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Write from the heart (of your screenplay)

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

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Writing a screenplay is a process of a million decisions. (Death by a thousand paper cuts? 😅) And one of the problems writers run into while making all those decisions is analysis paralysis.

You might be overwhelmed at the sheer number of choices you’re faced with, or you might become frozen by one particular choice, or anywhere in between. Some of the most common questions I hear are things like, “How do I know what should happen next?” or “Is this the right flaw for this protagonist?” or “How do I figure out what goes in this scene?”

So today I’ll share one way of looking at your story that can make every decision easier: write from the heart of your screenplay.

What’s your point?

Most movies involve a change or transformation of some kind because humans tend to find that satisfying. You can think of your story as advocating for one specific change. Embracing a change of mind, or adopting a type of behavior, for example. Your story is an argument to convince someone to make that change – that’s the point of the story.

Yes, you could also call it the theme or takeaway message. With each of those terms we’re referring to the same thing – what the story means, the reason for telling it.

If you know the point you’re trying to make, it makes the job of deciding what to include much easier. You just have to ask, “Does this help make my point?”

The heart of the screenplay

In most screenplays and movies there’s a moment where you see a sort of philosophical pivot. Before this moment, the argument for change is building. After this moment, the change (if accepted) is adopted or demonstrated. I would call this moment the heart of your screenplay.

What happens in that moment? That’s where the point of the story is crystallized.

Usually it’s made clear to the main character, because most often he or she is our proxy for learning this lesson. A lot of times you’ll see the point of the story delivered in one simple line of dialogue. But it’s the timing that makes it powerful.

Up to this moment, the character may not have been ready to accept the lesson yet. Or they may not have realized what lesson the experience was meant to teach them at all. But in the heart of the screenplay the point of the whole thing becomes crystal clear or can no longer be ignored.

Build your screenplay like you’re building a case

Remember back to when you were a kid, and those times when you’d make a case for something you wanted really badly. You’d lay out all of the reasons why you deserved it before stating your demand, “And that’s why you should buy me a pony!

With your screenplay, you’re doing essentially the same thing. You lay out the reasons a particular lesson should be learned or a new mindset should be adopted, and then deliver the inevitable takeaway, “And here’s the lesson you need right now.

But you’re no longer a kid trying to get a pony – you’re more sophisticated than that. So you show the argument through a proxy – the main character. When you show the protagonist experiencing events that cause some kind of pain, and show how that character learns a new way because of that experience, the audience gets the message too. They understand and – maybe more importantly – feel the point this story is making.

By the time we get to the heart of the story, the argument for change has built up enough pressure on the character that they’re (usually) ready to accept the lesson this experience is teaching them.

Everything leading up to the heart of the screenplay should contribute to making that point. If it doesn’t, it distracts or weakens your argument. If you know the point at the heart of your screenplay, you can more easily choose evidence that makes your case.

Where is the heart of the screenplay?

Right around the end of Act 2. Why? Because that’s just before the “beginning of the end.” Once the point of the story has been made clear to the protagonist (and therefore, to the audience), we just need to see whether the character can successfully act on it or not.

If your argument works and the point is accepted at the end of Act 2, then the protagonist adopts that new mindset or behavior in Act 3, proving they’ve learned the lesson this experience had to offer. They resolve the main conflict and the movie’s over.

Sounds easy, right?

Now, keep in mind: we come at stories in different ways. Sometimes you’ll know the point you’re trying to make, and sometimes you’ll come at the story some other way and not realize what point you’re making until you finish the draft. That’s okay.

No matter when you find it, if you know what message is being delivered to your protagonist at the heart of the screenplay, you can deliberately build toward that moment and your screenplay will be stronger and more meaningful for it.

It’ll help you make choices for lines of action, character arcs and relationships, and even individual scenes. You know what you’re arguing for, so you can choose information that helps to make that point.

Next week I’ll walk through a real-world example from an existing movie, just to make it all concrete. For now…

Is there a clear point at the heart of your story?

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

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