How to Get Started by Alan Swyer

So how does a film story – especially one that's fresh and dynamic, as opposed to some dreary recycled plot – come about? Clearly, it doesn't just fall from a tree one fine day.

Generally it begins with a character. It doesn't matter whether that character is based on someone you've known (including yourself), or someone you've read about, or someone you've simply dreamed up thanks to your own fertile imagination. Whatever the genesis, what counts is to know everything possible about him or her. That means creating a biography. And a list of likes and dislikes. And above all a sense of his/her hopes and dreams.

Once you've got your character – who by then hopefully has a name – what often helps is to do some daydreaming. What do I mean by that? To run a little movie about that character in your mind's eye.

That should give you a sense of the other people who will inhabit your emerging character's life. So the next challenge is to create bios and so forth for them as well.

Does that mean you're ready? Not yet.

Now, as though you're a stage director, start doing some “improvs.” Think of some situations, then thrust your characters into them to see how they interact.

Thanks to those exercises, start making notes of defining traits: distinctive speech patterns, gestures, styles of dress, and so forth.

By this point, you shouldn't be wondering anywhere near as much about the characters, the incidents in their lives that matter, and the flow of what is now their story. Plus, you should have a pretty good feel of the tone. And maybe, if all's going well, you can begin to glean the theme.

Feels good, huh?

But think you're ready to start scripting? Guess again.

Try stating your story in one sentence. How's this as a for instance: A seemingly amoral and apolitical bar owner in German-occupied Casablanca finds himself in a situation which tests whether he's as aloof as he claims? Or: The patriarch of an influential Italian family is dying, and one of his sons will have to be man enough to fill his shoes?

If you can't tell your story in one sentence that way, chances are you're still in a little bit of trouble. But once you can do it comfortably, you're ready for the next step.

What's that? To tape it next to your computer so that you can continue to look at it on a regular basis.

At last it's time for your reward.

That reward is to begin scripting with a wonderful safety net. By then you should know your characters – how they speak, how they act, and how they interact. Which means that the scripting itself is the time and place to have fun with dialogue, mannerisms, and, hopefully, all sorts of serendipity and surprises. And thanks to having a story, you should be freed of the classic fears of having the world's first 30-page or 300-page feature script.

It's the prep work that allows the actual writing to be fun.

Alan Swyer has worked as a writer, director, and/or producer on projects ranging from HBO's award-winning, Rebound, starring Don Cheadle, Forrest Whitaker, and James Earl Jones to The Buddy Holly Story, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and his award-winning documentary, The Spiritual Revolution. He has recently finished two new documentaries: Leimert Park, about a black cultural mecca in Los Angeles and, Beisbol, the definitive look at Latin baseball, with narration by Andy Garcia. His latest film, It's More Expensive To Do Nothing..., is touring the festival circuit, and he is currently shooting, El Boxeo, the definitive look at the role of Latins in boxing. Alan has also directed numerous music videos and commercials, and is an esteemed academician and activist.