Be Successful at Screenwriting

My Screenwriting Background

Over the years I have written many screenplays. I started a television show on a local station when I was a freshman in highschool. I kept the show on the air for 4 years, and I've been writing scripts ever since. I am now a junior film major at Portland State University, and I thought I would give you a few pointers I have picked up over the years.

Why should I take up screenwriting?

First off, I would like to say that screenwriting is good for everyone. Whether or not other people find your script entertaining is not as important as how you feel about it. It does not matter how terrible you are at writing, screenwriting should be a hobby everyone can enjoy because much like writing in a journal, you can use your creativity to vent anything you have going on in your life into a story.

That said, I'd like to take a few minutes to show you a few tips on how to...

  • Organize your thoughts
  • Structure your story
  • Start Writing

Organizing your Thoughts

This is a step many screenwriters foolishly skip. You do not need to know the ending of your story, or even the beginning, at this point you are just writing down everything you can think of that you want to include in your script.

One of the best things you can do, is carry around a small pad of paper and something to write with so you can write down ideas that you have a strong connection with so when you get down to writing you have a nice list of real occurrences in your life. Doing this will help you add realism to your scripts, and helps your audience connect it to their own lives. After you have spent some time filling out some pages, you should be all set to get started.

Now these next few steps can be done in any order.

Step: Write down who your characters are. What are they like, are they lazy, are they power hungry, are they pacifists, etc. Try to write down as many adjectives as you can to describe your characters. Be specific, the more you write, the easier it will be to get a feel for who these people are when you get to writing your script.

Step: Write down the setting, where will this take place. Start off very broad then work your way down to a list of specific places you want your scenes to take place. For example, if I were writing a movie about someone who is traveling around the world, you can start with EARTH, then under earth lets say you wanted to have a scene that takes place in the US and one that takes place in the UK. So you'd have EARTH->US, and EARTH->UK, then lets say you know the names of the cities you want the scenes to take place, EARTH->US->WASHINGTON, EARTH->US->OREGON, EARTH->UK->LONDON, etc. Continue to do this, until you have narrowed down your scenes to a specific place, which may look something like EARTH->US->OREGON->PORTLAND->DOWNTOWN->PUB->BAR. It is important to get all of the background of where the places your characters are interacting at so you know how they would talk in said setting, whom they would be talking to, and what might be some topics they would talk about there.

Step: What is the conflict(s) that your characters will be facing? Without a conflict, there is no story, I will be covering what makes for a good conflict in the structure your story section.


Structure your Story

No one likes a story with no purpose. Without some sort of structure, you will end up with a painstakingly boring story. For this next part, start thinking of ideas for each of the 6 sections, (you can skip 4-5, but I personally believe they improve the power of the story ten-fold). As you are thinking, jot down some key phrases that you feel summarize your ideas for each section.

  1. Beginning/Stasis
  2. The Interruption to the Stasis
  3. Middle/Conflict
  4. Slight Resolution
  5. Escalated Conflict
  6. End/Resolution

1. Beginning/Stasis. The stasis is the status quo, the general mood of everyone. A good example of stasis would be from the movie Pleasantville. As the main characters David and Jennifer enter Pleasantville, the town is very peaceful, everyone is overly polite with each other, and everyone is "perfect"

2.The Interruption to the Stasis. This is the most important part of the script. You must create a very dramatic change of stasis to make for a good story, this is the real meat that gets your audience hooked. One of the best types of interruption come from your characters relationships conflicting or enhancing. This is not only interesting but it also helps to build your characters personalities. Continuing with the Pleasantville example, the interruption to the stasis would be when David and Jennifer introduce the town to sexuality, and introducing feminism.

3. Middle/Conflict. In this portion of the script you should show how the conflict is affecting your characters, how are they responding to it, is it positive? is it negative? Since I cannot get Pleasantville out of my head, the middle/conflict equivalent would be when the characters begin turning into color, and how the black and white people are responding to the changes.

4. Slight Resolution. This is where you as a writer make the audience feel that everything is going to be okay, and that your initial conflict is going to be resolved. The Pleasantville equivalent would be when Bill Johnson begins painting murals.

5. Escalated Conflict. This is where you take the audiences feeling of comfort and rip it out from under them, putting the characters into a situation far worse then they were in before. For example in Pleasantville when the towns people retaliate and destroy Bill's milk shake joint.

6. End/Resolution. This does not necessarially mean that everyone suddenly is happy and everyone is great again, this is just a resolution to the problem. For example in King Kong, the conflict is that there is a monstorous Ape that affects the main characters, and the resolution to this problem is the death of the Ape (sorry for the spoiler, but seriously, who hasn't seen King Kong?). The resolution should be enough to wrap up the main conflict, if the conflict is not resolved in some way you will end up with a lot of very angry fans, so be sure that you don't leave any doors open unless you are doing it intentionally for a symbolic meaning.


Start Writing

The final step is start writing! Go go go! Get those brain juices flowing. An idea you may never have thought of is to take notes while you're writing. It may sound silly since you know what you are writing, but when you get 30 to 40 pages in, it's nice to have a list of what's going on, who has been talking to who, what kind of voice your characters have, where have they been so far, where do you want to take them. The most important reason for keeping notes is if you hit the dreaded idea dam, you can use your notes, your initial brainstorm, and your outline structure to help you break through it.

Remember, it is tough to write a screenplay, everyone gets stuck, it's the people who can find a way to pull themselves out of the water before their idea sinks that make the best movies/plays possible.

When You're All Done...

When you are all done and you feel that you have a masterpiece on your hands, it's time to get your work out there, below are a few guides on how you can start that process.

Script Format: Screenplay Length & Selling Your Script

Best Screenplay Contests to Enter, Part 1: Fellowships

If you are artistic and feel that you want to jump into storyboarding, go to the article listed below to view some of your options when it comes to computer based storyboarding.

The Film Insider: Choosing a Screenwriting Software Program


Last but not least, remember to HAVE FUN! If you don't enjoy writing your screenplay, no one will enjoy reading it! Good luck, I hope my pointers will make your writing life much easier.

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