Screenwriter’s Bible

Rob Harding

Active Member
Hi all,

As mentioned, I’m currently studying a Masters in screenwriting. At the moment I’m working through the first of my two ‘Go To’ guidebooks for screenplays, David Trottier's The Screenwriter's Bible.

Would people find it useful for me to share what I’m learning. Less the formatting and selling your scripts maybe, but perhaps the idea generation, structure and character points.

I suspect it will be beneficial on an episode-to-episode basis but likely also season-wide.

Incidentally, as a personally imposed target, I’m using the story of Beren and Luthien to play around with writing some full length screenplays as I work through the book. I’ve found it handy to have a rough story framework so I can concentrate on the lessons I’m learning. I plan to at least right two full length episodes to help me explore both leads. But that’s really for my benefit, not trying to preempt the actual work that will happen here.

In general though, if people want I can share basics from the first several chapters and update as I go if people fancy
 
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Rhiannon

Well-Known Member
Hi all,

As mentioned, I’m currently studying a Masters in screenwriting. At the moment I’m working through the first of my two ‘Go To’ guidebooks for screenplays.

Would people find it useful for me to share what I’m learning. Less the formatting and selling your scripts maybe, but perhaps the idea generation, structure and character points.

I suspect it will be beneficial on an episode-to-episode basis but likely also season-wide.

Incidentally, as a personally imposed target, I’m using the story of Beren and Luthien to play around with writing some full length screenplays as I work through the book. I’ve found it handy to have a rough story framework so I can concentrate on the lessons I’m learning. I plan to at least right two full length episodes to help me explore both leads. But that’s really for my benefit, not trying to preempt the actual work that will happen here.

In general though, if people want I can share basics from the first several chapters and update as I go if people fancy
Yes!! It would be great if you could share screenwriting tips!
 

Rob Harding

Active Member
Following are some key things from the first few chapters of David Trottiers latest edition of The Screenwriter's Bible. There's plenty more I've read but these for far are the basics and some thoughts I've had on using these to adapt Tolkien.

For me what I am finding most useful is to firstly work out who are my main players and then answer the following questions about them, after which you can look at structure. The following lists are foundational and work whether constructing a screenplay for film or episode (though TV show like SilmFilm for example, follow character over multiple episodes, you'd want to look at the structure on both the micro, that is episode level, and on the macro, across the series. You'd want both.

Backstory*: Generally a single incident that shapes their status quo. This could be established in an opening scene/flashback/revealed in dialogue or implied by where we find them. It presents a problem, but not a problem the character is likely to act on without an external force as this is the established status quo. Depending if you are telling a happy ending story or not, this could be reversed as the character is transformed by the end. (Elsa stays within her room, afraid of her power in Frozen/David Dunn's marriage is on the rocks in Unbreakable)
Wound: What pain do they carry and why (Luke Skywalker not knowing his place in the universe, Jessie the Cowgirl being left on the swing in the park)
Flaw: What is their main weakness (Indy's fear of snakes, Woody's insecurity about being Andy's favourite toy)
Emotional Goal: This is something your character wants internally, it may well be at odds with other goals. Whether it is or isn't can add drama, it could be in conflict to your action goal or one could depend on the other (Meg Ryan's Sally wants to find true love, Elastigirl wants to keep her family together)
Action Goal: This is the MacGuffin, the job that needs doing (In Twins, Danny DeVito's character needs $20k, Flick needs to find warriors to fight of the Hopper and his gang)
Need: What problem does the character have that must be overcome (Sally needs to stop looking for perfection, Elastigirl needs to let her family be who they are meant to be, Danny DeVito in Twins needs to overcome his wound of abandonment and stop being cynical. I'm having trouble pinning down Flick's need. I almost said, needs to prove himself, but really that is an emotional goal. He needs to stop lying? That is more an choice he makes that adds tension and drama, but it is not a deep rooted internal need? He needs to be valued, is what it comes down to I think. And therefore, his emotional goal to achieve that value, is to prove himself. He also has the action goal of getting warriors to save the village, and you can see how that plays into his emotional goal of wanting to prove himself. But his wound of being belittled by his colony actually hampers his action and emotional goals as he has not found warriors (because his flaw is that he is basically a screw-up). So has to lie to it in an attempt to satisfy his need. Okay, well, that all leads me on to
How Emotional Goal Impacts Need:
How Action Goal Impacts Need:
How Flaw Impacts Need:
How Flaw Impacts Emotional Goal:
How Flaw Impacts Action Goal:
How Wound Impacts Need:
Strength/Why Do We Like Them:
(Leia is feisty, Joey Tribianni is a wiseguy with a heart of gold)
Who Do They Think They Are: Harry Potter thinks he's an unloved orphan/Andy Dufresne thinks he is an innocent man
Who Are They Actually: Harry Potter is secretly a hero/Andy Dufresne IS an innocent man (sometimes your protagonist can know exactly who they are and proving it to others is part of the goal)
Quirks And Idiosyncrasies:
What Is The Worst Thing That Could Happen To Them:
If this isn't the big event that starts your story, then fear of it should be.


Character established, you then built the narrative structure:
1. *Backstory (technically this is your first piece of structure, but I like to pull it into my character sheet also)
Ants collect grain for grasshoppers
2. Catalyst (this isn't the same as the inciting incident that gets your character out the door, but it is the spark that triggers it. In Sixth Sense, it's the protagonist getting shot. That is not the Big Event. The big event comes next and creates the clear action goal. But the Big Event is generated by the catalyst.
Flick wrecks the crop
3. Big Event (this changes everything and starts your story. It gives your character clear action goals. It could also at the same time set up the emotional goal in the same moment. In Sixth Sense, it's meeting Cole. in Bug's Life, it's the grasshoppers coming and giving their ultimatum. Crucially the character has to choose to rise to meet this, otherwise they are really just passive in events that happen around them. In Wizard of Oz, the Catalyst might be Dorothy running away from home, the Big Event is the house being blown away, but Dorothy rises to the challenge by taking the yellow brick road in the next step, the...
4. Midpoint (point of no return, the stakes are laid out, at least some of the cards are on the table and we know what the direction of the story is. Dorothy needs to follow the yellow brick road to get home. Luke leaves Tattooine. This is where you kick it all off.
5. Crisis (long dark night of the soul, all seems lost. Hero has tried and failed. Maybe caused by your characters choice and tension between goals. Need to weigh up what path they will choose. They may announce it but we may not actually know what they will do until the...
6. Climax (everything comes to ahead. Can goals be achieved. Doesn't need to be action if it's not an action story. It can be a meal around a table, but the stakes have to be big. In Sixth Sense the Climax as Cole admitting to his mom that he sees dead people. His emotional goal is for his mom to not think him a freak. His action goal has been to make the ghosts go away. He has already given up his action goal by making peace with it and speaking to them. Now he has to speak with his mom and risk the bigger emotional goal. The message is that communication is important and saves us
7. Resolution (the character grows or doesn't. Maybe they fall back into the status quo. Maybe the galaxy gives the medal. Maybe they go from being a good young man to a crime boss - doesn't need to be positive growth.

You always want to balance it so points 3-6 are the majority. A one hour screenplay should be 60-75 pages long. There for, Points 1 and 2 = 10/15 pages. 3-6 = 40/45 pages. Point 7 is 10/15. Roughly

You match character and structure and ask how they work together to tell the most dramatic story.

Knowing all this you can then work out the story to tell with this character.


With an adaptation you sort of working backwards; you have the loose framework of the story, so need to work out the character that best fits the story. What kind of person would find the drama they are stuck in hardest (thus creating the most dramatic story?)


And if you want to stop weapons manufacturing and distribution around the world, it doesn’t mean that the character with the most difficult in doing this is some teenager sat at home in the bedroom. Yes, it will be hard for them to achieve that specific action goal, but there is no drama there, no wound or need to overcome or accomplish. A weapons manufacturer who sold a deadly weapon (catalyst – his own doing), that was injured by it (big event) and forced to make a choice to no longer sell them (midpoint) is going to find it very hard when his confidant betrays him and tries to kill him (crisis) but when he rises to the challenge to stop this friend turned for (climax) we root for him as we have seen his character growth which is confirmed as he established his own internal status quo that he will help people with the lessons he has learned (resolution).

The other thing is that it's a visual medium, so all make the abstract visual and the internal external. Really show don't tell. Paint it with images and repeated themes.

Also, it's really good to start with a question. Not a question you will necessarily answer. Something human and relatable. People talk in terms of a message or meaning, but I think if instead of telling the audience what you want them to take away, you can ask an opened ended question and explore it, even if you never settle on a definitive answer.

That's again, true for the season and the episode. Ideally each episode asks the same question as the season
The challenge and joy is that Tolkien doesn't do a whole bunch of character work in this way. So working out motivations and wounds is really enjoyable and a bit of a canvas. We have data. We have facts and we can extrapolate from characters past actions, but he doesn't focus much time on internal motivations in the same way a modern novel might. He does, and it's there, but he is more concerned with creating something epic in scope. He has moments of quiet, but it's not planned out in the way a screenplay would be is what I am saying. So we get to fill in the gaps. We work out not necessarily what is already in the book but what COULD be the most dramatic version of that story for screen.
 
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Rob Harding

Active Member
So just to say, as an exercise to practice applying what I’ve been learning, a wrote a tv pilot for the story of beren and luthien. Planning to do nothing with it as obviously, rights issues! But I wanted to do something purely as an academic test.

After meeting with my supervisor for the first time he gave me some great notes and feedback and I’m actually going to pursue crafting it as a proof of ability to go in a portfolio. Apparently that kind of thing is fine, shows craft of not an actual spec script that can be pursued. So ideally I’m not looking to put out what I’m working on publicly, however, once I’ve worked on it a bit more, I’d be happy to share a more finalized version with anyone interested to discuss the choices I made and notes I received. Not because I think I’m a pro and know better, but because I’m able to talk to a pro who does know better than me lol

Not suggesting this for season 6 in that direction way, but just that if people want to hear the feedback I got from a professional screenwriters (turns out my supervisor was a script doctor for Skyfall) then I’d be happy to talk through it. If folks on the script team want to pm me to hear second hand writing advice I am happy to pass it on via the vehicle of the script I’m drafting.
 
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Rob Harding

Active Member
So based on feedback, I trimmed 20 pages of my script today. That's a third. And it felt great.

So an hour-long TV drama wants a script of 50-60 pages (one page roughly equals a minute of screentime on average).

The biggest note I got was to make sure every scene present the pursuit of a goal and a clear obstacle to achieving that goal.

I have a teaser that is Gorlim being captured and tortured for the whereabouts of Barahir's and the other outlaws. That still exits (but it shortened - generally a scene shouldn't be more than a page was a useful note).

Then I went to a scene that was all about Barahir and Gildor in the Hall of Outcasts ruminating about where he was. It cut with Beren in a forest hunting, while his father spoke about Beren. It then ended with orcs swarming the hall. The following scene was Beren arriving at the hall.

The problem with this was...we don't really meet Beren. We met people talking about him. We didn't get a strong sense of who he is and what drives him from the outset.

So what I am doing is
  • Gorlim captured
  • Sauron gets information from Gorlim by 'invoking' the woman he loves
  • Beren getting information about the attack out of orcs cut with flashbacks to the attack.
Crucially the difference here is that we meet Beren, but get to see the attack (which was itself missing). We don't really get to meet Barahir. He doesn't warrant loads of screentime. He isn't the protagonist. We reveal more from him through small flashbacks as we go on, but I couldn't afford to spend time with him. It slowed down Beren's introduction and muddied his motivations. We need to jump into the story of our hero with both feet. It needed to come right after the stinger. Also, his intro was originally a bit dull. Now it is him and some orcs and that is far more dramatic.

I took queues from the introduction of Bond in Casino Royale and the Mandolorian's intro.

Beren needed a clear goal from the outset. Avenging his father's murder was what Tolkien presented and makes the most sense as a direct action goal. Also in there is an emotional goal of proving himself - he arrived to let to help anyone.

The orc-chief who cut off his father's hand forms a much more substantial role in the script as an active antagonist that Beren must confront in the finale to get back the ring and achieve his goal of vengeance.

To strengthen that antagonism, and the pain of failing his father, in this script it became necessary really for Beren to see those events happen. He arrives in time to see his father killed and his hand cut off. It's more visually dramatic yes, but it also puts right there on the screen, why Beren is doing what he is.

He still arrives late, he isn't there to fight and fall with his brother's in arms, but it is a bit of a veer away from Tolkien to speed events up and make it clearer to the audience.

There are other scenes that I've trimmed as they either replicate themselves or slow down the plot too much. I am working on more at the moment.

It is going well though and I will share more learning as I go along.

Key lessons this time are:
  • Make sure every scene is about a goal and obstacles to that goal
  • Make sure your character has clear motivation. Make sure they also have a 'dog and trumpet. The dog shows they care about something and the trumpet shows a personal trait - things we can connect to and empathise with as a viewer
  • Scenes should be about a page unless they REALLY warrant it. My supervisor pointed out Tarrantino does longer scenes but we can't all be Tarrantino. We discussed whether Tarrantino was still even Tarrantino.

EDIT: Forgot this-

In pro scripts, you never really want more than two lines of text in a script. Three max. But if I can say it in two, I'm trying to make it one.

Of course, that is very much advice for people writing spec scripts and is more about formatting for pitching and may not be as relevant for us in this forum as we aren't attempting to make them pro-quality for pitching. However, in terms of storytelling, it does make you really focus on what you want to say and therefore the writing gets tighter and I personally think, it helps me telling my story better. So in a way, it's a format standard that acts as a storywriting tool
 
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Nicholas Palazzo

Well-Known Member
Scenes should be about a page unless they REALLY warrant it. My supervisor pointed out Tarrantino does longer scenes but we can't all be Tarrantino. We discussed whether Tarrantino was still even Tarrantino.
This confuses me a bit, since the teleplays I've seen typically have scenes longer than this. Unless this is a matter of the format, since screenplays with proper page formatting take more space.
 

Rob Harding

Active Member
It depends what you mean about scene. So I will cut between scenes and use minislugs - which essentially can direct focus around a space

NEAR THE FRIDGE

AT THE TABLE

Each of these minislugs act as a 'scene'. Essentially, you don't want pages of focus in a single space. If you are sitting in one spot, you don't want that to last more than a page. But you don't necessarily need to put 'EXT. KITCHEN - DAY' for each of these. But you can break the rule of moving around scenes by pacing with minislugs.

Apparently most screenplays have 70 scenes per script but that takes breaking things up with minislugs into account.

Of course, flashbacks, montages, series of shots etc all count as individual scenes (though I wouldn't say each shot in a montage is its own scene, even though technically they may all be shots of different locales).

Also, all of this can be put in the camp of guidelines, not rules. As with all things creative. But as I'm not an expert and working on a spec script, I want to work to industry standards as I'm not yet sure enough of rules to know that I am breaking them well. I think there are definitely times to break them, but it's worth knowing I am doing it and making it an active choice.

EDIT: For example, if you look in the Supernatural draft pilot, the only scenes more than a page are ones where Sam and Dean talk at crucial points in the story. Either when they meet, give exposition about the problem or how to solve it. And then when they reflect at the end. They essentially present the story points. But, mostly it's all told through a lot of fast cutting action scenes (maybe more than normal as it is largely an action show). The longer scenes (I think two-three pages max) act as a breathing space between the mounting tension of the story. But from a quick look, scenes of this length only happen when it's the two brothers talking (I think once when they talk with a sheriff about how to solve the action problem of the story). I feel like if you didn’t have those long sections of talking counter-acted by all the quick action, it’d feel plodding. And as a fan of the show, one thing in never feels (episode wise) is plodding. Seasons can be a bit meandering, but every episode is fairly direct. Plus, the moments of the boys talking time to talk pop a whole lot more as they are in such start contrast to all the fighting. Because the relationship between them IS the show in the broadest sense, it warrants longer pages. But if it was just that, it’d be dull

I’m just starting out so not yet sure I have the capacity to make that call to break the rules, as it were

And yes, this is all done in a scriptwriting programme and I'm using standard formatting,.
 
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Nicholas Palazzo

Well-Known Member
It depends what you mean about scene. So I will cut between scenes and use minislugs - which essentially can direct focus around a space

NEAR THE FRIDGE

AT THE TABLE

Each of these minislugs act as a 'scene'. Essentially, you don't want pages of focus in a single space. If you are sitting in one spot, you don't want that to last more than a page. But you don't necessarily need to put 'EXT. KITCHEN - DAY' for each of these. But you can break the rule of moving around scenes by pacing with minislugs.

Apparently most screenplays have 70 scenes per script but that takes breaking things up with minislugs into account.

Of course, flashbacks, montages, series of shots etc all count as individual scenes (though I wouldn't say each shot in a montage is its own scene, even though technically they may all be shots of different locales).

Also, all of this can be put in the camp of guidelines, not rules. As with all things creative. But as I'm not an expert and working on a spec script, I want to work to industry standards as I'm not yet sure enough of rules to know that I am breaking them well. I think there are definitely times to break them, but it's worth knowing I am doing it and making it an active choice.

EDIT: For example, if you look in the Supernatural draft pilot, the only scenes more than a page are ones where Sam and Dean take at crucial points in the story. Either when they meet, give exposition about the problem and how to solve it. But, mostly it's all told through a lot of fast cutting action scenes (maybe more than normal as it is largely action). The longer scenes (I think two-three pages max) act as a breathing space between the mounting tension of the story. But from a quick look, scenes of this length only happen when it's the two brothers talking. Because the relationship between them IS the show in the broadest sense.

And yes, this is all done in a scriptwriting programme and I'm using standard formatting,.
So we are talking about the same thing. My impression in reading scripts for episodes of television that were actually filmed still puts individual scenes at 3-4 minutes, between 2-4 pages of script material. Scenes of 1-2 minutes in length would feel pretty staccato in this kind of story-telling. Could you imagine if Game of Thrones were running 30-60 scenes in each episode?
 

Rob Harding

Active Member
Actually GoT might be a really good frame of reference. In its pilot, which is fairly light on action, it’s longest scene is 7 pages, and is a lot of characters at a banquet. And they are spread out so there’s lots of cutting between and snappy dialogue to keep things moving. There’s about five scenes that are around three pages, one that is four which is a long quiet chat between two kings in the crypt of their wife/sister. So merits that length. As a say, guidelines to be played with when the script necessitates it
 

Nicholas Palazzo

Well-Known Member
Actually GoT might be a really good frame of reference. In its pilot, which is fairly light on action, it’s longest scene is 7 pages, and is a lot of characters at a banquet. And they are spread out so there’s lots of cutting between and snappy dialogue to keep things moving. There’s about five scenes that are around three pages, one that is four which is a long quiet chat between two kings in the crypt of their wife/sister. So merits that length. As a say, guidelines to be played with when the script necessitates it
There are a few scenes in that pilot that are only a page in length, but I would say that the majority of scenes are longer than that. The GoT scripts are indeed a good framework, one which I've put in some time studying as I've worked on the outlines for this project over the years.
 

Rob Harding

Active Member
As I say, I’m not trying to present myself as any kind of expert or professional in anyway. This is a new path for me. I just want to share what I’m learning from folks who are. And obviously a lot of that will be beginner level advice that I will test and stretch as I hone in on a style

I’m not trying to present my take, just what I’m picking up from a pro is all
 

Rob Harding

Active Member
Do you know what is honestly a real headache when it comes to adapting Tolkien? Names lol

A good rule of thumb (one of the first things I read a few years back when I was thinking about starting all this) was try to avoid having characters with names that start with the same letter. Certainly not names that are very similar unless it for some intentional confusion or comedy in the plot.

Gorlim, Gildor, Gorgol. Beren and Barahir. Emeldir and Eilinel.

Cheers John, that makes things a million times harder lol

(I will say, it is a very logical naming convention which is derived from how people naturally name children, certainly in the kinds of traditional family units where names honor ancestors as Tolkien writes. But boy if it doesn't make for a confusing script).
 

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
All the 'Fin's don't help, no! And there have been times when we were just like, you know what, let's avoid having a scene with Celeborn and Celegorm in it; just too confusing for those two characters to talk to one another!
 

Haerangil

Well-Known Member
I once had the idea we use more of their "untranslated real names" and daily nicknames, you know not like they were called in "historical documents" like the silmarillion but what they probably called themselves in daily life... Feanaro is more sound to me than Feanor, Russandol more than Maedhros.., Turko easier than Celegorm

That could confuse readers of the books so we didn't do it. But such could be one way to get out of confusing too similar names
 

Rob Harding

Active Member
There’s certain things like Dagor Bragollach and Tol-In-Gaurhoth which I’m rendering as The Battle of Sudden Flame and The Isle of Wolves (as frankly ‘werewolves’ held the wrong connotations and felt less dramatic). And my supervisor is not Tolkien-aware so I want to keep it simple.
 

Rob Harding

Active Member
Just to update briefly, I am on my fourth draft of my pilot pitch (minor tweaks only really).

The major thing I was working on, and very much worth always bearing in mind, is zoning in on key relationships and making sure they are brought to the fore, even if it means sacrificing tangential, interesting side relationships. There is only so much page (and time once translated to spare) and if I'm building up a side relationship to the detriment of the core relationship, then that tangential side relationship has to go. It wasn't really a 'kill your darlings' moment as I was happy to do so, but it was good to have it highlighted.

Also, changing some things around necessitated a change in the 'macguffin', which led to a much more visually interesting set-piece.

As mentioned, this pilot pitch I am working on (and subsequently series Bible) is the Beren & Luthien story. Originally I wrote if before starting my course PRECISELY because it was unadaptable so, in my mind, there were no strings attached. It couldn't ever be anything so I didn't need to worry about it being 'the right choice' of what to write. I just had to write.

Subsequently, my supervisor has pointed out that most people don't hire a spec script they hire a writer. So it can easily go in a portfolio as a proof of ability, as studios are more likely to hire a jobbing freelancer for an existing project, rather than take on a project. It's a nice thing to have in my back pocket and frankly, it's been really great to dig into those characters and their relationship and find the human drama in it.

It won't really gel with SilmFilm as by virtue of creating it as a standalone narrative, and wanting it to exist in a portfolio, I will pitch it as a multi-series drama in its own right.

Anyway, my course supervisor thinks the latest version of episode 1 is good to go really and I will start crafting my series Bible shortly. I'm not sure how much I want something that I plan to use professionally floating around in the ether but still, I may share it once it's wrapped up. I've tried to stay true to the spirit and where I've made embellishments or explored other corners, I've always wanted them to be truthful to the gaps already in the text. I'm sure I will have made some decisions people don't love but hopefully also some people find interesting.
 

Rob Harding

Active Member
There’s also some fun scope I’m finding to give Beren and Luthien a far more human relationship than maybe Tolkien was intending.

Obviously his ideal of Beren & Luthien is very much folkloric and Beren finding Luthien and pursuing her beauty is tied to classic sources.

For me personally, I want to highlight what they bring to the relationship, both in terms of strength, flaws and wounds. I want there to be a realistic relationship as we move forward as well. It’s not that they fall in love and then always agree. These are two people whose worldviews are wildly different.

I’m honestly finding it hard to not plot out future seasons’ dialogue. Especially for the women.

Luthien’s voice as a metaphor for female empowerment and being allowed to use her songs not just to sedate and bringing healing, but to also unmake oppressive powers feels very significant.

Then you have Emeldir, a woman whose epithet is meant to show how mighty she is based on the fact she is similar to a man. I think there’s a real chance to talk about ownership of one’s self and her refusal perhaps to be defined by masculine terms of strength. And frankly, I want more women and I want women to have conversations about being women with other women. By Season 2, the season that most heavily will feature Sauron in my mind, travelling North toward Tol-In-Gaurhoth, I think it makes sense, and adds lots of drama, for Beren to encounter his absent mother again. So yes, Luthien will speak with Emeldir. And significantly, not just about Beren

The Quest for the Silmaril itself has this problematic nature of ostensibly being a mission to please a woman’s father to win the woman. So I’m making sure to highlight other motivations at play. And yet I think at some point Luthien will straight up ask Beren if he can really deny that ‘winning her’ is not at least part of his goal.

On top of which, I don’t want to show war as exciting or fun. Death isn’t to be enjoyed. Beren has killed and his PTSD will play a large portion of how he relates to people.

There’s such rich depths to the story.
 
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