Public Service Broadcast – Starting Screenwriting

by Suw on December 31, 2003

I had a comment on one of my previous posts asking how to start screenwriting, so I thought that instead of just emailing a one-off reply that would disappear forever into the ether, I ought to just write down everything that I’ve learnt over the last six months and post it up for posterity.

This isn’t a definitive guide to beginning screenwriting. I’m not even sure it’s the most useful guide on the net, but it’s my experience and you can take from it whatever is helpful and ignore the rest.

So, here goes:

First. Scour the internet for information on script writing and films. Download the scripts to films you particularly like and read them. Make notes from them – which bits worked, which didn’t. Read them whilst watching films and make more notes. There are loads of sites about film and script writing around, but here are some good ones to start with:

The Script Factory
So You Wanna Sell A Script?
Drew’s Script-o-Rama
Done Deal

Almost all websites have a links page, so you can follow the link trail around the web to your heart’s content, digging up useful wee nuggets and also, unfortunately, a whole load of tosh.

Second. Read books about script writing and story telling. Lots of them. As many as you can lay your hands on. There are a million and one books on screenwriting out there, but here is my pick:

Story, Robert McKee, ISBN: 0413715507
The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler, ISBN: 0330375911
Writing the Character-centered Screenplay, Andrew Horton, ISBN: 0520084578
Screenwriting, Lew Hunter, ISBN: 0709054440
Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger, ISBN: 0573699216
The Screenwriter's Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting and Selling Your Script, David Trottier, ISBN: 1879505444
The Definitive Guide to Screenwriting, Syd Field, ISBN: 0091890276 (or anything else by Field)

(Note: All of these books have been recommended to me by one person or another, although I haven’t read them all. Some of them are on my Amazon wishlist, in case anyone should fancy rectifying that last point.)

A word of warning, though – don’t get too caught up in slavishly doing everything you’re told to do by the screenwriting gurus. Many people disagree with McKee, Trottier or Field, saying that they’re too formulaic and that to follow their lead too closely results in cliched and predictable films. Well, that’s one point of view, I suppose, but cliched and predictable films are really the fault of a cliched and predictable writer. The gurus do have useful points to make, particularly for a beginner, but always know your own mind.

Third. Learn formatting. The format of your script, i.e. the way it is laid out, is important – don’t think you can get away with using a non-standard format because the format police are out there, and they're going to jump on your head if you do the wrong thing. No, really. They will. They’re very pernickety.

Luckily, format is easy and you can find out the standards from some of the websites and books mentioned above. Or, if you’re lazy like me, you can use script writing software to do it for you. I’d say these are the three main contenders, although there are others.

Final Draft
Movie Magic Screenwriter

Personally, I prefer Sophocles, which just happens to be the cheapest as well.

Or just get a free Word or WordPerfect etc. template.

Scripters World freeware/shareware links list

Fourth. Join Zoetrope. It’s a great place to ask advice, workshop your scripts, to read and review other people’s scripts and to just meet up with like-minded writers.

Hm… I seem to have missed something out here… oh yes, that’s right, writing.

If you’re all enthusiastic, you’ll want to just plunge right on in and start writing your script. That’s what I did. When I started my first screenplay I didn’t have a clue about proper formatting, story structure, character arcs or archetypes. I knew nothing, other than what my instincts told me would work, so I’ve had to figure it all out as I’ve gone along.

In retrospect I’m not sure that’s the best way to start, and I wouldn’t do it again, but it worked ok for me at the time.

Ideally, you want to get yourself a small notebook that you can carry with you at all times. Every thought you have about your story, write down. Don’t assume you’ll remember it later because you probably won’t.

Work out your plot. This is where understanding the basic three act structure will help as it gives you a framework upon which to hang your story. Work out who your characters are, and how they change during the course of the story. Think about your broad themes and your subtext. What are you trying to say with your story? What message will the audience come away with as the closing credit roll?

Outline. Think about which actions your characters will take, what they expect to happen, and what the results really are. There should be a gap between the expectation of the character and the results of their actions. Think about the events that happen to your characters and how they react to it.

Put actions and events into order, (linearly or not), and once you’re happy with your outline, start writing the script proper.

Once you’ve finished the script, which should be between 90 and 120 correctly formatted pages long, sit on it for a bit and try to achieve some emotional distance from it. You need to be objective when you read it through and it takes time to detach yourself from it.

When you feel that you can now read it dispassionately, take your red pen and get to work editing and polishing.

Then you’re ready to workshop it on Zoetrope and get feedback from other writers. Remember that no reviewer is an all-knowing god, and some suggestions might be utter claptrap. Others might be painfully harsh, but valuable. Read your reviews like you read your script – objectively and dispassionately. You are not your script so don’t take criticism personally.

Rewrite, and repeat until water runs clear… oh, wait, that’s shampoo instructions. Anyway, yes, you get the message.

After that comes the whole marketing and selling thing which is still a mystery to me, so I’m not even going to go there. I think that the above is enough to be getting on with though.

If any of my screenwriting chums want to add their suggestions and advice in the comments, feel free. I’m no guru after all, just a wishful thinker who dreams in type.

Oh, and good luck. You’ll need it.

A visitor January 4, 2004 at 9:25 pm

Your advice is solid.

I'm currently writing a script requested by an L.A. production company. I'm blogging the writing process, for better and for worse.

Feel free to drop in.

David C. Daniel []

Suw January 4, 2004 at 11:29 pm

Thank you, David.

Congratulations on getting a request for a script from a prodco, even if it is a spec script. That's a big step forward from being a writer without a request from a prodco. 😉 Good luck with it – I hope it goes well.

I did have a look at your blog, and I do like the advice you give there: Just put one word after another. I know that it's hard to do that sometimes, but it's the only way forward.

Drop by again and let us all know how it goes!

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