8 Screenwriting Tips for the Emerging Writer
These screenwriting tips are fundamental, simple, and have worked for many writers time and again.
Whether you are searching for your next great idea, developing a multifaceted protagonist, or finding a plot twist no one saw coming, the source of greatness for all screenwriters comes from the same place: a sheer passion for storytelling. With this passion comes the desire to get better and better at your craft.
If you want to tell great, emotive stories then you must write about what moves you, what makes your blood boil or infuses you with great energy. Therein lays one of the great challenges of screenwriting: communicating your story, characters and message to an audience in such a way that makes them feel. After all, we want our stories to leave imprints on the mind once the story has been consumed and left behind.
Below are 8 tips that I recommend for the beginner or intermediate screenwriter. By following these ideas your final screenplay will be that much more true to your own vision, and ideally more sellable.
1. Read Screenplays of your Favorite Films
There are endless amounts of screenplays available online to the general public. If you’ve recently watched a movie you enjoyed, or have a few all-time favorites, track down the screenplay online and get reading.
There are many moving parts to how a film gets made and watching that film, will help you to partially understand why it was so successful – the acting, the set design, direction, etc. – however, it is even more helpful to see the film in its original form. When you see the film’s blueprint, you’re able to visualize what has changed since the script was originally written (what worked and what didn’t). Knowing what translates well to the big screen is a very valuable tool to have. It’s also helpful to see the style in which films of different genres are written so that you can apply some of those techniques to your own work.
2. Have Something to Say
The best movies are the ones that give you something to think about after the credits have rolled and you’ve left the theatre. This a direct result of the writer having something to say, and having a clear message to send. Not only will this give you, the writer, great direction in creating your story but it will also help you to achieve the goal all writers and filmmakers have: making a film that leaves it’s mark in history.
3. Every Scene Needs an Intention or Goal
If you ever come out of a theatre underwhelmed by the film you saw and hear yourself thinking “that was long”, what you actually mean is that you found yourself bored at times (most likely, many times). In most cases, if you find yourself bored then you weren’t given much from your main character(s) by way of their goals or intentions, which is one of the most important elements in writing your story – your characters must have goals!
Once you know what your characters aim to achieve you must make sure that every scene in your screenplay acts as a means to your characters end. Further, your audience must be able to identify these intentions throughout the film. It is when your audience can no longer identify what your character has set out to do that they begin to disconnect from the film, look at their watches, and start heading for the car. Ensure that all your scenes layout goals for your characters and upon that goal’s completion, set up another one and so on.
These goals will work to support the development of your character, place them in a position to make decisions (hopefully tough ones) and help build their character. Subsequently, this allows the audience to understand what your characters are “made of” and what they stand for, which gives us something to chew on while your story unfolds.
4. Make Your Protagonist Likeable Early On
While plot points are of course an integral part of a successful screenplay, it is your characters that truly drive your story – specifically your protagonist. It is through their eyes that the story unfolds for an audience, and that the viewer has someone to cheer for. Therefore, when creating your protagonist, audience connection is vital. As a writer, you must get to know your protagonist early on in the writing process and do everything you can to translate their nature/desires/problems on page 1 of your script. Your hero must have hopes, fears, dreams, challenges, etc. and we (the audience) must feel their despair and achievements early on and throughout the duration of the film.
5. Less is More When it Comes to Text
A screenplay is not meant to read like a novel. At all costs, avoid lengthy paragraphs and overly descriptive writing. First and foremost, a good script should be no more than 120 pages and ideally, should be about 110 pages in length. Therefore, there’s only so much room to work with.
A good rule of thumb: if you can’t show it on the screen, then avoid putting it in the script. There is no need to write your characters thoughts or feelings into your screenplay. After all, your audience isn’t reading your script, they are watching a motion picture. Therefore, leave out what can’t be shown visually or revealed in dialogue – it will only throw off the pacing and lead to unnecessary re-writes down the the road, when you could have spent that time revising other elements of the screenplay.
6. Avoid Forced Exposition at All Costs
There are few things worse than the sight of constant exposition in a film. Sometimes when you’re in the thick of writing a great story, you feel it’s hard to omit a good portion of it from your script. However, forced exposition must be omitted at all costs.
If you have trouble identifying what ‘must go’, understand that your writing will feel forced if 1) your characters are engaged in a conversation about subject matter in which they should obviously already be familiar; and 2) your characters bring up crucial information about the story out of nowhere, for the sake of informing the audience about key facts, which are integral to our understanding of the film. These awkward ways of feeding the audience information will not reflect real human behavior or interaction and will profoundly affect the ways in which your audience must relate or empathize with your characters. Audiences are generally quite smart and will pick up on things naturally, so always remember that you don’t need to shove it down their throats.
7. Write Daily
It can be a challenge to consistently write, which is why even for the best writers out there it requires focus and discipline. As a professional writer, you must commit to writing/working on your script each and every day. Set your intentions early on in the writing process and commit to your goals. Writing can be an arduous task but if you set an intention to write every single day, then two things will happen: you will become a better writer and you WILL finish your script.
When it comes to screenwriting, many people will argue what the “hardest part” is. Is it the simple act of getting started? Or is finding a unique story that is different than what we’ve seen before? Maybe it’s letting go of scenes that you like, but just aren’t working.
In my opinion, one of the hardest parts of the process is knowing when to stop. Hanging on to your screenplay and making revision after revision (beyond the scope of what’s necessary) renders your script overworked, and ultimately makes the story feel tired. Of course, take the required time to get your ideas down on paper, and make as many edits as you (and those helping) deem necessary, but know when to let go and identify when you’ve got a product that is ready to be shot and seen.
There is no question that as a screenwriter, you are passionate about storytelling. If your goal is to write screenplays at a professional level, then you must consider the dangers that prevent you from telling a great story, as well as the techniques available to help your story transcend the realm of text to motion pictures. You need to do your homework, dedicate yourself to your craft, have a clear message to send, make your characters as human as possible (people with dreams that must be realized in spite of conflict), and know when your text begins to compromise how your story will be interpreted and felt by your audience. Above all, you must be willing to do whatever it takes to tell a complete story and be open to the constructive feedback that will make your script a success.