Maybe you’ve got a great idea for a movie but don’t know where to start. Maybe you’ve been shooting short films on your phone and are ready to take things to the next level. Or maybe you’ve been writing prose, but now want to experiment with writing for the screen.
First things, first. What is screenwriting?
Almost every movie and television show started off in screenplay form. Think of it as the blueprint that an architect draws, which is then used as a guide by a construction team to build from. Except, unlike a building, screenplays aren’t set in stone. They’re fluid. They go through many drafts, many alterations, and what’s written down on paper doesn’t always translate exactly to what you see on screen. You can have a great script that turned into a bad film, and vice versa. The point is, while writing a screenplay usually starts off as one writers’ vision, filmmaking is a team effort, so be prepared to collaborate!
There are many different types of scripts, but as a new writer, you’ll primarily be working on spec scripts. Bad news is; they’re not commissioned. You’ll be using your own time to produce original works in the hope that you can sell them once they’re completed. After a script has been optioned, or sold, it’s then drafted into a shooting script, where technical instructions are added, scenes are numbered, and revisions are color-coded etc. in order to assist the production crew. Don’t worry. None of these things should ever be found in a spec script, but you do however need to get to grips with how a screenplay should look.
BUT WHERE TO START?
Read! The best and easiest way to understand screenwriting is by reading other scripts, which also happens to be the number one way to help improve your writing too, so it’s a double bonus! Unfortunately, many writers eager to get going neglect this step, but it’s painfully obvious to any professional reading their work when the basic fundamentals are missing. We’ve got a great selection of scripts of every genre and format available to download here, so start creating good writing habits today by making it part of your routine to read just as regularly as you write.
Read more! Almost every writer has a collection of screenwriting books on their shelves. There’s a huge selection out there that covers everything from introducing the basics, how-to-guides, and various ways on how to make the process faster, to more detailed books on the intricacies of structure, character design, and how to actually sell your script once you’ve written it. Having a physical book to hand that‘s there to guide you through the process can be an extremely useful tool, but with so many different books on the market, it can be difficult to know where to begin. A quick google search should point you in the right direction as there’s a few firm favorites out there, but if you want some quick help, here’s our own personal selection of the Top 5 Screenwriting Books Professionals Use to get you started.
Take a course. You’ve got access to our Ultimate Screenwriting Course, which is a great place to start whether you haven’t quite put pen to paper, or are already in the middle of rewrites. Get advice from industry professionals who can take you through the process one step at a time, plus you can find our Fast Track Your First Draft Course in the Monthly Courses and Workbooks section.
Putting Pen to Paper. You don’t have to use screenwriting software, but it helps. A lot! You’ll quickly discover that screenwriting is different from writing a book, most notably by the way the text is laid out on the page. There are specific rules that a screenplay must adhere to, and using screenwriting software is highly recommended to help you understand this, such as Final Draft, Celtx, Movie Magic Screenwriter, or WriterDuet, which is free. Correct formatting isn’t a desire, it’s a requirement, especially if you want to be taken seriously, so it’s essential that you get to grips with the industry standard layout. Thankfully, we’ve got an Ultimate Guide to Formatting in the Monthly Courses & Workbooks section that will teach you everything you need to know, whether you’re using screenwriting software or not.
Length. Another difference between novels and screenplays, is that scripts have length constraints. Feature spec scripts are expected to be no longer than 90-120-pages long, short films are a maximum of 45-pages, and television scripts can range from 30-60 pages, depending on which format and time slot they’re aimed at, but either way, you’ve got to be able to condense your story into a manageable size. Having such little space to write your story means that you’ve got to strip it down to the essentials. There’s no room for flowery description, inner monologues, or anything that isn’t moving the story forward, and this is often a struggle for new writers, but as with most things, practice makes perfect, so don’t worry if your script comes out too long or too short. First drafts are never perfect. Never!
Beat the Blank Page. Facing a blank page can be a little intimidating at first and those first few words sometimes take the longest to write. Don’t fear making mistakes or making changes. Nothing you put down on the page is permanent. You can save multiple drafts, move scenes around, add or delete characters, or even re-locate your story to an entirely new world if you like. The point is that you need to have some words down on the page to work with first. Filling out the title page is a good place to begin, but you don’t need to work from start to finish in a linear fashion, and you don’t need to immediately start writing the script. List locations, write a note or two to describe what needs to happen in each scene, or jot down a powerful line of dialogue that you can’t get out of your head, anything! If you get stuck just move onto a scene that excites you and come back to fill in the blanks later.
Pantser or Plotter? Although there are lots of guides out there on how to write, everyone invariably has to discover their own way, and this only comes via trying different methods and finding what works for you and what doesn’t. There are two main types of writers, but realistically, you don’t have to be one or the other, and can be a mixture of both. Plotters like to outline their story; they like to have a firm idea of what’s going to happen in their script before they start writing it. Pantsers are the opposite; they don’t plan anything and instead let their characters take control, giving them the freedom to take the story off into unexpected directions. Both have pros and cons. Knowing everything about your story before you write it can make the scriptwriting feel boring, but not having a firm plan might also mean that you waste valuable time taking your story down an avenue that doesn’t work. It’s trial and error, but it’s also fun discovering different ways to spark your creativity too.
Beat it out. Even if you discover that you’re a pantser, there are certain beats and turning points that need to occur along the way to help keep the viewers engaged. Taken in its simplest form, a story needs a beginning, middle, and end, and ideally, your character needs to have grown, changed, or learned something by the end. Chopping your story into small beats is a great way to show this. Again, there are different methods and structures to use, such as Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, the Hero’s Journey, or the Sequence Approach, so find which best suits the story you want to tell. Beats are a great way to make your story more exciting, rewarding, or surprising. Sure, you can have a story about a farmer going to a market to sell a pig, but if that’s all that happens, it’s not going to be very interesting. Adding in beats, such as an inciting incident that reveals he needs to sell that pig to buy medicine for his sick child, a turning point to add conflict, such as a band of thieves stealing his pig before he sets off, or a point of no return, like discovering the pig is dead and having to hold the thief’s wife for ransom, makes the journey a whole lot more exciting.
Who is your story about? Understanding who your protagonist(s) is, what they’re trying to achieve, and more importantly why, is essential. You’ve got to give the audience a good reason to want to sit and stay with your characters for the duration of your story, otherwise they’ll switch off, leave, or find something else that holds their interest more. Think about the fictional characters that you love (or hate) and why. Was it because you could relate to their struggle, could understand their motivations, because they were believable and flawed individuals, or because they were always actively driving the action forward, etc.? An exciting plot or event doesn’t make a great story, it’s the characters experiencing it that does, so understanding the driving forces behind the action that your characters make is important.
Who is your story for? A key point to keep in mind when writing is how you want the audience to react throughout the story. If you’re writing a genre piece, such as a horror for example, you need to make sure that your story has everything that a horror fan will be expecting at the same time as making sure your script isn’t just a carbon copy of movies already out there. There’s a fine balance between creating something that’s familiar but that’s also original. On a deeper level, your story needs to take the viewers on an emotional rollercoaster, and your writing needs to evoke that emotion on the page too. Keep asking yourself questions throughout the process, such as ‘what will the audience be expecting to happen next?’, ‘should you satisfy their expectations or create an unexpected twist, reveal, or change of direction?’, ‘how do you want the audience to feel about a specific character and is what’s happening in this scene helping or hindering that?’ etc.
Show, Don’t Tell. Remember that film is a visual medium, yet while yes, your screenplay will probably have plenty of dialogue in it, the audience are paying much more attention to what they can see than what they’re listening to. ‘Show, don’t tell’ basically means letting the visuals do most of the work when delivering information. It’s a character yawning instead of being told “Bob is tired”. It’s a longing look at bride’s dress in the shop window instead of writing “Claire thinks that she’ll never get hitched now that her fiancé’s dead”. And it’s the visual of the packed suitcase by the front door that tells us ‘Maria’s has enough. She’s leaving home.’
Create a Writing Schedule. It doesn’t matter whether you can write one page or a hundred per session. It matters that you do it consistently. A writing session could be the fifteen minutes you have spare during a work break, a weekend afternoon, or a dedicated couple of hours each evening, but creating and sticking to a regular writing schedule is going to help train your brain into getting the work done. If you want to make it as a screenwriter, you’ll need the discipline to work to deadlines, so why not start off with this great habit that won’t see you wrong as your career progresses.
Rewrites. Nobody gets it right the first time, the second time, or the third, etc. It’s a craft that takes time to learn and rewrites are part of this. Some people love them, most people hate them, but they’re necessary. If you’re at the rewriting stage, you already deserve a pat on the back, because it means that you put in the work and completed a first draft of a screenplay, putting you heads and shoulders above the many that failed. A good place to start the rewriting process is by checking out our 8 Week Course on Polishing Your Screenplay, which can be found in the Monthly Courses and Workbooks section.
Get Feedback. You don’t need to have completed a screenplay to start getting feedback on your writing. That’s what our Private Community Hub is there for. Ask your peers any screenwriting questions or concerns you have, post excerpts of your work, test your logline etc. Writers love to talk about writing, and so do we! Our experienced staff are on hand to help. If you’re a 6 month or yearly subscriber, then claim your free 2-page or 5-page coverage whenever you’re ready. It’s hard to stay subjective when you’ve been working on a piece for a long time, so getting an outside eye on your work is invaluable.
Hopefully, this short overview has provided you with enough information to get you started. Don’t forget to check-in, introduce yourself, and start building some great screenwriting friendships. Writing can be a solitary career, but it doesn’t have to be!