Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Screenwriting: 10 Top Tips for Writing your Screenplay

If you want to learn how to write a script, there are a variety of books and programs to teach you. Reading top books will give you a ton of useful information to help you take your story from simple idea to full-fledged screenplay.

Perhaps, you want something a little simpler than that. Rather than a whole book packed with ideas, you want a concise list, a limited number of things that you can keep in mind whenever you are writing. I present: 10 Top Tips for Writing your Screenplay.”

Any top ten list is likely to be fairly arbitrary, and this one is no different. However, I will bet that if you were to ask a hundred good screenwriters for their top ten, most of these on the list would be their first priority.

So whether you are a first timer looking at a blank screen and wondering how to get started, or have already written several screenplays, taking heed to these fundamentals tips can help you produce better work.

Film is a visual medium
Writing a screenplay is fundamentally different to any other form of writing. Why, you ask? Answer: Film is a visual medium.

For the past year or so I’ve been part of an online writing community. This has given me the opportunity to read a lot of other people’s work. One item that stands out in many otherwise decent screenplays is that they are not written in a primarily visual way.

  • Too much dialogue – many screenplays are plagued by a surfeit of talking head scenes, where there is nothing visual happening, nothing for the audience to watch.
  • The description is too detailed, too dense – a screenplay is not a novel. Keep descriptions short and sharp, giving just the essence of person or place.
  • Show your story, don’t tell it – if we can’t see it, then don’t bother writing it. Thoughts and feelings can only be conveyed by what a character says or does.

Keep it short and sweet
There are clear parameters for what constitutes a screenplay. If your manuscript runs over 120 pages, most editors won’t hassle reading your masterpiece. So be succinct and cut the unnecessary words. Eliminate the fat! Point made?

Come in late, leave early:
One way to keep your screenplay to a good length is to come into a scene late and leave early. What that means is that the audience joins the action when it’s already running, and leaves the moment the relevant action is over.

For example – if your hero is attending a job interview, you can join the scene with the interview already underway, and leave while your hero is still in the interview – you don’t need to show her coming in, saying hello, being introduced, etc, etc.

Write what you believe in
This is something so obvious it’s amazing how many people fall foul of it. Try to write a story that you are passionate about – do not predict what the market wants.

The film that is playing at your multiplex today was probably shot 12 months ago and written four years ago. Trying to catch the wave based on what you think Hollywood wants is a waste of your time and effort.

Format like a professional
There are two ways to format – right and wrong. Either use screenwriting software (e.g. Final Draft) or buy a good book on formatting, and learn it inside and out.

Strong opening and big finish
Many editors or producers read just the first ten pages of a screenplay. If you haven’t hooked them by page ten, your chance of being accepted is slim.

This means, your opening has to be so good, that they will want to read the rest of the screenplay to see what happens next.

After a strong opening, the next important part to cap is the ending. If a reader is still interested after the first ten pages, they will often skip straight to the end to see how the story finishes.

The best description I’ve heard of what constitutes a “good ending” is to give the audience what they expect, in a way they don’t expect. People want a happy ending, where the hero triumphs, but they want to be surprised by the way the hero achieves it.

Conflict, conflict, conflict
One thing every good script needs is conflict. Conflict is the engine that drives a story forwards. The more the various characters are in conflict with one another, the more a chance that something interesting will happen.

Send your hero to hell
We want the hero to triumph, but we also want their triumph to be against the odds. You do that by throwing everything at them. How do you achieve that? Simple! In any given situation, think of the worst thing that could happen to your hero, and then do it to them.

Give an audience a reason to care
Strong characters are essential if you are to take the audience along. Nowhere is this more crucial than in your main character. Your main character needs to be:

  • Sympathetic
  • Vulnerable
  • Believable
  • Interesting
  • Multi-dimensional

Too many stories fall flat because the main character is either unsympathetic (so we don’t care what happens to them), or less interesting than a subsidiary character.

Outline or die
There are several of ways in figuring out where your story is going. Some people write each scene on an index card, others use sheets of paper; some just type the different scenes out. Then there are those who write the screenplay based on a half page of notes.

My own recommendation is to outline as much as possible. Why? Just ask yourself – which would you rather re-write when you discover your story isn’t working? A 10-page scene outline, or a 120-page screenplay?

While paying attention to the above will not guarantee that you become a great writer, ignore them at your peril. The more you write, the more you’ll find what works for you – but paying attention to the basics will shorten your learning curve.

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