I first learned about screenplays as an Infantry Platoon Leader in Iraq. I studied the online class materials I thought, “Huh, this is a lot like an OPORD (operations order)”. While this comparison holds zero value for non-military film folks, it’s a statement that may help veterans approach screenplay writing.
In the army, a five-paragraph OPORD is foundation for any mission much like a screenplay is to a movie.
Before I get into the meat of the OPORD/Screenplay comparison, I want to relate the audience of each document to the other.
Directors, producers, production heads and actors acquire information and adapt the screenplay to film by, well, reading the damn thing! Commanders, first sergeants and subordinates do so for OPORDs. Film and military people jump from movie to movie and mission to mission respectively. That is why brevity, structure and standardized vocabulary are paramount in both documents.
Words matter. The use of non-standardized words is not invited and shows a lack of knowledge, or worse, a lack of care; “EXT” carries as much meaning in a screenplay as “raid” does in an OPORD.
Structure matters. The right margins, the right spacing, and the proper organization of each is standardized; deviations will lead to you not being taken seriously in the movie industry, and probably getting an ass-chewing in the army.
Now, the three-act screenplay to the five-paragraph OPORD: Situation, Mission, Execution, Sustainment, Command.
In the “Situation” paragraph, friendly forces, enemy forces, and the battlefield are outlined. In the first act, we meet the hero, we meet the enemy, obstacles and stakes are established.
The second paragraph, “Mission”, is a clear and concise objective in order to achieve a desire effect. This can be seen as the call to action that propels a story into its second act (Mission: “Luke learns the ways of the Force by, with and through Obi-wan Kenobi IOT (in order to) become a Jedi just like his father”).
The third and most robust paragraph, “Execution”, tells the story of how the mission statement’s desired outcome will be accomplished based on friendly forces available and anticipated enemy forces in the given terrain. The second act of a film is the most exciting act, but most difficult to write, just like the “Execution” paragraph. The execution of a mission is broken down to numerous phases and slubordinate units are maneuvered along code-word-laden routes. In a screenplay, the second act is the maneuvering of everything set up in the first act to complete the call to action. The more clarity and purpose achieved in the first act and the call to action, the more deliberate and exhilarating your second act will be. No, “Sustainment”, the fourth paragraph of an OPORD, is not like the third act. Where a operation comes to a close is in its final phase of execution which is usually when friendly forces “Consolidate and reorganize” to “prepare for follow-on mission”. Troops and equipment regroup much like a third act consolidates all of its moving pieces and provides an end point, even if the follow-on mission sequel is already set in the contracts.
The rest of an OPORD would work nicely into a pre-production planning model – I’ll write that article next.
Brian Andries is an Army Captain and Iraq War veteran. He is an actor and writer in Los Angeles. His Instagram is @bandries