Five Tips to Help You Become a Successful Screenplay or Script Writer
At the urging of our friend and fellow hubber, billybuc, I wrote about my experience with screenwriting. Thank you for the idea, Bill. This was a fun publication to write.
My Experience as a Screenplay Writer
Screenplay writer, screen writer, playwright, or script writer are all names for a person who writes in a format that is meant to be performed by actors. Throughout this publication I will use these terms interchangeably.
I started writing scripts for church dramas and became hooked upon seeing my work come to life. When outlining a story idea, I start by utilizing a concept called “story boarding” and then I write the script. Story boarding is a process of illustrating or drawing the scene sequences so as to have a visual reference to the story’s transition from beginning to end.
When it comes to drawing, I am not as talented as I wish to be. I started story boarding with stick figures, then I progressed to creating storyboards by cutting out representative photos and clip art. For the most part, no one will see your storyboard but you. But, if you create a storyboard worth sharing, your storyboard will be an effective tool when you go to pitch your script. I’ll talk more about pitching in a moment. For now, let’s take a look at the bare minimum skill and efforts you need to become a successful screenplay or script writer.
Tip 1: Write Scripts With Direct and Concise Directions
Writing screenplays is about more than telling a story. In between the scene set-up and dialogue, the screen writer also delivers direction. When you write a screenplay, you essentially write for three audiences. You write for the actor, director, and the viewer of the produced screenplay. In order to be effective, you must have an absolute command of language, grammar, scriptwriting terminology and scriptwriting structure.
For the Actor
Your directions need to be clear and concise. Bad grammar and punctuation can cause confusion. Certain words mean certain things to actors. It is your job to know how to write direction. For instance, when you direct an actor to walk toward “stage left” or “stage right”. You need to be clear about whether you are directing from the actor’s point of view or the audience’s point of view.
For example, generally, stage left and stage right is the actor’s left and right as the actor is facing the audience. When you are writing for theaters, some producers want you to reference the “house left” and “house right” which is directing from the audience’s point of view.
Dialogue is dialogue. Dialogue is written exactly how the actor is to say what you have written. There are no rules here except to make sure the dialogue you have written is appropriate for the character.
If you are an independent writer, then it is up to you as to how you direct the scene, however standard policy for the industry is to direct the actor from the actor’s point of view.
Sometimes, you will be commissioned to write a script. If so, write directions according to how the producer desires. Some producers want to give the actor the freedom to interpret your dialogue. In this case, you will leave off the “parenthetical” directions. Sometimes, you will work with a producer who wants you to give some direction. The following example is a scene that I wrote for a script involving two characters who are somewhat at odds with each other. I have given some direction for the actors to gain insight on which emotions they should show during the scene.
Write to Direct the Actor
For the Director
If you are an independent writer, then you write how you deem appropriate. Just remember, unless you are also the director, there will be someone who has authority over how the final script will be produced.
Allow the director to guide you on the director’s preference for whether to include parentheticals or not. Whatever you do, be concise. The director is using your structure to produce a finished product. In the following example, I wrote that the scene was to be faded in and that it should be set as a flashback. I have also let the director know that the scene should be set up as an interior setting (INT.) so they know to set the correct lighting at the character’s office in the morning.
Write to Direct the Director
For the Viewer
The genre will determine how you write the script for your intended audience. When you are finished writing the script, read the script all the way through and try to imagine what the audience will see, hear, and feel when they view the performance.
Tip 2: Pick a Genre
There are many genres from which a script writer can write. Each genre has its own set of general rules and formats. Pick a genre that you enjoy watching and are familiar with and write for that genre. There are two reasons for this:
- You will have a better chance of honing your craft.
- You will become recognized for the genre that you write.
The screenwriting industry is very competitive. There are thousands of people trying to get their scripts read and produced. Unless you are an excellent writer with excellent skills your chance of succeeding in this industry are slim. KNOW YOUR CRAFT or your script will end up in the script cemetery. This is where scripts go to die. No one will ever end up reading your script. Can I just say, good scripts do not get read. Excellent scripts get read. You need to capture the producer's interest with the first line or he/she may not continue reading. Time is valuable and producers don't have time to read mediocre scripts that have the potential of producing mediocre movies or television shows. They are not going to waste their time reading a script that they have no intention of producing. Your script must be spectacular if you expect a producer to buy it and then spend hundreds of thousands of dollars producing it.
Once you become known in the industry for writing a certain style of script, producers are more likely to seek you out when there is a need for your particular style of writing and for the genre in which you write.
Screenwriters like Will Ferrell can write a script and command upwards of $4 million for scripts those producers buy just on speculation that they are going to produce the script. Will Ferrell writes comedy, so when he writes a script, producers who are looking to produce a comedy are likely to contact Ferrell to see what he has to offer or they may simply commission him to write a script for them.
Whether you write movie scripts, TV scripts, radio scripts, anime scripts, Oscar scripts, plays, or musicals, the following table shows examples of movies associated with that genre. Some movies cross over into multiple categories so you may see some movies shown two or three times in the table.
Table of Genres and Movie Examples
Examples of Movies
48 Hours, Armageddon, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, The Bourne Identity, Kill Bill
The Abyss, Airforece One, Indiana Jones, Apocalypse Now, Batman, Lost in Space, The Lord of the Rings
Antz, The Lion King, Toy Story, Who Shot Roger Rabbit?, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Transformers: the Movie
Alfie, American Pie, Analyse That, Analyse This, Annie Hall, Back to the Future, Charlie's Angels, The Cable Guy
Get Shorty, The Getaway, The French Connection, The Godfather, The Green Mile, Lethal Weapon, Thelma & Louise
12 And Holding, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, 25th Hour, 3 Kings (Spoils of Way)
Antz, The Flintstones, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, The Lion King, Stuart Little, Toy Story, Who Shot Roger Rabbit?
Alien, The Lord of the Rings, Lost Horizon, The Princess Bride, Return of the Jedi, Star Wars, Superman, Supergirl
Sixth Sense, Alien, An American Werewolf in London, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Jaws, Jurassic Park, King Kong
Hard Days Night, The Lion King, Nashville, Newsies, The Pianist, Rent, The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Sixth Sense, Basic Instinct, The Bourne Identity, Clue, The Green Mile, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer
40 Year Old Virgin, An Affair to Remember, As Good as it Gets, An Officer and a Gentleman, Pretty Woman
12 Monkeys, The 5th Element, The Abyss, Alien, Back to the Future, Battlestar Galactica, Planet of the Apes
The Jackie Robinson Story, Million Dollar Baby, Rocky, Rocky Balboa, The Ringer, Game 6
Sixth Sense, Slay the Dreamer, Alien vs. Predator, Alone in the Dark, Assassins, Gold Finger, Jaws, Heist
Sixth Sense, 8 Millimeter, Batman, Face/Off, Fatal Instinct, A Few good Men, The French Connection
American Outlaws, The Great Train Robbery, Maverick, Shanghai Noon, Silverado, Wild Wild West
Tip 3: Read a Lot of Screenplays
Read, read, and read! Read as many scripts as you can get your hands on. This is, in my opinion, the best way to become familiar with how to write a screenplay.
There are many websites that allow you to download and read scripts for free. But remember, just because these scripts are free, it is in no way acceptable practice to steal another person's work. My favorite place to find scripts is a website called Simply Scripts. Simply Scripts is a database of hundreds of scripts from all genres and all types of production such as movies, television, and radio shows.
The magazine I enjoy reading, learning and keeping abreast of the screenwriting industry is Script Magazine. Before they produced their web version of the magazine, I subscribed to the paper version. Now, you can subscribe to the online version of Script Magazine, a valuable publication for script writers.
Script Magazine has lots of free downloads and resources available to screen writers. Get proper screenplay format tips, story structure tips, how to sell a screenplay, and much more.
Tip 4: Self-teach Yourself to Write Screenplays
If you are just trying screen writing on for size, reading is the primary way to learn how to write scripts. Aside from downloading and reading scripts, books are also very valuable tools. My absolute favorite book is a book titled, “The Screenwriter’s Workbook” by Syd Field. Syd Field is a prominent writer and instructor of the screen writing craft. I used this workbook to produce one of my first commissioned screenplays.
There are software programs that help you create, format, and fine-tune your scripts to acceptable industry standards.
I use Final Draft. Final Draft is a software program that helps writers construct the actual script. The program has prompts for each genre and each genre is pre-formatted according to standard script writing guides. Even though the software provides pre-formatted guides, the writer can override the format to fit their writing style. If you are new to screen writing, I highly recommend that you don’t change the pre-formatting because if you use the most current issue of the program, the software is set to help you write a professional-looking script that is formatted with the industry’s preferred style.
The cost for Final Draft is currently $299.00. I have also seen it available for $99.99 at websites like Writers Store.
I use Truby’s Blockbuster. Truby’s Blockbuster software is a program that helps the writer fine-tune every angle of the story. From describing character profiles, to scene set-ups, to action you have an intricate tool at your disposal through Truby’s Blockbuster software.
The cost for Truby’s Blockbuster is $279.00. But I have seen it available as low as $59.00 at Writers Store.
Note: I receive no compensation for my endorsement of Writer's Store. I just happen to believe it is the ultimate place for writers to find helpful tools for the trade.
Tip 5: Attend Screenwriting Events
Third level institutions such as colleges and universities offer screenwriting classes on a regular basis. If attending a school for higher education is not feasible right now, consider attending a screenwriting workshop or convention.
The most fun I have ever had learning the script writing craft is from attending workshops and conventions. At these events, you will meet talented writers with the same interest. The excitement level is high and people are eager to share what they know with you.
Network, Network, Network!
After you have finished writing your screenplay, you will need to market it. In the screenplay world, we call it “pitching” your work.
Screenwriting executives, directors, and producers are a tight-knit group. For the most part, you will need to get an introduction before gaining the opportunity to have your script read. When you attend screenwriting events, introduce yourself to as many people as you can. Bring plenty of business cards to hand out to people you meet.
Caution: Do not try to shove your script into everyone’s face. It is a real turn-off. It is rare that executives will take the time to read your script on the spot. And, don't think that if you can get the script into their hands at the event, they will read it later. Think about this for a moment. When you hand someone your script, now they have to carry this script around with them throughout the event. It is not likely that they are going to want to be burdened by holding your script in their hand all day. They may just toss your script into the nearest trashcan in order to free up their hands so they can enjoy the event hands-free.
A Proper Place and Time to Pitch
Every time I have attended a scriptwriting event, there was always a contest, seminar, or special time and place set aside for writers to meet face-to-face with an executive in the screenwriting industry. This is when you have an opportunity to pitch your story idea to a director or producer and possibly give them a copy of your script.
When you pitch your story idea, get your idea presented in a concise, but exciting way. At the larger workshops and conventions, you may have one little minute to share your idea. So, for yourself, write a dynamic pitch script that allows you to present your idea quickly, yet thoroughly enough that the complete idea is conveyed. Practice your pitch script until you know it by heart. You only need to present the highlights of your story. Don't allow yourself to get long-winded, explaining every detail. You have a limited time to present and if you go beyond your allotted time, your pitch will be cut short in order to allow others to share their story ideas as well.
Sometimes It's Who You Know
Like I said, the executives in this industry are a tight-knit group of people. Sometimes, getting your script read is a matter of who you know. Part of your marketing plan is to meet lots of people in the industry.
Don't stalk executives, but go where they go. Participate in activities that they participate. Dine where they dine. They are out and about, wheeling and dealing. So, you need to be out and about, as well. You need to be seen to be heard. Let people get to know you and what type of scripts you write so that the next time a producer asks, “Who do you know who has a screenplay about such and such?” Someone who knows you might remember you and pass your name along. It could happen just like that. In fact, among the first few plays that I wrote was for a church production. The pastor’s wife asked one of the members, “Who do you know who could write a Christmas-themed play? The member was a friend of mine who knew that I was a writer. I met with the pastor’s wife and she gave me the assignment without even asking for my credentials. May I brag and say, the play was a hit.
Success Can Be Yours!
Although it is my ultimate goal to some day have one of my scripts produced by an industry giant, let me be perfectly honest and clear about the fact that I have yet to have one of my scripts become a blockbuster movie. Until that time arrives, I am happy to keep writing and directing the occasional Christmas play or Sunday drama production.
I am no longer going out hustling, bustling, and schmoozing with the big guys. It is a lot of work to get yourself set up to be in the right place at the right time. I am happy with the productions I am doing, therefore, I do feel I am a successful script writer.
You decide what success means to you. If it is to write for fun, then you are successful. If it is to do more, then set that as a goal and work toward it. Success is what you make it. Remember, to write excellent scripts, you must read as many scripts as you can, write as much as you can, study the script writing craft, and network with other writers and executives in the industry.
Success can by yours if you read, write, mingle, and pitch that script.