Screenplay Writing Tips
When you learn how to write a screenplay, a lot of the learning has to do with the layout and notations of the script. That’s because a Hollywood screenplay will be used by a studio full of people, including executives, producers, directors, actors and other writers. Many screenplays require rewrites or revisions, and the people using the script need to know which parts of the screenplay are being referred. This allows for the collaborative effort to take place, and is therefore essential to know when you learn how to write a screenplay.
Luckily for those writing movie scripts these days, there are software tools to help you when you begin to write a screenplay. Invest in some screenwriting software, which is relatively inexpensive in relation to the time and effort it will save you. None of the steps of learning to write a movie screenplay are hard in and of themselves; but it is essential you learn what they are.
So learn to write your screenplay in the standard Hollywood format. To even think about having your screenplay read, it needs to be in the proper format. The script also needs to use the standard notation and script length. If any of these factors are not right, the person you send it to will reject the screenplay out of hand. So you’ll need to learn these specifications before anything.
How to Read a Screenplay – Writing Scripts
Before writing a screenplay, you should read as many screenplays as you can. When you read a screenplay, you begin to see what successful scripts look like and how to go about writing your own screenplay. Dissect why certain dialogue is good and why certain scenes work. Once you have studied the work of other screenwriters, you’ll be ready to write your own script. Consider reading a book or two about screenwriting before you start, too, if nothing else to familiarize yourself with the screenwriting process.
Anatomy of a Screenplay – Guide to Writing Scripts
1. Genre - Choose a genre for your movie. People in the movie business want something they can recognize when you submit it. So choose a genre and write within it. Write a script for a romantic comedy, a teen sex comedy, a fast-paced action movie, a horror film or a science fiction story. Fit your script idea into an existing genre.
I’m not suggesting you submit something that’s been done before a hundred times. I’m not suggesting you submit a script that follows every standard formula for your genre. Producers want something new, but something that is distinguishable for them. They want a new twist on something they recognize and understand. What is going to set your movie or television screenplay apart is its “concept”.
2. Concept – Come up with the concept of your screenplay. Hollywood people often refer to this as high concept. The concept is the central idea of your story. It presents a “What If…?” scenario. Aliens producers sold their movie to the studio on the idea that it was “Jaws in space”, so the high concept of Alien would be “what if travelers in space were trapped on their tiny spacecraft with a monster?” — a fair enough concept. Predator might be “what if a team of Special Forces operatives faced a well-armed alien in the jungle?” and Tropic Thunder would be “what if a group of eccentric and vacuous Hollywood actors filming a war epic found themselves in the middle of a real war situation?”.
This is your hook. It’s what is going to grab the attention of the producers of the movie and convince them to read through your script. If your high concept is “slice of life”, it’s not going to get anyone’s attention.
3. Conflict – Drama comes from characters facing obstacles. In an action movie, the hero facing seemingly impossible obstacles, but overcomes each and every one in style. In a comedy, the obstacles are often social, romantic or just plain silly, but the clowns eventually resolve the conflict. In a drama, characters face generally more realistic challenges, and may or may not overcome the obstacles. In fact, the protagonist’s life may be destroyed in the process or his/her career, marriage or sanity consumed in the struggle.
Whatever the case, your main characters need a goal, along with obstacles to overcoming this goal. This creates conflict in the story, which in turn creates drama, tension and dynamism. Actors don’t want to play characters which are static. They want a character to undergo a change or come to a realization during the movie, and the screenplay should supply this conflicts which cause a character to either grow as a person or fall apart in the story conflicts.
Keep in mind that these conflicts might involve anything, from a social injustice, crushing poverty or a self-destructive addiction. The character might struggle against himself or herself, such as battling arrogance or pride, or overcoming one’s own prejudices. Or the character may have a bad boss, a bad neighbor or simply win the girl’s affection. Whatever the case, you need to add conflict into your screenplay.
4. Character Names – Come up with original and striking character names for your main characters. While dull names or bad names are not fatal, they certainly don’t help. Don’t write a script with a protagonist named John Smith. Unless you have a compelling reason that’s essential to the plot that will be revealed fairly quickly, John Smith isn’t likely to get the attention of the script-reader.
Audiences, actors and movie executives alike want characters who are memorable and easily identifiable. You might prefer to have shadings and subtleties to your character, which is fine, but you want your characters to be immediately identifiable and striking in some way when they enter the scene. A good name will help. If you want a cool character, give him a cool name. If you want a street-wise detective, give him a name that’s suggests he’s seen it all. If you want a comic protagonist, give him a funny-sounding name.
Hollywood is full of characters with colorful yet apt names. Audiences had to figure that someone named Darth Vader was one serious villain. Everyone knew immediately that Napoleon Dynamite was off-center. And westerns are full of great names, from Liberty Valence to Rooster Cogburn to John Herod; the genre is just full of colorful names for heroes and villains. I can’t imagine a movie named “The Man Who Shot John Smith”.
Also, it’s better to have names even for minor characters with speaking roles. Instead of having Mobster #1 and Mobster #2, you might as well name them something colorful like Sammy The Finger and Tony “the Toupee” Coppochi.
Note that when you introduce a character into the screenplay for the first time, you need to place the character’s name in ALL-CAPS.
5. Writing Dialogue – Writing good dialogue is important when writing a screenplay. Characters should sound conversational, which is to say they should sound natural. Unless a character has a specific idiosyncrasy where he or she doesn’t speak in everyday conversational words, you should have them speak naturally. The effect of doing otherwise is jarring and alienates the audience from the characters. It’s just not natural, so people think something is wrong with the character.
At the same time, try to write striking, memorable dialogue. Don’t overdo it, but certain characters might have one or two unique speaking characteristics.
6. Writing Action – Action is written in the present (real time), so you should write actions in the active voice. Active voice would be “A gun fires”, as opposed to the passive voice “A gun is fired”.
When writing descriptions of action, keep the reader in mind. Write in short paragraphs no more than five lines long. Otherwise, the reader is likely to scan your paragraph and overlook important notes. Also, long paragraphs full of action sequences can be off-putting to some producers.
7. Setting the Scene – Remember to describe where each scene takes place. Set up the scene, so your actors and director can visualize what is going on. This doesn’t have to be a long, detailed description, but your readers will be hopelessly lost if you don’t describe the setting in your script.
8. Cut Scenes that Don’t Work – Don’t be shy about editing your own manuscript. If a scene is weak or it doesn’t have a purpose, get rid of it. Ask yourself if a scene furthers the story or not. If it doesn’t, then the scene doesn’t need to be in the screenplay, no matter how good the dialogue is. Find somewhere else to add the dialogue into the script, in a more natural and cohesive way.
Also, make sure your scenes make their points. If the dialogue or character actions aren’t clear, then you might need to tinker with them in a rewrite. Try to place yourself in the mind of a reader who doesn’t have the intimate, total knowledge of the story that you do. Then ask yourself if your writing has succeeded in communicating the point you are trying to make in the scene.
9. Avoid Repetition – When looking back over your script, avoid repetitive scenes. In this way, you’ll probably need to rewrite whole scenes, or just get rid or combine scenes that don’t work. In the end, you’re trying to entertain an audience, and if too many scenes look or sound the same — or go over the same thoughts and ideas — the audience will be bored.
10. Rewrite Your Screenplay – Once you are finished writing your screenplay, rewrite it. I know what a big accomplishment it is to finish a script, but that isn’t the end of the process. Rewriting is an essential part of the screenplay writing process. Learning to edit your ideas is also essential.
Have friends and other writers look at your screenplay and ask for honest feedback. If you respect the opinions of these people, actually take the advice to heart. Don’t become so personally attached to your writing that you refuse to change a word. Writing can be improved with a good rewrite, and a second draft will tighten up both the story and dialogue and give you a better chance to succeed when submitting a screenplay.
Format Notes – How To Write a Screenplay
Here are some notes on the format you should follow with your screenplay.
- Write on 8 1/2″ x 11″ white paper with 3-hole punches. Place a page number in the under right hand corner of the page. Do not print a page number on the first page of the script.
- The margins on the top and bottom of the page should be between half an inch to an inch wide. The left margin on screenplay pages should be between 1.2″ and 1.6″. The script’s right margins should be like the top and bottom headers — between a half-inch and an inch wide.
- The extra space on the left side of the page is specifically for the page to be bound, yet the script to have vertical balance when looked at.
- Use Courier 12 when writing for Hollywood or any producers in the United States.
- Pages written to the above specifications are done so because one page roughly equals one minute of screen time. This way, producers know how long the movie appears to be, just by looking at the number of pages. Keep your script between 95 pages to 125 pages long. This makes the movie length between 1:35 and 2:05. Most scripts are below the 115 page length. Dramas may run a little longer, while comedies will usually be shorter.
- Keep your script close to the 90 to 110 page end of the spectrum, if possible. Some producers want nothing to do with longer scripts. These cost more money to make, and a movie which goes over 2 hours is likely to have less screen showings per day, and therefore bring in less money. So it’s not necessarily a good thing to add in 20 more minutes of writing, assuming this will impress a producer.
- Dialogue is indented. It should be indented 2 1/2″ from the left of the page and 2 to 2 1/2″ from the right side of the page.
Consult The Experts
There are a number of great screenwriting books out there. If you’re just getting started and need advice on the proper format and content for screenplays, here are a few you might want to take a look at:
- Screenwriting Goldmine by Phil Gladwin
- How Not to Write a Screenplay by Denny Martin Flynn
- Screenwriting for Dummies by Laura Schelhardt and John Logan
When you feel a bit more comfortable with the screenwriting process, check out one of these screenwriting books:
Learn From the Pros
If you want to learn how to write a screenplay, it’s a good idea to look at the work of others. In this case, I’m talking about reading screenplays which have made it to theaters. There are a number of websites which offer screenplays for free viewing, and this is an excellent way to see how the written word translates to the big screen.
Budget Your Time
When writing a screenplay, it’s important to set a schedule and write on a daily basis. Otherwise, your interest may wane, and you’ll find yourself falling behind on your project. If your life is really busy, at least try to budget an hour a day for writing. The important thing is to just keep plugging away.
One idea which works for many writers is to concentrate on getting your entire screenplay down on paper. Even if you hate the results, you can then begin the process of going back and revising. Completing even a horrible screenplay will give the writer a boost in confidence and the determination needed to see the project through to the end.
Even if your first screenplay doesn’t get made into a major motion picture, that’s no reason to stop trying. Remember, practice makes perfect. Once you’ve completed a screenplay, recharge your batteries and then get started on another one. Pretty soon, you’ll be writing every day without even thinking about it.
Pay Attention to Format
If your screenplay isn’t written in the proper format, the big shots in Hollywood won’t even look at it. That’s why it’s important to invest in screenplay formatting software. Mac users can get Storyist or Montage, while PC users can purchase Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter. Free screenwriting software is also available online, but I would suggest investing in one of the products mentioned above. It will pay for itself in the long run.
There are lots of forums and writers groups on the Internet. Participate in some of them. Writing can often be a frustrating process, and it can be helpful to talk to people who understand what you’re going through. Besides the support element, there’s also the chance of making contacts which can help you later on.
Learn To Take Criticism
Not everything you write will be a masterpiece. In fact, some of it may downright stink. While friends and family may tell you everything you write is great, other screenwriters and especially producers will be far more honest (sometimes even bordering on brutal).
Don’t get defensive or upset if someone criticizes your screenplay. Listen to what they have to say with an open mind and see if you can make any changes based on their constructive criticism. If you get feedback from a producer, you may especially want to pay attention, as these industry insiders often have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t.
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