A Beginner's Guide to Screenwriting

So you’ve decided to become a screenwriter! It’s a long road ahead, but all good things in life require perseverance and hard work. But the question remains:

How do you get started?

 Source: Pexels.com

Source: Pexels.com

There are tons of books and articles out there that explain how to write a screenplay, how to tell a compelling story, how to make it marketable, and even how to sell it. Although most of the advice they give is good and solid, it also comes from people who have been in the screenwriting business for several years and assume that others understand their language.

It seems to me that absolute beginners need to be reassured about basic information in a simple way that they understand and appreciate. It doesn't hurt to verify some simple things while we're trying to figure out what it's all about. And who's better to do that than someone who went through this whole thing only a while ago?

When I first got tempted to write a screenplay, I knew nothing on the subject except that it was some form of writing, considerably shorter than a novel, with much fewer linguistic demands, freer in its use of locations and characters than a play, hence probably easier to write. How wrong was I!

Writing a screenplay is not only the hardest task a beginner could undertake, it's also the most pointless: doomed to oblivion if you don't know how to do it, nobody will care to read it, not even good friends, and if they do, they will get bored out of their minds and won't know what to tell you.

Whereas people might find some merit in a mediocre short story or a cheesy poem, a bad screenplay is sure to bring tears to the eyes of every reader. And not out of emotion either.

The reason is simple: screenplays are written not to be read but to be put on screen. It takes a lot of effort and imagination on the reader's part to visualize the scenes and to be able to reach the end without losing his/her patience.

The only lecture you’ll ever need on storyteling from the master himself.

During my long research (reading books on the matter, numerous screenplays, talking to screenwriters and finally writing several screenplays of my own) I learnt a few valuable lessons.

Here it is then, through the eyes of an amateur and assuming you are also just that: a complete beginner who feels a bit (or terribly) lost and doesn't know how or where to start.

What is a screenplay?

Simply put, it's about 100-120 pages of description and dialogue and about 40 scenes (that can vary, depending on the genre you're trying to write.) Like with other forms of writing, it has three acts.

 Source: Pexels.com

Source: Pexels.com

The first act should set up the story and the characters, the last should lead to the conclusion, and the middle or second act... well, that's the tough one to write. This is where you tell your story in about 70-80 pages, you develop your characters, the substories, you insert your plot twists, and hope you won't have long stretches of writing where absolutely nothing happens!

What is so hard about the second act?

I found that the hardest thing about the second act is to keep it interesting!

You do need moments of pause, small transition scenes etc. But most importantly, every scene you write must promote the story or tell something important about the characters. If a scene doesn't serve a specific purpose, it probably shouldn't be there. Which brings me to question number 3...

What do I do when a scene (or a phrase or character) doesn't work?

You delete them. You edit them. You re-write them. (Sorry I can't be more helpful here, but you'll soon discover that editing, deleting and re-writing are the things you're going to be doing the most when writing a screenplay.)

How do I write a scene?

Start from the middle. You don't have to explain or describe how your character got to the restaurant. The important thing is that he/she is there having dinner with a mobster or an alien or whatever, who threatens to destroy the world or, worse, the universe!

Ok, but how do I keep track of all the scenes I have in my head and how do I organize them?

I can help you with this one. The best thing to do when you sit down to write your first screenplay is to buy some ruled index cards. When you have a good idea for a scene, write it down. You can do that randomly. When you have 35-40 scenes, put them in order and see how it works. That way, you can add or discard scenes very easily.

What should I know about formatting?

There are numerous articles on the internet, including this article on proper screenplay formatting I wrote a while ago. If you're really serious about screenwriting, I suggest you invest in some screenwriting software as it will do most of the formatting for you. It will also come with very helpful tutorials and templates.

One thing I can tell you for sure: if your script doesn't follow the appropriate formatting to the T, it will never be considered or even read by those who matter the most: agents, managers, producers.

A few more things to keep in mind --

Every page of a screenplay is, give or take, a minute on-screen. Your scenes then should be on average two pages long -- and never longer than three.

Screenwriting has more similarities with technical writing than with literature. It's boring to write, but goes pretty fast once you have mastered the basics.

I don't have time to explain "concept" here, but I can at least tell you that it's always a good thing if you can summarize your idea in two lines. (Case in point: Speed -- Bomb on a bus that has to go below 50 miles an hour or the bomb will explode.)

Read as many screenplays as you can. There are numerous sites that offer downloadable scripts. When given the option, be sure to download first drafts and not shooting drafts (as those are scripts that have been changed by producers/directors etc. and won't give you a good idea of how a script is written in its original format).

First screenplays don't get sold (unless you are the luckiest person on earth!)

You'll have to write and re-write four or five of them before you even consider sending one out so do yourself a favor and don't worry about selling your first script. Worry about writing it and, eventually, finishing it.

Although nothing is written in stone, it's best to learn the rules before you bend them.

Hopefully, you'll find some of this basic information useful when you first decide to sit down and try to write a screenplay. And when you're ready to put your story on the big screen, contact us!

(Cover Photo from Pexels.com)