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. It 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 readers 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.
The book provides a clear-cut set of lessons that teaches how to construct that story base around concepts as individual as the writer’s personal opinions, helping to foster an individual writer’s voice. It also features end-of-chapter exercises that offer step-by-step guidance in applying each lesson, providing screenwriters with a concrete approach to building a strong foundation for a screenplay. This is the quintessential book for all writers taking their first steps towards developing a screenplay from nothing, getting them over that first monumental hump, resulting in a well-formulated story concept that is cohesive and professional.
By Michael Tabb
Table of Contents
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 Introduction
Chapter 5: Protagonist (with details on anti-heroes and failed protagonists)
Chapter 6: Antagonist (and the mentor gone wrong)
Chapter 7: Can the Protagonist be the Antagonist?
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)
Appendix - Bonus Material/Final Exercise
"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, WGA Screenwriter/Creator; The Blade and Batman Begins Trilogies, Dark City, Jumper, The Puppet Masters; TV’s Krypton, Da Vinci’s Demons, Constantine, Flash Forward; Video 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, WGA Writer, Guardians of the Galaxy, First Man, Captain Marvel, Black Widow, Detective Pikachu, Sherlock Holmes 3
"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, WGA Writer/Creator, The Big Bang Theory, The Muppets, Gilmore Girls, Dharma & Greg, Caroline in the City, Dream On
"Michael Tabb has thought long, hard, and usefully about how to write screenplays with vision and intent. He understands premise, character, conflict, and 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); WGA Writer, August, Saving Grace, Takedown
"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 five billion in the 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, to 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, WGA Writer/Creator, San Andreas, Rampage; TV’s Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Lost, 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 Your Screenplay, 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; 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, WGA Writer/Creator, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Green Lantern; TV’s Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, No Ordinary Family, Eli Stone, CSI: Miami, Law & Order; Video 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, WGA Writer, 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, WGA Writer/Producer/Creator, 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, WGA Writer, Now You See Me 1 & 2, Jessica Jones, Wayward Pines
"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, 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 screenwriters 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, WGA Writer/Creator, 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
"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, Screenwriting Lecturer, 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, Screenwriting Lecturer, School of Cinematic Arts, 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
"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, WGA Writer-Producer, 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, Dean, 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 Roxburgh, Screenwriting Educator, Young Storytellers
"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, Story/Career Consultant, 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, Author, 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, Author, The Screenwriter’s Bible, Dr. Format Tells All, 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, Faculty, 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
"In regards of Michael Tabb, I consider him one of the top authorities in this field due to his wealth of knowledge on screenwriting and cinema history based on the professionalism and passion with which he shares them in this book, Prewriting Your Screenplay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Generating Stories. Michael shows us the basic tricks of storytelling necessary to craft a clear and concise tome. He does this with examples, anecdotes, and exercises that provide the reader an understanding of the steps required for proper story development, including character archetypes, genre selection, conflict, and structure building. As a screenwriting teacher, I would present this book to my students with confidence that they will receive a wealth of information, insight, and experience from a great teacher and screenwriter. Michael Tabb’s Prewriting is absolutely a must read!"
—Edward Santiago, Screenwriting Lecturer, Austin School of Film
"I have been using Michael’s articles in Script Magazine to help my students with many aspects of screenwriting, most notably to understand the concept of thematic premise and its importance and usefulness in both idea creation as well as overall script development. Now that he has combined all of his writings (and much more) in one book my students will have a single source that offers both concrete and theoretical tools that encompass the entire process of writing a screenplay, teleplay and live performance theater from concept to completion."
—Patrick Mulvihill, Guest Lecturer, Screenwriting I & II, Writing for TV, and Dramatic Writing Communications Department, Film & Media, Georgia State University
"Michael Tabb's extensive experience as a writer shows in this book. Even seasoned veterans will find nuggets of wisdom to help keep their writing moving forward. This alone is worth the price of admission."
—Isaac Ho, Assistant Professor, Writing for the Stage and Screen, Point Park University
"In Prewriting Your Screenplay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Generating Stories, Michael Tabb raises critical questions that have long concerned writers and educators. Who’s the hero when our main character does not fit the traditional stereotype? How do we avoid writer’s block? What does a premise need to do? Why is genre relevant? How do character flaws make our protagonist stronger and clearer? What does love have to do with our protagonist and the story? And, how do genre trends affect a writer’s decision-making? Tabb’s book also includes many other thought-provoking questions, measurement exercises, and specific film references to challenge the reader to look at their work from a new perspective. Anyone involved in screenwriting or the development of film will treasure this book because it provides another avenue to help filmmakers become more observant, reflective, and introspective. Prewriting helps us all create more professional screenplays."
—DR Fraley, Transmedia Storytelling Producer, Department of Communications, Media & Culture, Bryan College
"As a published author, I look forward to using Prewriting Your Screenplay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Generating Stories as a great step-by-step process when in the first stages of new idea and story creation. Michael Tabb provides logical, progressive explanations to what many people perceive as a subjective and intangible endeavor. Even seasoned writers will appreciate the connections he draws from conceptualizing a premise to the pivotal roles characters and genre play within a story’s development.
As an educator, Prewriting Your Screenplay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Generating Stories will be my go-to resource for young writers in my creative writing elective classes. It provides examples, exercises, and thoughtful reflections for writers that will assist in understanding the critical components of story writing. The organization of topics will help even my youngest writers develop their imagination before putting pen to paper or hands to keyboards so they will not struggle with writer’s block."
—Tess Votto Haranda, Educator, Author, www.tessvotto.com
"This book is excellently organized and covers every essential technique and knowledge-set needed for creating a story. Authors of all experience levels can benefit from the wisdom Mike sets forth in his writings. As an educator, I can easily see this book being put to use in my creative writing courses. The exercises at the end of each chapter expertly allow students to apply the new concepts immediately. I would most definitely recommend this to my students and fellow writers alike."
—Jared Loper, Idaho Falls High School, Creative Writing Class; Christel House Academy, 11th and 12 English Language Arts
"I am so pleased and excited that Michael Tabb has finally put his worldly wisdom in readable format. Prewriting is a uniquely riveting how to book that’s written from the heart. I laughed. I cried. I was inspired yet again. Michael’s love for screenwriting shines through with each and every word as he proves John Steinbeck wrong--writing is indeed not magic but can be quickly learned even from a zero baseline. As both a student and a teacher, I highly recommend this soon-to-be screenwriter’s bible prequel, which should be required reading for any student of the craft. Thank you, Mike, for always giving back!"
—Constance Younger, MS, MFA, California Certified Educator, Platt College
"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