Kick the Cat! - How to start a screenplay.

SKY TV Language of Television Award, November 1996

My First Screenplay - 1996

I always knew I wanted to be a storyteller.

In Primary School (Elementary School) I co-wrote my first official story with my friend, John. This was back in 1992, and the school only had one computer for us to type on. We wrote a short story, entitled 'Greaves Mansion,' a haunted house tale, and sold it for 20p a copy at the annual School Sports Day. It was a hit! I bought a quarter pound of pear drops with my earnings, and they tasted sweet!

In 1996, I was fifteen and in my final year of Secondary School (High School), when my year 9 English teacher approached me with details of a screenwriting competition for schoolchildren. The Language of Television Award, run by SKY Television, was open to students all over the United Kingdom. The brief was to write a story treatment for a feature film. So my co-writer, Danny, and I both began work on writing a Sci-Fi epic. Inspired by the recently released 'Independence Day', we wrote an ensemble piece. Big on plot, thin on character.

A few months later we were told that we had been shortlisted, in the top three, and that the final would be held at SKY TV HQ in Middlesex. In order to win, we needed to pitch our film idea to a boardroom of judges and television executives. We were up against a team from an all-girls Grammar School from Northern Ireland, and an all-boys Grammar School from London. Long story short - we won!

The Hook!

The experience was one of the best of my 'professional' life. Collaborating with another writer on a project proved to be an unexpectedly fulfilling experience. Bouncing ideas off each other so freely, no ego, no having to elaborate on every decision, and no having to convince the other of the importance of heeding the advice of experts like Robert Mckee, Yvonne Grace, Blake Snyder, and Syd Field. It was fun, and it ultimately led to award winning work.

Danny still writes today. He is a prolific writer who focuses on theater these days. His work is clever, funny, and often moving. Any fans of genre theater should check him out - google Scythe Plays Ltd.

This was when the seed was properly sewn. This was when the idea of becoming a screenwriter formed, and it never really went away. So in 2014, almost 20 years after the SKY TV competition, I went back to University to train in Screenwriting and Media Production.

University taught me just how much I didn't know about writing scripts, screenplays, treatments, and loglines. I read all of the course material and recommended reading in order to increase my awareness of structure, character building, and formatting. This was when I first read Blake Snyder's, 'Save The Cat'.

Title > Logline > Index Cards > Treatment > Screenplay

I learned some very valuable lessons from my degree, and this book. In the past I would happily jump straight into writing a script, with nothing more than research and notes. I learned very quickly that my structure wasn't right whenever I wrote this way.

'Save the Cat,' was a revelation for me. It taught me something very cool, and when I started to implement the advice I noticed my scripts were much tighter. My characters had real arcs, and my story was balanced. I would like to share with you Blake Snyder's advice.

After you have your title and logline, don't jump straight into the treatment. Instead, plan out your story with index cards. The first time I did this was in 2014, for a television show idea I was developing at University. Three months after submitting my work, I won the Bolton Creative Award for my development documents, and my subsequent treatment was incredibly tight, with elegant balance.

Based on the advice in 'Save The Cat' - this is how I do it:

1 - Take a cork board and divide into four horizontal rows.

2 - Each row will contain 10 Index cards.

3 - Each Index Card is a scene.

4 - The top horizontal row is Act 1. The final card of this row must be the call to action, which propels us into Act 2.

5 - The second row down is for the first half of Act 2. The final card on this row must therefore be the all-important midpoint.

6 - As I'm sure you can now guess, the third row down is the second half of Act 2, and the final card in this row will be our end of Act 2 crisis point.

7 - Finally, the fourth and final row is for Act 3, including the resolution and denouement.

So in summary, we have 40 cards, and each card is a scene. On each card I write the major conflict of the scene, and the value change that occurs. I also write the A plot and B plot in different colors, so that I can see at a glance where the story-lines interweave. This really helps me to 'see' the shape of my story, and also ensure that EVERY scene has conflict and a value change.

Any time I have taken this approach I have succeeded in writing a story that has great structure. It has saved me countless hours trying to restructure. Whenever I've skipped this advice from Blake Synder, and had to fundamentally restructure a 90 page script I've found it to be an almost impossible task.

Over 20 years after winning that SKY TV award I've reached a point with my writing where I can say, "I know how to structure a screenplay". I've taken my 15 year old self's passion and combined it with 20 years of life experience, and proper university and industry training. I just have to keep writing, keep rewriting, and keep learning.

There is little worse than a great idea being executed poorly, and as I continue to learn and write I aim to ensure all of my ideas are realized in the best way possible.

So how do I start a screenplay? By not starting it until all of the development is done!

Do you have a different method for structure? Do you use the Index Card system too?