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If you want to make a movie, generally you're going to want to start with a script. In this episode of Crash Course Film Production, Lily Gladstone talks about the basics of screenplays and how to get started thinking about and actually writing your movie.

Produced in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios:

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  Intro (0:00)

Hi. I'm not Craig, but you're in the right place. This is still Crash Course Film.

My name is Lily Gladstone, and I'm excited to spend the next fifteen episodes with you exploring film production, how movies actually get made. We'll talk about all those great jobs that are listed in the credits and how movies take a huge amount of collaboration, whether you have a crew of tens or thousands.

We'll go behind the scenes to see how movies are planned, shot, and edited, and take a peek at all of the equipment involved. And we'll learn how films are marketed and distributed, whether they go to movie theaters or straight to your home.

But before we get anywhere near lights, camera, action, we need to start with a road map that gives everyone in the cast and crew the directions they need to make a film. It's time to talk about the screenplay.

[Opening music]

  The Screenplay (0:53)

In most of these videos, we'll be learning about how the vast majority of narrative fiction films get made, and to do that, we need to start with a screenplay. A screenplay is a written version of a movie. Think of it as a blueprint. It's not the final product; it's a set of plans to guide the team of artists, craftspeople, and engineers as they produce a film.

Every screenplay is formatted with three basic elements: slug lines, action, and dialogue. Each new scene begins with a new slug line. It's written in all capital letters and acts as a code to convey information to the crew. A slug line looks something like this. Here, the "INT." stands for "interior," meaning the scene takes place inside. If the scene takes place outside, the slug line would start with "EXT." for "exterior."

The second word tells us where the scene takes place, which is important information for a lot of the crew. The location scout needs to find somewhere to film the scene, the production designer alters the location to make it fit the world of the film, and the cinematographer decides how to light it. But before any of that happens, the line producer uses the location to help figure out how much the film is gonna cost.

The same goes for the last word in the slug line, which describes when the scene takes place, usually either day or night. Besides giving information to the crew, this can affect the cost of the movie, partially because shooting at night is more expensive.

After the slug line comes the action. These are short, assertive sentences that describe who's in the scene and what they're doing. Since you watch a movie unfold over time, the action is written in present tense. So instead of writing, "Iron Man flew across the sky," you write, "Iron Man flies across the sky."

The action is also limited to what the audience can see and hear. In a novel, you can describe what a character's thinking and feeling, something like "Luke Skywalker feels miserable." In a screenplay, you'd have to write an action to show us how he feels, like "Luke Skywalker hangs his head and wipes away a tear." There are a lot of guidelines and tricks to writing action lines, but the most important rule is show, don't tell. Remember that this is where the thoughts, feelings, and themes of the screenplay are turned into actions you can see.

And the final piece of the screenplay is the dialogue. These are the words spoken by the characters. Feature-length screenplays are usually between 90 and 120 pages, and each page typically becomes about a minute of the final film. This is more of an average than a hard rule, by the way. Some dialogue-heavy pages will likely be shorter than a minute, while some pages with lots of action may end up longer once the film is shot and edited.

  What Makes a Good Screenplay? (2:58)

Now, some stories are better suited to the screen than others. Different media have different strengths, so what makes a good poem or graphic novel won't necessarily make a good movie. A film creates an immersive visual world, that illusion of reality we keep talking about, and within that world, it can tell a story packed with complex emotions and ideas.

Movies tend to focus on three main things: A protagonist, which is the film's main character; a goal or objective, which is something the protagonist wants; and obstacles, which is whatever's standing between the protagonist and their goal.

Think about a heist movie. Maybe a master criminal wants to steal the world's biggest diamond, but finds herself facing off against a rival thief. Or a romantic comedy, where the awkward but lovable introvert wants to date their outgoing neighbor, but is afraid to leave the comfort of his own routine.

Protagonist, goal, obstacle. These are the building blocks of a screen story. And it's from these that everything else emerges, like setting, character, theme, and tone.

Now, the protagonist doesn't necessarily have to be the story's hero. Films are full of antiheroes, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, or accidental villains, like William H. Macy's character in Fargo. Usually a movie's protagonist will grow or change in some way in pursuit of their goal. The master criminal might learn humility as she attempts to steal the diamond, or maybe the introvert overcomes his social anxiety to befriend his love interest. But the most important thing for the screenwriter is finding ways to make all of this come across visually.

One way to do that is by following what's known as the hero's journey. This is a template for character development that was popularized by American mythologist Joseph Campbell. By looking at myths from cultures all over the world, Campbell identified twelve common steps taken by main characters as they transform over the course of a story. These range from resisting the call to adventure and meeting their mentor to facing their biggest fear and surviving the final ordeal, armed with everything they've learned along the way.

The hero's journey was famously used by George Lucas in writing Luke Skywalker's journey from Tatooine farm kid to Jedi knight. Some screenwriters love it, while others think it's a stale, overused formula. But if you're looking to write your first screenplay, it's not a bad place to start.

Once you have some characters and plot points, you need to throw some conflict into the mix. Conflict moves a story forward, and helps us identify with the protagonist as they're struggling against their obstacles. And screenplays can have different kinds of conflict.

External conflict occurs whenever the protagonist encounters physical obstacles. Take the first Lord of the Rings film, The Fellowship of the Ring. Our protagonist, Frodo, has a goal: Destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. No problem, right? Except in order to get to Mount Doom, he has to travel across the known world, avoid an endless army of orcs and monsters, and outwit the powerful fiery eye that's always searching for him. Not to mention he's the shortest guy in the movie and they make him walk barefoot the whole way. (sigh) They don't even give the poor guy shoes.

On the other hand, internal conflict is when the protagonist wrestles with some emotional or psychological obstacle. For Frodo, that could be his ignorance of the wider world, a lack of faith in himself, or even his jealousy and selfishness. Usually the more conflict the protagonist faces, the more they transform to overcome it.

But that doesn't mean the fate of the world has to be at stake in every single screenplay! The writer should scale the conflict to fit the kind of story they're telling. Like, in Bridesmaids, Kristin Wiig's character just wants to be a good maid of honor to her best friend. She faces a lot of external conflict, from a rival bridesmaid to some severely under-cooked Brazilian food. And internally, she feels conflicted about her best friend getting married, the loss of her bakery, and her self-worth. The universe isn't going to implode if she doesn't succeed, but we still empathize with her as she struggles to achieve her goal.

  The Three-Act Structure (6:26)

Now once you have some ideas for the story you want to tell, how are you supposed to organize them all? Screenwriters often use something called three act structure, which is based on theories by ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle from more than 2000 years ago. The idea is simple, that every story has a beginning, middle, and end, and that certain kinds of events happen in each section.

Act One sets up the world of the screenplay, introducing us to the characters, and identifying the protagonist and their goal. In The Wizard of Oz, most of act one takes place in Kansas--it's the black and white part. We get external conflicts between Dorothy and that mean old lady down the street, as well as Auntie Em. We also learn that Dorothy is unsatisfied with her life and dreams of something more exciting somewhere over the rainbow. Once she's transported to Oz, she meets her antagonist, the Wicked Witch of the West, and we learn that her goal is to find the Wizard so she can go home.

In Act Two, the protagonist faces increasingly difficult conflicts as they pursue their goal. They meet allies, encounter successes and setbacks, and are often brought to a point of hopelessness. For Dorothy, this is when the Wizard refuses to take her home unless she can defeat the Wicked Witch. To get what she wants, she'll have to face her fears and do the seemingly impossible.

Finally, Act Three contains the climax of the film. There's usually some epic face off between the protagonist and antagonist, the person who most directly opposes them. That confrontation usually decides whether or not the protagonist achieves their goal, and in most Hollywood screenplays, they do. Dorothy gets back to Kansas, Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star, Simba defeats Scar and restores the circle of life to the Pride Lands.

But the guidelines of the three act structure are just that, guidelines. Foreign and independent movies can have more ambiguous endings, from the open-ended final shots of The Wrestler or Birdman to the heartbreak of Brokeback Mountain or The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. Films like M*A*S*H, Traffic, or Magnolia split their stories up among different protagonists, while movies like Pulp Fiction and Memento scramble time, telling their stories out of order. And films like Mulholland Drive, Rashomon, or Man with a Movie Camera seem to reject the three act structure altogether.

Remember, screenplays are one part of a longer process. They're a blueprint. Whether they follow more traditional rules or invent their own, the clear, concise, visual language of a screenplay provides the foundation for all the work that is to come.

  Review and Credits (8:35)

Today we learned about the format of screenplays and why they look the way they do. We talked about the essential building blocks of a film story, and we broke down the traditional three act structure, what happens when and why. Next time we'll talk about pitching and pre-production, as the cameras get ready to roll.

Crash Course Film Production is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel, check out a playlist of their latest shows, like Coma Niddy, It's Okay to Be Smart, and Physics Girl. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of all these nice people. And our amazing graphics team is Thought Cafe.

[Theme music]