Intro to Screenwriting

So, you're going to write a screenplay. This is awesome. And if you're a little nervous about it, that's awesome too, because it means you're not alone. After all, screenwriting isn't something that we learn in grammar school or do at dinner parties. It feels more like a mysterious dark art practiced by reclusive alchemists who only emerge from their caves for all-too-brief Academy Awards appearances.

But the truth is that screenwriting is within the grasp of mere mortals. Formatting a screenplay, which you can learn from our magical formatting document, is easier than assembling an IKEA bookshelf, and 100 pages doesn't remotely require you to quit your day job (although it never hurts to dream). Indeed, if you've ever told a story in your life, you already have the basic knowledge needed to write a movie.

That said, we've included a few tips that might help you wrap your brain around your screenplay and make your first draft go a little more smoothly. These are just to get you started; as you get into the thick of writing, kindly elves will appear to help you along the way. Be sure to keep extra cookies on hand for their arrival.

1) Support The Draft

The entire month of April will be largely delightful if you just repeat these words each morning in front of a mirror: "This is a draft. It is only a draft." After all, they're true. You are writing the first, messy, flawed, why-not-try-this-crazy-idea draft. It's a time for experimentation, risk-taking, and wonderfully low standards. You can go back to pinched perfectionism and painstaking caution later. Or never again.

Think about those semi-apocryphal stories that professional writers love to tell, about how their stacked screenplay drafts reached as high their chins, or how they were rescued by the fire department after towers of rewrites collapsed and pinned them to the floor. The point is: Even the pros write and rewrite and shape and massage for a long while before ever getting to the deceptively easy-looking brilliance of a great screenplay. Right now, you and your screenplay are just starting down the road, looking fondly at one another, thinking, "This could be the start of a beautiful friendship."

2) Start Reading Movies

Most of us can talk tirelessly about our favorite movie scenes, plot twists, and happy endings. So why, when it comes to writing a film, do we feel we’re on completely unfamiliar ground? Could it be the fact that very few of us have ever actually read a screenplay? Why yes, it could.

There's a very easy, enjoyable remedy for this: reading screenplays. You can find them online at free sites like Drew's Script-O-Rama and Daily Script, and you can breeze through an entire movie in only a couple hours. Make sure you're reading the original script rather than the shooting script or a transcription. You'll know you're looking at the wrong version of the script if you see numbered scenes, lists of shots, or dialogue that isn't indented.

First, try reading the screenplay for a movie you know and love. Pay attention to how the familiar elements in the film—plot, character, setting—were initially described using text. You'll probably be surprised at how lean and efficient a screenplay is, how it includes only the information needed to tell the story. Stripped of all its audio and visual embellishments, the structure of the film will also be more easy to see. Look at how scenes relate to one another, how the dialogue flows, how obstacles are created and overcome.

Next, read a screenplay for a movie you've never seen before. Try to imagine the finished film in your head. Then watch the movie and see how the text was translated into a visual medium. Begin to understand the relationship between text and film. Start to learn the shape of a screenplay. Do this again and again and again, and you won’t need any more tips. You’ll feel screenplays in your bones.

3) Choose An Idea That Excites You

To some extent, the old adage of "write what you know" applies to screenplays, especially first-time efforts. It's just easier to write familiar settings and characters than to invent realistic NASA jargon or authentic details about a wildebeest stampede.

That said, you're writing a screenplay to explore something new, to have an adventure, to step outside your everyday life. You—and your characters—aren't going to make it through 30 days and nights of screenwriting if your subject matter is so familiar it puts you to sleep. Besides, there aren't enough androids, dwarves, psycho killers, and criminal masterminds around to write all the needed sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and heist films. Someone needs to cross over.

So write a story that excites you, one that you want to tell to your friends, one that you can't stop thinking about, one that would be a movie you'd love to go see. Don’t worry if it's weird, not in fashion, or doesn't have a built-in audience. The best thing that you and your script can possess is passion.

4) Practice The Three Ps (Plan, Pitch, Previsualize)

While some professional screenwriters map out their entire movie in amazing detail before typing a single word, this type of planning isn't necessary to have an awesome Script Frenzy experience. Besides, if this is your first screenplay, that level of pre-planning probably won't be particularly valuable, considering how much you're going to learn about pace and structure just by writing (and how much you're going to want to change later on).

That said, it helps to know the general story you're telling before you begin. It can be as simple a plan as: "When a young man loses his home and family, he joins a group of embattled rebels and eventually brings down an evil empire by tapping into an internal, universal force." As long as it has a beginning, middle, and end, you're off to a good start.

(Incidentally, these three parts correlate with the three-act structure that so many screenplays are based around. For fear of permanently stunting your originality, we're not going to say too much more about three-act structure—or seven-act structure, or one-act structure, or any of the other structures that you can read about online and even learn about at $1500 seminars. Just remember: You need a beginning, middle, and end. Like a good joke).

One way to hone your storyline is to describe it to people. Come up with a 1- to 3-minute version of the plot and tell it to your spouse, your friends, your dog. Notice what excites them (and you), what areas feel vague, where you lose their attention, what questions come up. This is a form of pitching, and while pitching usually is used in Hollywood to sell a script, it's also a good way to determine whether you understand your story and whether it can stand the test of a little scrutiny. If you find yourself saying "…I dunno, then something happens that changes everything," you might want to sit down and brainstorm about what these "somethings" and "everythings" are.

Once you have your basic story plan, there are plenty of fun ways to begin thinking about it in terms of major scenes and turning points. One is previsualization. Try sitting down and imagining the trailer for your movie on the screen. What are the opening images that set the tone? How do we meet the main character? At what point is a problem or issue introduced? What next? Are there tense moments? Snippets of funny, revealing dialogue? What hint of resolution wraps it all up and leaves the audience hungering for more? If you have time, pick out a song or score for your imaginary trailer (or your whole film). Or clip images from magazines to make a movie poster for your film. Anything that gets you excited.

5) Get To Know Your Characters

People don't go to the movies to see scary, romantic, or exciting situations; they go to see memorable human beings reacting to scary, romantic, or exciting situations. Which means your big goal as a screenwriter is to create real characters that the audience will want to watch, whether they're falling into volcanoes or falling in love.

No idea how do this? It's okay to start with just a basic picture of your character: early 20s slacker female who lives for dirt bike racing. Mid-50s Oxford rhetoric professor who dreams of being a rap star. Aging, streetwise hustler with a soft spot for children.

But don't stop there and miss all the fun. Try actually stepping into your character's skin. Imagine you're your main character and fill out those goofy questionnaires in Cosmo. Write a personals ad. Take a Meyers-Briggs personality test. Fill out a job application. Ask yourself, what does this person eat, wear, and listen to on the radio? How would she react to winning the lottery or coming home to find a thief in the house or ripping her pants in public? What does he despise? Love? What would he die for? Kill for? How did she get to the place in her life where the film starts?

In creating characters and filling out their personalities and pasts, don't be afraid to add major flaws and foibles. Unless it’s up on a catwalk, perfection is boring to watch. In fact, the best movie moments usually occur when a character comes face to face with his or her flaws and fears. Unflappable Indiana Jones? Terrified of snakes. Lovable Annie Hall? Neurotic and spastic. Hannibal Lecter? Unfortunate taste in comestibles.

Finally, don't focus exclusively on your hero and leave the rest of your cast stranded in Stereotypeville. The best villains possess a rich history and complexity; even supporting characters are worthy of unique obsessions and quirks.

6) Give Your Story A Gazillion-Horsepower Engine

As you're working with your characters and plotline, it's helpful to remember that what you're writing will ultimately be viewed in a single 2 to 2.5-hour sitting. Your film has a lot of ground to cover in a very short chunk of time, and it has to hold the audience's attention for the duration!

Given these parameters, your story doesn't have much time to dawdle or drift. What it needs is a suped-up engine that can go from 0 to 60 in the first act, up and over a whole mountain range of obstacles and setbacks in the middle section, and maintain enough speed to cruise right into the dramatic conclusion. Luckily, you can help jump-start this engine by putting powerful, significant, or extreme situations and motivations into your script. A few examples:

DRIVE: Nothing moves a story along better than a character with real drive. Just look at the great sports movies, like Breaking Away or Rocky or Hoosiers and you'll see they're entirely powered by a person or team's overwhelming desire to be the very best. Now imagine how much you'd want to watch these films if the main character had a passing interest in winning. They'd crumble in the first heat.

OBSTACLE OR THREAT: There's nothing like a life or death situation to give your film some tension. Independence Day, Braveheart, and Misery are all examples of popular films that get their fuel from the extremity of the situations their characters find themselves in.

THEME: If you're writing a down-to-earth film, you may wonder what any of this blockbuster stuff has to do with you. But the need for power applies equally to "art films" and "character films." Think about The Crying Game or Requiem For A Dream or My Dinner With Andre. What makes them so compelling is their treatment of universal, potent themes: despair, existentialism, identity, love. Their engines hum quietly, but they're stunningly powerful.

So start looking around in your mental garage for something to build your engine with. If you're excited and moved by your story, it shouldn't be too hard to find.

7) Embrace Change

Whether you're consciously aware of it in the theater or not, change is usually what makes movies so emotionally satisfying. The thrill of Spider-Man isn't in watching a practiced superhero swing from buildings and kick bad guys' butts; it's in watching a geeky, fumbling man-child gleefully transform into a superhero who swings from buildings and kicks butt. The power of As Good As It Gets isn't about seeing a misanthropic Jack Nicholson kick dogs around, but in seeing his awkward growth in response to love. And even though Schindler's List is set against the vast, gripping reality of the Holocaust, its drama still flows from a single man's change of heart.

Change, or the lack of change, is also one of the best ways to reveal character to your audience. When the actor in Tootsie faces countless hurdles while posing as a woman and still perseveres, this lack of change reveals his complete commitment to his craft. When he casts off his disguise at the height of his career, this 180 degree shift proves the depth of his love for his co-star. He's completed an arc from self-absorbed and desperate to self-realized and compassionate. And it's amazingly compelling to watch.

Given this importance of change, it's not a bad idea to stick a GOT CHANGE? Post-It to your laptop or forehead. As you're writing, go ahead and put your characters in tough situations that force them to choose. Don't let them off easy: Throw them curveballs, saddle them with setbacks, put them in the path of some serious emotional oncoming traffic. Do they change or not? Why? If you've given them a strong enough drive, they'll make some pretty interesting choices. If you've provided them with flaws and failings, they'll have plenty of room to grow. And the audience will love being along for the ride.

8) Action: Write A Blueprint

Unlike a novel, an essay, or poem, which are fully formed entities, a screenplay is a plan for a future movie. It is to film what sheet music is to a symphony concert or an architectural blueprint is to a building. It comes to life later, in a completely different medium.

What this means is that when you start writing, all the information in a screenplay must eventually translate into either images or sound, the twin languages of film. This is fairly manageable when writing dialogue, since people talking translates rather nicely to an image and a sound. But writing action and description can be a different story. Especially for those of you who have written a novel or other prose, this translation process—and its pitfalls—can take some getting used to. It goes something like this:

You write:

Sarah stands at the window, thinking about what Jeremy said in the grain silo. The way he'd stood there, nervous, with one hand idly scratching the back of his head would always make her want to kiss him. But she couldn't anymore. Not now, knowing he was the one who'd kidnapped the wiener dog.

The audience sees:

Sarah standing at the window, staring for a while, then frowning.

You get the point: If it's internal dialogue or a thought process or a memory or anything else that goes on inside someone's head, it isn't going to end up on screen unless it's translated into an image or a sound. But don't panic. If you happen to write internal thoughts in your screenplay, you can always go back and translate them to visuals or sounds. Like this.

You see? Delightfully low standards are everyone's friend.

9) Dialogue: Make it real and unreal

Writing great dialogue is a precision art form, right up there with curling and international diplomacy. And besides plain old practice, the best way to learn how to write dialogue is to listen to how real people talk. Are they terse or verbose? Do they use slang or idioms? How is their gender, age, class, culture, and personality reflected in their speech patterns and word choice?

Don't just listen to your friends and family, either. Seek out people and situations that mimic your screenplay characters and setting. Sit with the high school basketball team; go watch a trial lawyer's dramatic opening statement; chat up the gum-smacking waitresses at a roadside diner. Become a linguistic anthropologist and a diction detective. And carry a pocket notebook with you at all times—those little real-life exchanges are worth their weight in gold.

Of course, after listening to how real people talk for a while, you'll notice something: No one is nearly as funny, brilliant, or succinct as they are in the movies.

REAL LIFE:
"Yeah, I guess I just really knew I liked you ever since that first day, you know, when I saw you and I was like 'wow, he's really cool'."

MOVIE:
"You had me at hello."

Since no one goes to the movies to hear people hem and haw and mutter and ramble (well, except that unintelligible Benicio del Toro character in The Usual Suspects), it's okay to make your dialogue snappier, stronger, and more to the point than realistically possibly. It should be real but unreal.

The best test: Read your dialogue aloud. Does it zip along? Is it too wordy or artificial? Does it ring true? Get your friends and loved ones to read the other characters; ask that cute guy at the coffee shop to read the love scene with you. Invite local actors to do a reading. Whatever you do, just don't let dialogue slow you down. When you can't think of something clever or specific to say, put in something banal and then spice it up on the next draft. Your best lines will come to you later, in the shower, on the subway, and in those weird dreams you're having. For now, keep writing.

10) Have Fun

If you're having trouble with this, see tip #1. You'll have plenty of time to be miserable and stressed once the studios start hiring you to write blockbusters for hundreds of thousands of dollars. For now, savor your Script Frenzy salad days.