By: Laura Huie
So, you’ve got a stellar idea for a feature, pilot, or short film swirling around in your head, and you’re itching to bring it to life on the page.
Whether you’re a seasoned screenwriter or embarking on your first script, the process of developing a captivating screenplay is a rewarding one that requires dedication, knowledge of structure, and basic craft elements, along with a passion for your unique story.
In this article, we’ll explore 10 invaluable tips to guide you on the path to developing your best screenplay yet.
1. Write About What Interests You
If you write about what interests you, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and effort trying to fire your imagination, and you’ll likely increase the likelihood that you’ll finish your story. Not only will you be more motivated to write, but you’ll be less likely to put aside the project when the numerous inevitable writing obstacles surface.
French filmmaker Claire Denis (the director/writer of High Life) had this to say about her creative process:
“I suppose I am interested in the variety of human life – how people live… how they respond to challenges or to difficulties, or just to each other.”- Claire Denis
Once you can define what the focal point of your writing is, and you have that creative foundation laid out, everything else should fall into place.
2. Embrace the Collaborative Process
Sometimes, the only thing holding back the formation of your creative voice is the lack of another person who can help you articulate it. It’s typical for a writer to be hesitant toward collaboration. After all; if a script is supposed to reflect the writer, does bringing on another writer confuse, or even compromise its validity?
Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails are creatives who have a long history of working together, and these collaborations can be attributed to the formation of their respective storytelling voices, as evidenced by their latest collaboration, The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
“We’ve been making movies since we were teens, and they always come from some kernel of truth, some real story that happened to him or I, and then they always sort of like get spun into whatever they become through our imagination collectively.” – Joe Talbot
If a writing partnership isn’t right for you, then look for feedback on your work from someone you trust. An outside perspective is only going to help you craft better screenplays and films.
3. Try Different Things
It’s important to try everything when you’re writing. If a story isn’t coming together in spite of your copious note-taking and preparation, try throwing all of that aside and going with your gut. If improvisation has left you in a creative dead-end; go back and plan out your scene so you can approach it with a renewed sense of purpose. If you don’t take the opportunity to test different methods, you won’t find what works for you.
For example; Bong Joon-Ho is a filmmaker known for mixing genres and telling very idiosyncratic stories, as showcased by his film, Parasite. When asked at a press conference at Cannes about his unconventional style, he said:
“I follow my instinct – I don’t calculate everything in detail i.e., will the gin & tonic be made with 40 percent of gin and 60 percent of tonic? I focus basically on the situation, the actual moment in time.” – Bong Joon-Ho
Despite all of the educational resources available, it’s easy to forget that there isn’t a right or wrong way to approach writing a story, and sometimes the methods that seem counterintuitive can be just what you need. An important part of finding your voice is finding the method that works best for you.
4. Present Things You’ve Seen in New Ways
The phrase “there’s nothing new under the sun” gets thrown around a lot when it comes to film. When you consider the fact that this medium has existed for over a century, it’s easy to accept its validity. It’s also very easy to assume that you’ve got nothing to contribute to your writing.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed and written by Celine Sciamma, earned the Best Screenplay Award at 2019’s Cannes Film Festival. The story came with its fair share of creative challenges, as documented by Sciamma when she said the following in an interview:
“I thought about the kiss scene for many months – I had a list of different possibilities, I wondered, “How can I renew the choreography of a kiss?”… all of a sudden you have this idea of a kiss with the scarf or the veil and that in fact then guided a lot of what came before and after.” – Celine Sciamma
The kiss scene has been a cinematic convention ever since Thomas Edison first captured it in 1896. Over a century and an unfathomable number of movies later, it would be easy to fall into the mindset that it would be impossible to frame a kiss scene in a new way. But even a simple change can provide context and novelty. You just have to figure out how. Challenge yourself. Not only will you improve as a visual storyteller, but you’ll be one step closer to finding your own voice.
5. Develop Complex Characters
Compelling characters are the heart and soul of any screenplay. Audiences connect with characters who feel real, relatable, and multi-dimensional. When crafting your characters, delve into their backgrounds, motivations, flaws, and desires. Allow them to evolve and change throughout the story, undergoing a transformation that mirrors their internal journey. The Coen Brothers, known for their character-driven films like Fargo and The Big Lebowski, emphasize the significance of character:
“You love all your characters, even the ridiculous ones. You have to on some level; they’re your weird creations in some kind of way. I don’t even know how you approach the process of conceiving the characters if in a sense you hated them. It’s just absurd.” – Joel Coen
Creating characters with depth not only enriches your story but also gives actors and actresses the opportunity to bring those characters to life in a meaningful way.
6. Craft Dialogue with Purpose
Dialogue is a powerful tool for conveying information, revealing character traits, and advancing the plot. However, avoid using dialogue as a mere exposition dump. Instead, let conversations flow naturally, revealing information through subtext, conflict, and interaction. Each line of dialogue should serve a purpose, whether it’s creating tension, adding humor, or deepening emotional resonance. Quentin Tarantino, celebrated for his distinctive dialogue style, explains his approach:
“I just get the characters talking to each other. It’s like, me, the writer, is writing it and, yeah, I’m kind of controlling for a while, but the idea is that the conversation catches fire amongst the characters, and then they take it and run with it, and then I’m almost like a court reporter jotting it all down.” – Quentin Tarantino
Consider the nuances of your characters when crafting their dialogue – their personalities, backgrounds, and relationships should all influence how they speak and interact.
7. Study Structure, Then Bend It
Understanding screenplay structures, such as the three-act structure, can provide a solid framework for your story. However, don’t be afraid to deviate from it when necessary. Innovative storytelling often arises from experimenting with traditional structures. Think about how Christopher Nolan played with non-linear narrative in films like Memento and Inception. It may help to think about your story from a different perspective. Nolan has stated:
“What I try to do is write from the inside out. I really try to jump into the world of the film and the characters, try to imagine myself in that world rather than imagining it as a film I’m watching onscreen. Sometimes, that means I’m discovering things the way the audience will, with character and story.” – Christopher Nolan
Learning the rules of structure equips you to effectively tell your story, and once you’ve mastered them, you can strategically break them for artistic effect.
8. Show, Don’t Tell
Visual storytelling is at the heart of filmmaking, and screenplays are no exception. Instead of describing everything in detail, strive to show emotions, actions, and visuals through vivid descriptions and action lines. A well-crafted image can convey more than paragraphs of explanation. A famous quote from Russian playwright Anton Chekov:
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekov
Let the scenes you write evoke the emotions you want the audience to feel, without relying solely on dialogue to convey them.
9. Edit, Revise, Repeat
Once you’ve completed a draft of your screenplay, set it aside for a while before revisiting it with fresh eyes. Editing is a crucial part of the process, allowing you to refine dialogue, tighten pacing, and enhance character arcs. Don’t be afraid to cut scenes or lines that don’t contribute to the overall story. Stephen King once said:
“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” – Stephen King
Embrace the rewriting process as an opportunity to refine your screenplay and elevate it to its highest potential.
10. Stay Persistent
Screenwriting is a journey filled with highs and lows. Rejections, creative blocks, and self-doubt are all part of the process. However, the key to success is persistence. Keep honing your craft, seeking feedback, and submitting your work. Every setback is a chance to learn and grow. Steven Spielberg offers this advice:
“Failure is inevitable. Success is elusive. So give yourself permission to be amazing. Repeatedly.” – Steven Spielberg
Believe in your story and your abilities, and keep pushing forward, even when the going gets tough. With each setback, you’re one step closer to achieving your screenwriting goals.
You Got This!
Crafting a captivating screenplay is a blend of creativity, technique, and perseverance. Whether you’re drawing inspiration from your passions, collaborating with others, or experimenting with structure, remember that your unique voice is what will set your screenplay apart. With dedication and a commitment to growth, you’re on your way to developing a screenplay that resonates with audiences and leaves a lasting impact on the world of storytelling.
Submit to our 2023 Script Development Fund
Our Development Fund is for screenwriters who are currently in the trenches, working on their most recent project. We accept either the first ten pages of your feature, TV pilot, short film, or a short treatment that surmises your project.
We’ll be reading your submissions to shortlist, and then announce two winners who will receive a 1st Prize of $2000 and a 2nd Prize of $1000. Plus, both winners will receive 12 Months of script development with Shore Script’s Head of Education, Lee Hamilton.
Having support from us over 12 months through phone calls, script coverage, and emails will ensure that you have someone there to constantly encourage you, help point you in the right direction, and not only finish your screenplay but write your very best screenplay. Click here to submit to our Script Development Fund!
Laura Huie is an experienced writer and editor involved in comedy-drama screenwriting, fiction editing, and full-time marketing copy. Laura is also a freelance article writer for Shore Scripts and has worked with Script Pipeline on their live Symposium series. She is one-half of screenwriting duo, Bloom & Huie. Together, they have written multiple television series as well as a feature-length film. Their mission is to write honest and witty female stories wrapped up in unbelievable worlds.
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