Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting – Book Summary

A screenplay is the story told with pictures, in dialogue and description and placed within the context of dramatic structure.

Chapter 1 – What is a screenplay?

A screenplay is not a novel and for certain it’s not a play.

If you look at the novel and try to define its fundamental nature, you’ll see that the dramatic action, the storyline, usually takes place inside the head of the main character. A play is different – the action, or the storyline, occurs onstage, under the proscenium arch, and the audience becomes the fourth wall, eavesdropping on the lives of the characters, what they think and feel and say.

Film is a VISUAL medium that dramatizes a basic story line.

Screenplays have a basic linear structure that creates the form of the screenplay because it holds all the elements, or pieces of the story line in place.

3-Act Structure

The word “structure” has basically 2 meanings:

  • “to build or put something together”
  • the relationship between the parts and the whole

A story is the whole and the elements that make up the story – the action, characters, conflicts, scenes, sequences, 3-acts, dialogue, action, events, music, location, etc. are the parts – and the relationship between the parts and the whole make up the story.

Act – I: “Set up”(app. 1- 30)
Act – II: “Confrontation”(app. 30 – 90)
Act – III: “Resolution”(app. 90 – 120)

Act I – “Set-up”:

Act – I is about the context. Context is the space that holds something in place.

  • Sets up the story
  • Establishes the character
  • Launches the dramatic premise.
  • Illustrates the situation
  • Creates the relationships between the main character and the other characters who inhabit the landscape of his/her world.

Act II – “Confrontation”:

In the second act, the main character encounters obstacle after obstacle that keeps him/her from achieving the dramatic need.

Dramatic need: “what the character wants to win, gain, get or achieve during the course of the screenplay”.

All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no action; without action you have no character ; without character, you have no story and without story , you have no screenplay.

Act III – “Resolution”:

It’s important to remember that resolution is not the ending; resolution means solution. Ending is the specific scene or shot or sequence that ends the script.

What’s the solution of your screenplay?

Does the main character live or die? Get Married or not? Win the race or not? Escape safety or not? Win the election or not? Leave her husband or not? Return the home or not? Act – III is the unit of action that resolves the story.

What’s a plot point?

A plot point is defined as any incident, episode or event that hooks into the action and spins it around in another direction. A plot point is always the function of the main character. Plot points serve an essential purpose in the screenplay; they are the major story progression and keep the story line anchored in place.

Plot points do not have to be big, dynamic scenes or sequences; they can be quiet scenes in which a decision is made.

Dramatic Structure: Linear arrangement of the related incidents, episodes, or events leading to a dramatic resolution.

Chapter 2 – The Subject

Every screenplay has a subject – it is what the story is about.

You need a subject to embody and dramatize the idea. A subject is defined as an action and a character. An action is what the story is about – a character is who the story is about. Knowing your subject is the starting point of your screenplay.

When you can articulate your subject, in terms of action and character, you’re ready to begin expanding the elements of structure and story. It may take several pages of the free association writing about your story before you can begin to grasp the essentials and reduce the complex storyline to a simple sentence or two.

Define the need
Action is the character

Ask yourself what kind of story you are writing – Is it an outdoor action adventure movie? Or, is it a story about a relationship, an emotional story? Once you determine the kind of action you’re dealing with, you can move into the life of your character.

First, define the dramatic need of your character. What does your character want? What’s his/her need? What drives him to the resolution of the story? You must define the need of your character.

Know your SUBJECT !!

Chapter 3 – The Creation of Character

What is character but the determination of incident? And what is incident but the illumination of the character? – Henry James

Henry James says that incidents you create for your characters are the best ways to illuminate who they are – that is – reveal their true nature, their essential character. How they respond to a particular incident or event, how they act and react, what they say and do is what really defines the essence of their character.

Character is the essential internal foundations of your screenplay.

Before you can put one word down on paper, you must know your character. How do you determine whether your character will drive a car or ride a motorcycle or take the bus or subway, and what kind of paintings or posters hang out in his/her apartment?

Who is your main character?

The way you drive your story forward is by focusing on the actions of the character and the dramatic choices he or she makes during the narrative story line. You can have more than 1 main character, of course, but it certainly clarifies things if you identifies single hero or heroine.

First, establish the main character. Separate the components of his/her life into two basic categories:

  • interior
  • exterior

The interior of your character takes place from birth up until the time your story begins. It is a process that forms character.

The exterior life of your character takes place from the moment film begins to the conclusion of your story. It is the process that reveals the character.

Internal:takes place from birth – story
Emotional life – forms character
from the start of the movie to end.
Physical Life – reveals the character

Character Biography:

The character biography is an exercise that reveals your character’s interior life, the emotional forces the emotional forces working on your character from birth. Continue to trace your character’s life until the story begins.

Writing is the ability to ask yourself the questions and wait for the answers.

The exterior aspect of your character takes place during the eventual time of the screenplay, from the first fade-in to the final fade-out. The best way to do this is to separate your character’s life into 3 basic components – their professional, personal and private life. (These areas of your characters’ lives can be dramatized over the course of the screenplay)

Professional: What does the protagonist do for the living?

Personal: Relationship / Love / Family

Private: What does your character do when s/he is alone?

Action is Character

Film is behavior. Pictures, or images reveal different aspects of character. Whereas character reveals the deep-seated nature of who people are, in terms of their values, actions and beliefs, characterization is expressed in the way people live, the cars they drive, the pictures they hang on the wall, their likes and dislikes, what they eat, and other forms of individual expression.

Form your characters by creating a character biography, and then reveal them by showing who they are in the professional, personal and private life.


Choose a character and write a character biography. Free Associate. Just throw down some thoughts, words or ideas. Write in fragments. You may want to start from birth, but you don’t have to follow the character’s life in a linear form. Let your creative consciousness dictate the flow of character.

As you have completed the character biography, think about your character’s professional, personal and private life. Focus on the relationships that occur during the screenplay.

Know Your Character !!

Chapter 4 – Building The Character

Building character is part of the mystery and magic of the creative process.

In is an ongoing, never-ending, continuing practice. In order to really solve the problem of character, it’s essential to go into your characters and build the foundations and fabric of their lives, then add ingredients that will heighten and expand the portrait of who they are.

Four essential qualities that seems to go into making a good character:

  • the characters have dramatic need
  • they have an individual Point-of-View (POV)
  • they personify an attitude
  • they go through some kind of change, or transformation

1. Dramatic Need:

A dramatic need is defined as what your main characters want to win, gain, get or achieve during the course of your screenplay. The dramatic need is what drives your character through the story line. It is their purpose, their mission, their motivation, driving them through the narrative action of the story line.

In most cases you can express the dramatic need in a sentence or two.

It is usually simple and can be stated through a line of dialogue, if you choose; or it does not have to be expressed at all. But you as a writer, must know your character’s dramatic need.

There are times when the dramatic need will change during the course of your story. If your character’s dramatic need dos change, it will usually occur at Plot Point I, the true beginning of your story. If you like, you can establish dramatic needs for other characters in the screenplay.

The dramatic need is the engine that powers the character through the story line.

2. Point-Of-View