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Helpful Hints on Screenwriting

Updated on February 14, 2013

Many writers dream of writing that next Academy Award winning blockbuster, becoming rich and famous and retiring to a quiet tropical paradise where they can leisurely get to work on their next big project. Although this can and occasionally does happen, screenwriting takes an enormous amount of time and effort to have any chance of success.

Most successful screenwriters have spent years honing the craft churning out one screenplay after another before they actually sell anything. I have written over twenty screenplays myself and have yet to sell, but I did manage to get two projects submitted into the studio system by a legitimate producer.

I’ve learned a few things along the way and wanted to share some of this information in order to help other writers and potential writers avoid some of my mistakes.

Starting with the basics, a screenplay is essentially a three act play approximately 120 pages long. Most produced screenplays are actually less than this now often coming in at 100 pages or so. Screenplays much longer than 120 pages may never get read, so don’t get carried away. Each page is equivalent to one minute of screen time, thus a 120 page screenplay creates a two hour long movie.

A page from a well written screenplay should have a lot of white space. Scene descriptions and settings should be brief and in present tense. Only write what is essential to the scene. Avoid lengthy, detailed descriptions, you are not writing a novel. State whether it is an exterior (EXT.) or interior (INT.) and if it’s day or night. An example might be:

EXT. STREET – DAY

ED drives down the street in a beat up, blue Chevy. He approaches a traffic light and stops.

A car pulls up next to him with a beautiful, young WOMAN behind the wheel.

Avoid writing descriptions that belong in a novel such as: “He drove down the street on a sultry evening with the smell of hot dogs wafting through the air thinking what a wonderful day it was to be alive.” Write only what the viewer can see.

Dialogue should be centered in the middle of the page. From the above example:

EXT. STREET – DAY

ED drives down the street in a beat up, blue Chevy. He approaches a traffic light and stops.

A car pulls up next to him with a beautiful, young WOMAN driving.

ED

(yells)

How’s it going?

WOMAN

Get lost!

She drives off.

Always end a scene with a bit of description. Never use double exclamation points or question marks for emphasis. That’s for comic books.

Screenplays have a very specific structure. The first act is about 30 pages long, the second act is 60 pages long and the third act is 30 pages long. (Many acts are now much shorter. The first act can be 15-18 pages long in today’s movies.)

The first act is the setup. It’s where the main characters are introduced and the basic plot is setup ending with the first plot point. Plot points spin the action around in a different direction introducing the second and third acts. Examples include, a man found murdered, a woman gets fired, somebody gets divorced, treasure map found etc.

The second act is where the main character gets into all sorts of trouble with various twists and turns in the plot. They get themselves in a jam and it looks really hopeless. The second act ends with the second plot point which spins the action around in another direction setting the story up for the third act and final resolution.

The third act is where everything comes together and the plot is resolved. The treasure is found, the kids are rescued, the young couple gets married etc.

The first step in developing your screenplay is the basic idea. What is your story about? Who are the main characters – the antagonist, the protagonist, supporting characters? What are their character arcs? How do they grow and develop through the course of the screenplay? Your main character must grow and develop. They must learn something. Where does it all take place? What is your premise? You should be able to state your premise in a sentence such as “greed leads to ruin”. Your plot should be summed up in synopsis no longer than a paragraph.

When you’ve discovered and written down your premise and plot, move to the next phase which is a step outline. (Some people use the words premise and plot interchangeably, but there are differences. See the Art of Dramatic Writing listed below for details.)

NEVER JUMP IN AND START WRITING YOUR ACTUAL SCREENPLAY UNTIL YOU HAVE COMPLETED A STEP OUTLINE FOLLOWED BY A THOROUGH TREATMENT.

Many writers use a stack of three by five cards for their step outline. The basic idea is this: write one scene on each card with maybe a sentence or two of description or explanation. You slowly build your screenplay with a stack of cards. Some people use different colored cards for each act. The advantage of this is that you get a very thorough understanding of your play and the characters before you actually begin writing the screenplay. You must get to know your characters and their situation intimately, if want any chance of creating a successful screenplay. This is where you flesh out your ideas and see if they actually work.

If you come up with an idea and immediately begin writing your screenplay this will inadvertently become your step outline. This is a mistake I have made many times and learned the hard way after a great deal of work. Too impatient to write the step outline, I would jump in and start writing the screenplay before I was ready. It becomes a very forced effort and eventually falls apart. This is a great premise: Impatience leads to failure!

You want to find out what works and what doesn’t before you invest in the screenplay itself. You should be working with nothing but a stack of cards for months before moving onto the next step which is the treatment.

Once you have completed your step outline and are completely satisfied with it, you can begin writing the treatment. A treatment is a narrative outline approximately 30-70 pages long. It follows your step outline. You are basically fleshing out the step line with more description, characters, dialogue etc. There are debates about how long the treatment should actually be. Some believe a 5-10 page treatment is acceptable. I personally think a more lengthy treatment is more valuable and makes writing the screenplay a much easier process.

Once the treatment has been completed you are now ready to write the first draft of your screenplay. If you’ve done the necessary work up to this point, writing the actual screenplay is a snap. It moves very quickly and smoothly. You’re simply following the treatment. At this point, you should have a detailed knowledge of all the characters, plot lines etc.

When writing your screenplay, avoid the rookie mistake of adding camera angles and directions. Camera directions are utilized in a shooting script not a reading script. Camera directions are up to the director not you. Adding camera angles and point of view (POV) directions makes a writer look like a real amateur.

After you’ve completed your first draft you need to have some professional feedback. There are a number of organizations such as Scriptshark (scriptshark.com) who will read and critique your script for a nominal fee. Scriptshark charges around $150 for regular coverage. Professional readers will evaluate your script and provide you with invaluable insight on its various features. The feedback can be devastating, but it’s essential if you are to progress as a writer. Having friends and relatives read your work is a waste of time and won’t do you much good. They’re not trained readers and they won’t want to hurt your feelings. Most writers, particularly new ones, don’t want to hear criticism. They want to hear how great their story is. I had one friend who actually spent some time as a Hollywood reader and finally decided to try his hand at the craft of screenwriting. He wanted me to critique is work which I did, but he was crushed by my opinions and comments. I was trying to help him, but he didn’t want to hear anything negative – although he did make many of the changes I suggested.

Very few first draft screenplays are ready for production. As they say in Hollywood, “It needs work”. Screenplay writing is a relentless process of writing and re-writing. It takes many drafts, sometimes many many drafts before a screenplay is ready for production, so don’t get discouraged. I believe the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks took over two hundred rewrites before it was ready. Not all work needs that much rewriting, but it does give you an idea of how tough the process can be.

A lot of writers have written between five and ten screenplays before they begin to get anywhere. One producer told me writers don’t start getting good till they’ve written at least a dozen screenplays.

When you’ve completed your screenplay, it’s a good idea to have it registered with the Writers Guild of America, West. They charge $20 for non members. You can submit electronically. They provide you with a registration number and a nice diploma like registration document. I would avoid putting the registration number on your screenplay when you send it out, since it can make you look like a novice. Reputable producers and studios are not out to “steal” your ideas. It does happen occasionally, but it’s usually inadvertent and not by design.

Below are some excellent resources for screenwriters. I highly recommend reading these books to gain a better understanding of dramatic screenwriting and how the process really works.

Screenplay by Syd Field

The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field

Story by Robert McKee

The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri

I hope this helps new and struggling writers trying to sell their work. Good luck and keep writing!

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