How to Write a Screenplay for Dummies

Sunday, December 19, 2010 at 10:32 am

Ever since the Greek poet Thespis developed the art of drama back in 600 B.C., mankind has busied itself coming up with riveting tales of love, death, greed, redemption, and betrayal. If writing such stories sounds like a fun way to make a living, then you’ll want to check out this article entitled How to Write a Screenplay for Dummies. By the time you’re done with it, you’ll have a basic grasp of what it takes to succeed in the screenwriting business.

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Screenwriting Tips

Read Scripts – How can you write a script if you’ve never even seen one? Luckily, this is an easy fix. A number of sites exist online where users can read scripts for free, so dive right on in and take a look at some of your favorites. I recommend the following sites:

Know Your Genres – Even if your script is the most brilliant thing ever written, you might still have trouble making the sale if it’s deemed too hard to market. That’s why you need to know your genres. You see, studio executives love genres, because they’re easy to describe and moviegoers can quickly get an idea about whether or not they’re interested in seeing them. And when genres get hot…well, just expect Hollywood to crank them out until we can no longer stand it. Here are the major fictional genres you should be aware of as a screenwriter:

Find a Strong Premise – While it doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel, the premise for your movie script should be strong and easy to grasp. For example, the premise of Happy Gilmore would be “a hockey player becomes a pro golfer.” Having a strong premise also helps when describing the “high concept” nature of your proposed film. High concept usually means a description that sums up your movie in 25 words or less. These are especially helpful at pitch meetings, where busy studio execs are bombarded with numerous ideas to consider. In many cases, the high concept is as simple as linking together a couple of preexisting movies to get the point across. Take the film Alien for example: It’s been described as “Jaws in space.”

Set a Schedule – We’ve all heard stories about desperate or inspired screenwriters who locked themselves away and cranked out a movie script in a matter of days. While many of those are undoubtedly true, most of us would be better off with a more manageable schedule. We all different responsibilities in our lives, so try to judge what’s a realistic expectation for you. For the beginner, I suggest trying to complete somewhere in the two or three pages per day range. This doesn’t overload you, and at this rate you’ll finish a 110-page script (the current average length) in just over a month.

Start Writing – Some screenwriters dive right in and write as they go, while others plan everything out (sometimes jotting down scenes on index cards and moving them around into an order which pleases them). Then there’s the outline strategy, where all scenes are written down in sequential order to provide a basic framework for the author once the screenwriting process begins in earnest. Don’t be afraid to experiment with each of these, but strive to find the one that works best for you.

Make the First 10 Pages Count – Studios receive all manner of scripts every day, and the people tasked with reading them have little patience for mediocrity. If a reader is assigned to look at a dozen scripts in a single day, he or she is not going to be able to read them cover to cover. Instead, there’s a good chance they’ll only look at the first 10 pages. That’s why you should make certain your film starts on a high note, especially if you’re an unknown screenwriter. Also pay careful attention to spelling and formatting on these first 10 pages, as a single mistake could completely sink your chances of making a sale. And if you can set up the entire framework of your film within the first 10 pages, well, that’s an added bonus.

Rewrites – I couldn’t really call this piece How to Write a Screenplay for Dummies unless I briefly touched on the subject of rewrites. Your first draft will not be a masterpiece, and it may end up running way over the intended length. That’s okay, as these problems can all be corrected during the rewrite process. As you prepare to fine-tune your movie script, here are some questions to ask yourself:

Author and screenwriter William Faulkner once suggested that rewriting was intended to “kill your darlings.” He meant that the writer should eliminate ineffective scenes, no matter how much time went into them. While the novice screenwriter will regard every word they’ve written as golden, that’s simply not the case.

Making the Sell – Once you’ve completed your script, now the really hard part starts. It’s time to compete with the thousands of would-be screenwriters out there seeking to get noticed, not to mention the experienced veterans with on-screen credits under their belts. But advice on selling your script in Hollywood will have to wait for another time, as this concludes our look at How to Write a Screenplay for Dummies.

This is just a basic overview to get your creative juices flowing and serve as inspiration. You can be a successful screenwriter, but it takes talent, hard work, and more than a little luck. Your first few screenplays will probably stink, but just keep plugging away until you feel more comfortable. Before you know it, you’ll be cranking out movie scripts like the pros (and hopefully getting paid just like them, too).

This entry was posted on Sunday, December 19th, 2010 at 10:32 am and is filed under Thoughts on Film. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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