How This Book Is Different
For anyone who has ever wanted to write a screenplay, there are too many books that tread and retread the exact same information. Taking their lead from Aristotle’s Poetics and other books focus primarily on how stories work. They brilliantly explain structure and formatting. This approach works well only if the writer knows what s/he wants to write about in the first place.
Books on screenwriting tell writers to come up with a solid what if. What if… you don’t have any ideas for a worthy what if? The question is, “How does a writer get there?"
My step-by-step process starts well before structures, outlines, and beat sheets. Every chapter is filled with questions for the reader and ends with clear and concise exercises, walking writers through that chapter's material to guarantee maximum absorption and professional-level execution. It’s how I build the spinal column of any script, beginning with the very first bone, and then, piece by piece, construct a full skeletal structure from ground zero.
The reason I’ve never had writer’s block is that I have a method for germinating with movie ideas. I never have to sit and wonder what I’m going to write or how I will cinematically show my idea.
Prewriting Your Screenplay teaches everyone how to get from zero to story.
“I have purchased and sent your 'Prewriting Your Screenplay' book to members of the RKO development staff and some of our contract writers. It is going to be the reference book for development projects at RKO.”
-- Ted Hartley
The hardest part of the creative-writing process is the initial creation. Writing teachers in every class get bogged down in helping remold the foundation elements of student’s stories into a strong base-of-operation for plot exploration. Believe me, I know from experience as an educator and story analyst. The problem with creative writing is that the creation process seems so ethereal to those who do not have a method. Attempting to help students weld the parts of their story together in a functional way can end up being a lot of shooting in the dark because, without this book, there is no consistent formulaic cure.
Entertainment writing textbooks explain abstract story-creation concepts, but these books often don’t show how to form the connective tissue between those cinematic storytelling elements that they define so well.
Prewriting Your Screenplay cements all the bricks of a story’s foundations together and forms a single, organic story-growing technique, starting with a blank slate. Prewriting shows writers how to design each element so that they perfectly interlock together like pieces of a puzzle, creating a stronger story foundation that does not leave gaps and holes for educators to find. This construction process is performed one piece at a time, one character at a time, building and incorporating each element into the whole.
Prewriting Your Screenplay is the quintessential book for all classrooms on taking the first steps of developing a screenplay idea like no other and works as a companion book to any of the seminal screenwriting books already in publication.
Until a teacher provides his or her student writers with a concrete, mathematical approach to building a strong foundation for a screenplay from nothing at all, getting students over that first monumental hump with a well-formulated story base on schedule will always be a Herculean task. Prewriting lightens instructors’ loads by providing a clear-cut set of lessons that teaches how to construct that story base around concepts as individual as the student writer’s personal opinions. This approach helps to foster the individual writer’s voice. Once you have a well-laid story foundation, the rest is plotting and formatting, which can be taught. The seminal screenwriting books are:
They are brilliant and irreplaceable.
Prewriting Your Screenplay is not competing with the primary scriptwriting textbooks used in universities today. Prewriting is the prequel that provides writers with an origin point for concept creation; the book teaches writers how to go story hunting and grow ideas into situations and characters for each individual tale. Prewriting Your Screenplay takes all students from zero to story.
(a vitally important unique feature)
Each chapter of Prewriting Your Screenplay ends with an exercise that adds to the big picture, one concept at a time. The fact that none of the seminal screenwriting textbooks features any kind of chapter-ending exercises to help writers build a new script speaks volumes about how special Prewriting is in terms of what it offers writing educators.
Prewriting Your Screenplay will help novice and experienced screenwriters select an opinion worth exploring as the subject matter of a script, choose an appropriate genre with which to explore that opinion, and design characters specifically supporting and conflicting with that opinion. Through considering the five major cinematic character types, the purposes that fuel each character type’s existence, and character arcs and physical goals suiting the arguments (for and against) the writer’s opinion, this character exploration culminates in the formulation of a story that argues the writer’s opinion. Lastly, Prewriting Your Screenplay teaches how to evolve that story from a proper logline, making sure it’s high concept, into a well-structured, three-act outline, leaving the writer ready to start writing his or her script.
Preface & Acknowledgements
Act One – The Setup
Chapter 1: Premise (the Big Bang for your script)
Chapter 2: Genre (getting in the right mood)
Chapter 3: The Brainstorm (the storm of ideas)
Act Two – Character Driven
Chapter 4: Character Development
Chapter 5: Protagonist (with details on anti-heroes)
Chapter 6: Antagonist (and the mentor gone wrong)
Chapter 7: Can the Protagonist be the Antagonist? (with details on failed protagonists)
Chapter 8: Love Interest (the motivator of inner journey and the lust interest)
Chapter 9: Mentor (the model for success in the physical goal or outer journey)
Chapter 10: Dual Mentors (mind versus mission)
Chapter 11: The Protagonist’s Reflection characters (a look in the mirror)
Chapter 12: A Final Reflection (character concept summation)
Act Three – The Big Idea
Chapter 13: Culmination (assembly of the puzzle pieces)
Chapter 14: The Story (everything into a single story)
Chapter 15: The Logline (how you’d sell it – from story to high concept)
Chapter 16: Three-Act Structure (through the ages)
Chapter 17: Reverse Engineering Story (working your way from story to premise)
“Tabb's book asks you to look deep within yourself and answer a fundamental question; why are you writing this particular story? Why are you even writing in the first place? It gives you some very pragmatic tools to help make your writing more soulful and authentic.”
-- David S. Goyer
Terminator: Dark Fate, The Blade and Batman Begins trilogies, Dark City, Jumper, The Puppet Masters
TV’s Krypton, Da Vinci’s Demons, Constantine, Flash Forward
Games Call of Duty: Black Ops I & II
"A comprehensive, honest, and heart-felt look at the craft of screenwriting. Writers at all levels will find something in this book to inspire them to do their best work."
-- Nicole Perlman
Captain Marvel, Detective Pikachu, Guardians of the Galaxy
Upcoming films: First Man, Black Widow, Sherlock Holmes 3
“Michael Tabb has thought long, hard, and usefully about how to write screenplays with vision and intent. He understands premise, character, conflict, drama; far more importantly, he can impart wisdom about all of them without condescending or "dumbing down." I know of no better guide to the work of writing that happens before we write.”
-- Howard A. Rodman
President, Writers Guild of America (WGA)
August, Saving Grace, Takedown, Joe Gould’s Secret
“The best way I can think to get yourself writing again if you’re stuck would be to have Michael Tabb come over with a bottle of bourbon and a couple of glasses and talk you through things. The second best way would be to buy this book and read it. You can supply your own bourbon.”
-- Bill Prady
The Big Bang Theory, The Muppets, Gilmore Girls, Dharma & Greg, Caroline in the City, Dream On
“Are you a writer? Then you’re a fraud, right? Every time you stare at that empty page, you feel it in your bones. The movies I have written have grossed over 5 billion in box office, and STILL, I feel like a fraud every time I start a new project. When I read Michael’s book, I felt a lot better. Michael is not only a great screenwriter, but he understands how to explain screenwriting in a way that I never could and in a way that helped me move forward. It is so strange to have a decent man you know help you, through his writing, help you become a better writer. I got a free copy of his book on my shelf, but I would’ve paid for it. Writers like Michael who help other writers understand the art or the craft of screenwriting are truly among our best and brightest. Think about it. He is helping his own competition! Only a wise and true class act would ever do that. This book is yours. Consume it!”
-- Roberto Orci
WGA Writer / Creator
Transformers 1 & 2, Star Trek 1, 2 & 3, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, People Like Us, The Legend of Zorro, Mission: Impossible III
TV’s High School 51, Sleepy Hallow, Hawaii Five-0, Fringe, Alias, Matador, Xena, Hercules
“Tabb provides an insightful and engaging guide to the process of breaking story and character. Writers looking to set a strong foundation for their first or next script would be well served by reading PREWRITING.”
-- Carlton Cuse
San Andreas, Rampage
TV’s Lost, Locke & Key, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, The Colony, Bates Motel, The Strain, Nash Bridges, Martial Law, Crime Story
“It’s vitally important for aspiring writers to understand that a professional screenwriting career is built upon the relentless pursuit of asking the right creative questions and then finding the most satisfying answers. In his new book, PREWRITING, writer and teacher Michael Tabb generously shares his innovative approach to meeting that challenge. His original method of generating story, character, and theme will be valuable to both veterans and novices, and should help any writer get past the fear of writers block.”
-- Jeff Melvoin
Emmy-award winning television writer-producer
Chair of the Writers Education Committee of the Writers Guild of America, West
Killing Eve, Designated Survivor, Army Wives, Alias, Early Edition, Northern Exposure, Hill Street Blues, Remington Steele
“I wish I had this book when I was just starting out — but it’s still immensely helpful. An indispensable handbook of the craft written by a seasoned veteran and accomplished writer. A must read for anyone serious about screenwriting.”
-- Marc Guggenheim
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Green Lantern
TV’s Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, No Ordinary Family, Eli Stone, CSI: Miami, Law & Order, Brothers and Sisters, 3Below, Troll Hunters
Games Singularity, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Call of Duty 3, Perfect Dark Zero
“The book every writer has been waiting for -- a step by step guide to nourish and develop your idea for a screenplay, book or story. Invaluable and vital.”
-- Evan Spiliotopoulos
Snake Eyes, The Unholy, Bright 2, Charlie’s Angels, Beauty and the Beast, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Hercules, Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure
“Michael understands the nuts and bolts of storytelling like no one else — Whether you’re penning your first script or your thirtieth, this book will make you a better writer.”
-- Damon Lindelof
The Hunt, Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness, World War Z, Prometheus
TV’s Lost, The Watchmen, The Leftovers, Nash Bridges, Crossing Jordon
"Michael Tabb's book will challenge writers to do the hard work in polishing that rough idea into a clear artistic vision. I wish this book was around when I was writing my first screenplay, or even my forth screenplay."
-- Edward Ricourt
Now You See Me 1 & 2, Jessica Jones, Wayward Pines, Raising Dion
“Teachers of screenwriting often miss the most basic truth that writing should be fun and that writers should work from their gut, not from their fear of rejection. In Prewriting Your Screenplay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Generating Stories, Mike Tabb simplifies the process of story writing and character development to its most essential elements, in the process inviting the reader to embark on the joyful journey of self discovery that is screenwriting.”
-- Douglas Day Stewart
WGA Screenwriter/DGA Director
An Officer and a Gentleman, The Blue Lagoon, What About Love,
The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, Thief of Hearts, Listen to Me
“Writing for television means you cannot afford to have writer’s block, and coming up with new ideas is the hardest part of the job. I wish I’d read this book years ago! Prewriting has an original premise, which is only fitting for a book about original premises.”
-- Brannon Braga
WGA Writer/Executive Producer
Star Trek: First Contact
TV’s The Orville, Salem, Terra Nova, Flash Forward, 24, Star Trek: Enterprise, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: The Next Generation
“Great advice for budding screen-writers and those more established. A rich resource to find the creative code and original strengths within yourself, and most importantly, tips on how to sustain passion for a project through the trial-by-fire of re-writes on the writer’s journey to getting it produced and onto the screen.”
-- Alex Proyas
DGA Director / WGA Writer
I Robot, Gods of Egypt, Dark City, Knowing, The Crow
“Michael Tabb is a powerhouse. He’s one of those writers that I envy – he is ALWAYS writing. Ever since I’ve known him he has constantly pumped out quality work at a steady pace. He’s a machine! And, after reading Prewriting Your Screenplay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Generating Stories, I now know his secret. There are a lot of “how to” books on writing but Tabb’s book is the first one I’ve come across that gets to the heart of the matter: how do we find a consistent method of digging out our deepest authentic feelings and ideas? If you have ever stared at your blinking cursor on a blank page, this is the book for you. Michael Tabb proves that we all have our own stories that need to be told. We think manifesting them is hard work, but Tabb shows us it is effortless.”
-- John Lehr
10 Items or Less, Quick Draw
"All too often, screenwriters, eager to start writing, will be tempted to skip the hard work that needs to be done before typing the words ‘FADE IN.’ That’s why so many screenplays, even by talented writers, are doomed from the start. Now, screenwriter and screenwriting teacher Michael Tabb comes to the rescue with a book centered on the all-important work the writer must do beforehand, the most neglected, challenging, and rewarding part of the process. Grounded in Michael Tabb’s deep understanding of how a premise is created and how characters come to life, Prewriting identifies each step of what for many is a chaotic, or even subconscious, process. This invaluable book combines those insights with down-to-earth, practical observations on the influence of genre, the varied functions the characters could fulfill, and how screenwriters can approach the story building process more systematically and more creatively at the same time. Prewriting offers thoughtful, practical and creative advice on all aspects of building a successful screen story. This should be on every screenwriter’s bookshelf."
-- Daniel Petrie, Jr.
WGA Writer, Beverly Hills Cop, Turner & Hooch, Shoot to Kill, Toy Soldiers
TV’s Combat Hospital
“In the ever-burgeoning catalogue of books treating screenwriting, Prewriting is an authentic standout. In fresh, accessible language, Michael Tabb posits provocative insights into the art, craft, and business of creating compelling dramatic narratives. The book is surely useful for screenwriters both new and experienced, but also for novelists and playwrights and, indeed, anyone interested in writing or reading or seeing on the screen well turned, engaging stories.”
-- Prof. Richard Walter
Screenwriting Area Head, Associate Dean
UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television
“All professional screenwriters know that screenwriting is half art and half science. Master teacher and accomplished screenwriter, Michael Tabb, knows a lot about both. In this important new contribution to the art and science of screenwriting, Tabb guides the novice and the professional through the absolute essentials of the screenwriting craft. He understands that the science side (the rules that all screenwriters must follow) are not an impediment to the art side (creative inspiration), but a requirement to it. Everyone who is currently making their living screenwriting and everyone who intends to should read this book. Immediately.”
-- Allen Estrin
Senior Lecturer, Screenwriting
American Film Institute (AFI)
“’Prewriting’ is amazing! What I love is that this book is clearly written by a working writer. Prewriting does a fantastic job of breaking down the key elements and building blocks of screenwriting into simple terms. It provides a clear, step-by-step guide that is practical as well as creatively stimulating. As a working writer, I plan to rely on Prewriting as one of my new, go-to toolboxes. As an educator, I will make Prewriting required reading for all the courses I teach.”
-- Donald H. Hewitt
School of Theater, Film & Television
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
“It’s taken me many, many years to learn what Michael has distilled into this book. I wish I knew all these things when I first embarked on my career. I’ve been to USC film school, I teach at USC film school, and I’ve had stellar jobs working for ICM, Tom Cruise and Paramount Pictures just to name a few. But I can tell you that I would have gone further and faster had Michael’s advice and guidance been available to me when I first started. He is knowledgeable, insightful, and he is right about what it takes to succeed as a writer.
-- Sebastian Twardosz
School of Cinematic Art
University of Southern California (USC)
“No sane person would attempt to run a marathon without training, would they? In my years of teaching screenwriting, I was amazed at how many of my students would balk at the idea of pre-writing, which includes premise building, character developing, structure plotting, and script outlining. What Michael Tabb's book does is give every student who loves writing a practical way to do all of that. He lays out each of the steps a writer needs to take before writing FADE IN, which are essential to creating a winning screenplay. This book gives the intellectual nutrition screenwriters need in order for them to start this screenwriting race. It helps guide writers to the choices they need to make in order to create a screenplay that works on all levels. I give Prewriting my highest recommendation.”
-- Kenneth Cosby, MFA
USC Screenwriting, Professor
NYU Writing for Television, Professor
“Michael Tabb. Screenwriting is a labor of love for him -- and so is this book. The knowledge and experience he's gathered over the years has compelled him to document it and share it with others. My passion is and always has been television, but the same rules, structures, and hurdles apply. It's how I design the workshops I teach at UCLA. This is a scholarly, beautifully written (and illustrated) tome. It can apply to all forms of writing. Anything that needs an 'idea'. It's about process, which is what writing is. Not formula. Process. And Mr. Tabb has processed it well!”
-- Bill Taub
UCLA Extension Writing Instructor
“Filmmaking, unlike other arts, is a collaborative form. No film can get made and profit (key phrase “profit”), after the script is approved, without a Producer, a Director, a Financier and a Distributor who understand story. Michael’s tome is a necessary read for all creatives to be able to thoroughly understand the story, its spine, its premise, its genre and how all characters within the story fit together in order to make & sell a successful movie. A Must Read.”
-- Dov S-S Simens
Hollywood Film Institute
"As a professional writer for Disney Animation and having written for Dreamworks, The Weinstein Company and other major studios, I plan to use Prewriting to make my work even better. Mr. Tabb has distilled his story creating process into the most comprehensive and meaningful writing aid I've had the pleasure of reading to date. As an educator for Young Storytellers, I do and will recommend this book to writers of any age who want to be a professional storyteller in any medium. It explains how to develop a story with meaning, how to design characters to serve that meaning, and gives its readers a series of exercises to help them create their own strong story foundations from scratch over and over again. It is accessible for beginners and will even push experienced writers to improve their craft. In short: Michael Tabb has written the newest, must-read textbook for all would-be writers in the entertainment industry."
-- Ricky Roxburg
“I’m a working film producer who’s sold projects to all the majors, and began my teaching career at UCLA. I’ve taught at Pixar, DreamWorks Animation, and Blizzard, and conferences including Great American PitchFest, Screenwriters Expo, and Screenwriters World. I have devoted much of my career to persuading screenwriters, both the pros and my students, of the importance of pre-writing. It is far more effective than rewriting. Screenwriter and author, Michael Tabb, has not only persuasively made this case in his book, Prewriting, he offers up a comprehensive set of powerful tools to completely craft a successful script before you type “Fade in.”
While there is a universal acceptance that “Concept is King,” there are few answers offered on how to come up with a great idea. This is the first book I’ve read that teaches you how to brainstorm in search of inspiration. Tabb lays his own process bare so you can learn from him. I love Tabb's discussion of genre – pertinent, penetrating, and insightful. And to a story geek like me, downright sexy.
Prewriting takes you through discovering your story’s thematic premise, to choosing the most impactful genre, crafting compelling characters, and ultimately incorporating these elements into a powerful story. Tabb motivates you to progress through the steps with invaluable information, enlightening examples, and skill building exercises, until you have created the foundation for a truly a successful story.
-- Barri Evins
Producer and Story Consultant
“What do you want to say with your story? If you want to have a clearer understanding of how to define this in your writing, you will want to read Michael Tabb’s book, Prewriting. Michael dives deeply into the WHY, creating a compelling debate with your story, genre, writing characters with purpose and intention and so much more. I devoured this book. It is in direct alignment with a lot of what I teach. Michael’s approach is totally accessible. You will hit many “aha” moments that will elevate your writing to the next level. I very highly recommend this book.”
-- Jen Grisanti
Writing Instructor at NBC, Author, International Speaker
“With Prewriting, experienced screenwriter Michael Tabb is your intense and passionate guide through the step-by-step process of designing a story from the inside out. Challenging many of the assumptions of conventional screenwriting theory, he shows you how a pro really lays out the internal wiring diagram of a story. With batteries of probing questions to ask yourself about your characters and premise, he defines the advance groundwork that allows you to start the script with confidence that your story will be coherent and meaningful. An important contribution to our body of knowledge about screenwriting and story development.”
-- Christopher Vogler
The Writer’s Journey
“At last, solid guidance on what to do and the decisions to make before you start writing your screenplay. Just as a movie has a preproduction stage, so a screenplay has a prewriting stage.”
-- Dave Trottier
The Screenwriter’s Bible, Dr. Format Tells All, and host of keepwriting.com
“A great screenplay begins with a great plan. With Michael Tabb's fantastic new book, writers now have the tools to do what is so difficult for many: face the blank page with confidence and conviction, armed with the knowledge and guidance required to lay down the sound, thoughtful foundation required to produce a great screenplay, and never get writer's block again.”
-- Lee Jessup
Career Coach for Professional and Emerging Screenwriters
Author, Getting It Write: An Insider's Guide To A Screenwriting Career
"The consummate writer's writer, Michael Tabb will forever change the way you look at story, premises and character through his insightful approach to PREwriting, screenwriting and brainstorming. Michael gets inside the thought process of story and premise development in a fun way no one else has. With a nod to the masters, Michael's on-point analyses, exercises, and advice is a game-changer for writers at every level looking to defeat writer's block and create compelling stories. I cannot recommend this book highly enough."
-- Danny Manus
CEO/Script Consultant, No BullScript Consulting
Director of Development, Clifford Werber Productions
Development Consultant, Eclectic Pictures
Director of Development, Sandstorm Films
“Michael Tabb brings not only his industry experience but also insightful, inspiring, and engaging educator to the pages of Prewriting Your Screenplay. Tabb engages the reader with a conversational approach to understanding the narrative components of screenplay construction. This is a master class in the art and the craft of screenwriting taught by a working screenwriter. Prewriting Your Screenplay belongs on the same shelf as Egri's Art of Dramatic Writing and McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.
-- Christopher Ramsey
Department Chair and Educator
Creative Writing Program
Full Sail University
"Michael Tabb takes readers and writers on a fun and inspiring journey where the ideas pop out and the words flow freely. Prewriting Your Screenplay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Generating Stories is a must read for anyone who struggles with or has ever struggled with writer’s block. The advice and expertise that Tabb so generously shares with the reading public are invaluable for aspiring writers or seasoned writers who know what it’s like to stare endlessly at that blank page on the computer screen. I feel like I've been let in on a secret that only a select few, elite writers knew-- until now. As an educator, I can’t wait to refer my students to this book when they complain, and they always do, of the most severe cases of writer’s block."
-- Stephanie Fleming
Los Angeles Film School
"Michael Tabb might be the only film instructor to get me teary-eyed in class... and it was during his twenty minute practice lecture! "PREWRITING" combines Michael's encyclopedic knowledge of film & writing and his love for the possibilities of art. Michael speaks to the reader plainly, honestly and with a real connection to the material. As a guide for a writer, it offers encouragement, concrete advice and sagely caution about the pleasures and potential pitfalls of creating any type of story. He provides sharp ideas for readers looking to develop their structure, genre, style and character, making this a valuable asset for experienced writers and newbies alike. Any screenwriting book equally adept at quoting Shakespeare and "Real Genius" warrants your attention!”
-- Eric Conner
Former Screenwriting Department Chair, New York Film Academy (NYFA)
Former Dean of Students, NYFA
Current Screenwriting Instructor, NYFA