Yet another gem of an article from Script X-ray outlining what needs to be decided before putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. This will save a lot of meandering and pointless writing which doesn’t drive your story.
1) KNOW THE WORLD OF THE STORY
This is by far one of the most important aspects of writing – especially for fantasy and sci-fi writers. Once you decide on the world, sick to it. If your world has one hour of sunlight per month and people sleep for 48 hours followed by 48 hours of being awake, then stick to these rules. You made ’em.
Jot notes about characters, themes, settings, dialogue exchanges, character-back-story, world history, geography, and anything and everything else you can think of. Not only is this step important to the development of your project, but it’s also an important test of whether your idea is fruitful enough for the screenplay medium.
One of the more common notes story analysts and story editors make when unimpressed by a screenplay is “lack of development” and “yet to be fully realized,” so the amount of time you spend actually imagining your world of story before writing it is imperative to the life of your project.
2) KNOW THE PREMISE
The premise includes the who, what, why, and why not. The who is your protagonist, or the hero of your story … the central character, the key driver of plot. The what is your story; or what’s actually happening in the story … the overall summary. The why is the protagonist’s goal. It is the bedrock upon which concept, character, theme, tone and plot are built.
“The soul that has no established aim loses itself.” — Montaigne
3) KNOW THE PROTAGONIST
Now that you’ve got a pretty good sense of what your premise is it’s time to identify and define your protagonist. Looking back on your notes from the exploration of the world of story, you should delve further into the protagonist with an eye toward articulating their character. This is where writers like to write biographies, autobiographies, and other helpful research papers. One technique I strongly recommend is the interview. The first way to do this is to simply sit down and start questioning your character in a formal manner.
The more you question, prod, stress and anger your character, the more you’ll learn about them. When you’ve done that, flip sides and consider allowing your character interviewing you as the writer. The point of it all is simply to explore your character concisely so that you don’t have to spend 110 pages exploring them during the writing of the actual screenplay; another common note from readers and editors is that regarding the meandering character development on the page. Spend time exercising with your protagonist and you’ll surely bypass the “poor character development,” and “character is a puppet” comments.
4) KNOW THE ANTAGONIST
You can’t have a protagonist without an antagonist! More often than not, aspiring screenwriters fall into the pitfall of spending all their time and explorative energy on creating a stunning protagonist, therefore they create a screenplay with a strong central character and window into the story, but no opposition or conflict. You must create a viable antagonist set on preventing your protagonist from reaching his goal. Your antagonist can’t just be a person out to get your protagonist; they need just as much energy, enthusiasm, and desire to reach their own goal as the protagonist has for his or her own. Furthermore, while your protagonist needs to be strong and passionate, your antagonist needs to be stronger and even more passionate. In a sense, every story should be an underdog story; your protagonist simply must face a seemingly impossible challenge: the antagonist. Think: David and Goliath.
5) KNOW THE THEME
As mentioned, your characters need to embody either side of the theme; the positive or the negative. For now, let’s look at what theme is exactly. Basically, theme isn’t something you inject into the story, but rather theme is a well from which the everything in the story springs. In order to discover and design a strong theme, you need to articulate what your story is about, and why.
Bottom line: when designing theme, try not to think of the entire theme as merely one word such as friendship or love, but as a description of change. This will automatically keep you focused toward telling a story that changes.