some dialogue the characters say will also surprise you.
  • Once you finish your script you will have a better idea about what you really want to write about. A story and a theme emerge.
  • This approach will trigger a lot of other great ideas. Jot them down and continue.

Problems with this approach

  • Since your screenplay will be a stream of words, the description and the dialogue would need to be heavily edited. No words should extraneous. Anything in the description that doesn't move the story forward needs to be cut. Any dialogue that doesn't reveal character or move the story forward needs to be cut. And it will be a lot.
  • Most of the dialogue will probably sound like ranting or babbling. After finishing you will know your characters better and the dialogue can be sharpened.
  • There will be no suspense. The author's foreshadowing creates suspense and that takes forethought.
  • Your story structure may be weak or non-existent. The plot may only be regurgitated movies you've already seen.
  • It may be hard to rewrite. Your story may be all over the place--knowing where to how to approach your next rewrite becomes vague.
  • It becomes harder to cut out scenes you love. Writers try to jam in past written scenes that have no relevance in the new draft. You have to be ruthless otherwise your script will not flow.
  • This approach could take longer to get the script where you want. The story will be missing a lot of elements and you might want to trash the entire draft. If anything is salvageable maybe you can create your next draft around the most fascinating sequence.

Using this approach

This approach is good for writers without much patience and who have been brewing a story in their head for a long time.

As you pour out the words onto the page keep your character's objectives in mind. Ask your characters how they would react and what would they do in this situation. It's a good idea-even though you're streaming-to know roughly what the ending will be. This gives you a direction to write towards. Read the script, find the story and work out the plot points before rewriting. Otherwise, you will only be rearranging a weak plot.

Analytical Approach

This is where you develop every detail about your story before proceeding to write the script. This approach goes hand-in-hand with the popular screenwriting books by Robert McKee, Syd Field, John Truby and Chris Vogler. The plot is worked out in intricate detail. Maybe index cards are used or a 40-page outline written. You don't write a single scene until you have every inch of the story developed.

Below is the formula from Field's book:

Pinch I
Pinch II
| |
| |
Theme of action
Theme of action
Plot Point I
Plot point II
The Set-up


This approach is great for learning the craft, but once you have learned what a plot point feels like you need to move on as writer and write organically and instinctually. You can always come back to the formula if you get stuck.

Benefits to this approach

  • You know where the story's going so you can write a tight script in two-three weeks.
  • There will be fewer rewrites. You have already edited and thought through the whole thing without writing a single page.
  • You will have all the story elements incorporated: inciting incident, hook, act breaks, twists, mid-point, climax, resolution, ghosts, desires, goals, theme and premise, etc.
  • You can focus on the scene. Since all elements are worked out, you can actually concentrate on writing strong description, dialogue and perhaps the subtext in the first draft.

Problems with this approach

  • During the creation, you can get anxious to write the screenplay. It may take a month to 6 months to log every detail of your story.
  • The script may seem contrived or mechanical. Working this approach tends to turn out a plot-heavy story. It may seem like the characters are forced to do what the writer wants, due to being so restrictive during actual writing.
  • Character development suffers. There may be a great plot, but the characters will most likely be one-dimensional.

Using this approach

Convert all your plot points into the first draft and in the second draft work on developing your characters. Do character biographies. Create backstory for them. This may change your plot slightly or a lot, but if action is not organic to the characters the script's impact will always be weak-no matter how much rewriting.

Use each draft to focus on a particular element. Concentrate on the plot in the first draft and character in the second. The third can be a dialogue and subtext draft and the fourth is really a polish, fine-tuning the description and loose scenes.

Methodical Approach

This approach not only combines the better of the two previous approaches, but also seeds your story from a well-developed premise. Using the formula "A leads to B" you can drive the story organically.

For example: "Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction."

This is the premise for Macbeth. The leading motivation is ruthless ambition. Macbeth is forced into a killing spree powered by his motivation and ultimately dies by the sword. From the beginning to end, the story reaps this premise in every scene. This premise (theme) drives the story forward by intertwining character and plot.

After you form your premise, spend time on your main characters by developing history, traits, fears, and desires-that is physiology, sociology, and psychology, and loosely develop your main plots points. Write each scene/sequence from the essence of your premise.

Benefits to this approach

  • You only need to loosely develop the main plot points-inciting incident, first, second and third act breaks, mid-point, climax and resolution. The plot will become more refined as you write from character and premise.
  • Your first draft ends up being well rounded. You will still need a rewrite, but it will be more integrated.
  • The scene and sequences will be less contrived. Who your characters are and how they would react based on their own life history will build an organic story.
  • The script is more fun to write. Since your plot points aren't rigid, as you write your characters will take you on a journey.

Problems with this approach

  • If you are a plot-heavy or an impatient writer you may experience problems with this approach. It does take effort to develop unique characters and you will spend a lot of time on this.
  • You may have to write more than one biography on one character. As you write the script your characters traits and history must change if you reorganize the plot. Everything is cause and effect and must be fluid. You can't jam a square peg into a round hole.

Using this approach

If given the effort to this approach, by far, it will take you to a better screenplay. As with the analytical approach you can write each draft specifically; first draft for story/ character, second for dialogue and subtext and third a polish.


Too many screenplays are written without regard to character or premise. These elements are ingredients for a great screenplay and must not be ignored. As a screenwriter you want to move your audience and involve your reader. The premise engages a theme (what your story is really about) and well-developed characters with strong motivations are easily understood. The methodical approach integrates these elements well and if used can save the writer a lot of headaches that comes with rewriting.


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