10 Tips for Writing Your Own Screenplay
Writing a short story is a normal part of the school curriculum, but it’s rare that you’ll learn how to write a screenplay.
You might be fascinated by the work of the writers of your favourite films and TV shows, yet have no idea what a screenplay, or the process of writing one, is actually like. It’s rare that you see a screenplay in its original form, after all; you see it once the director, producer, actors and everyone else involved in the production have got their hands on it. So if you decide that you’d like to try writing a screenplay yourself, you may not know where to start.
Thankfully, writing a screenplay isn’t inherently harder than any other kind of creative writing, if you have the right mindset for it. The requirements of filming the story mean that screenplay writing is more restrictive and has more rules than, say, writing a novel – but some writers find that these restrictions act as a spur, not a hindrance, to their creativity. If you decide you’d like to give it a try, here are our top tips.
1. Learn how to format your screenplay correctly
Have you ever seen a correctly formatted screenplay? They look quite different from play scripts. There are headings in capital letters, indented dialogue, and directions that also have their own specific formatting and style. It’s fiddly to get the hang of, although there are programs that will do the formatting for you if you select the part of the screenplay that you’re writing. It also leaves a lot of blank space on every page.
You might think that you can simplify the whole process and save some trees for good measure by just writing your screenplay in play script format, or adapting the screenplay format as you think best. But this format has been developed for a reason. It enables everyone else who’ll be looking at the screenplay – the actors, the director, the producer, the props team and so on – to see the parts that are relevant to them at a glance. And it has the wonderful effect that if you write and format a screenplay properly, one page corresponds approximately to one minute of time on screen. This is why most screenplays are 90 to 120 pages long. Mess with the format, and you lose that effect.
2. Be concise and focused
There are some things that are not up to the screenwriter to decide. That piece of incidental music that makes your opening scene just right? Not yours to decide. The bright red coat that your heroine decides to wear, that shows how she’s breaking out of her shell? Not yours to decide. The sweep of the camera over the primeval landscape, burrowing into a narrow crevice in the rock and finally finding the cave in which your lost time-traveller is huddled? Awesome, but not yours to decide.
What you do get to decide: what happens, where it happens, and what the people involved say to each other. It’s a rule of thumb – which doesn’t always hold true – that you can tell the quality of a screenplay by the amount of white space on every page. Lots of white space suggests concise descriptions and lots of snappy dialogue. Less white space, and there’s a risk that characters are giving speeches rather than interacting, and that action sequences are being described in exhausting and unnecessary detail. Not all good screenplays are minimalist, but most bad ones aren’t.
3. Create compelling characters
Amateur screenwriters sometimes think that just as decisions about wardrobe, music, camera angles and a host of other things are not for the screenwriter to decide, the creation of compelling characters must therefore be up to the actors. After all, you’ll have watched interviews with actors where they talk extensively about their role in shaping what their character is going to be – you may well conclude that as a screenwriter, you’re just giving them a blank canvas to work with.
But that’s very far from being the case. Compelling, memorable, interesting characters are at the heart of any good screenplay. Try summarising the character in a sentence, and then see how that sounds. If you end up with ‘cool action hero’ or ‘she’s beautiful, but she’s really clumsy’, then you should think again. After all, if your screenplay takes off, you’ll want actors to read these characters and be desperate to find out what it would be like to inhabit them. They don’t all have to be beautiful, or charming, or witty – after all, it’s frequently the case that the most interesting character in a film is the villain – but they should all be something more than a stereotype, giving the sense that their own individual stories could be just as interesting as the narrative you’ve decided to focus on.
4. Think about structure
Many of the types of creative writing that you’ll have come across in the past, such as short stories, or novels, won’t have a defined structure that you have to follow. Writing a screenplay is different. There are some avant-garde exceptions, but the vast majority of screenplays, regardless of genre, will follow a relatively constrained set of structural rules. Even if you ultimately decide that these rules ought to be broken, you should master following them first.
The basic structure is founded on three acts – set up, confrontation, and resolution. The set up should be the shortest section, and within it should take place the inciting incident. This is usually around 18 minutes into the film. It’s when Cady meets Regina George, when Harry learns he’s a wizard, when Dorothy arrives in Oz. It’s the moment when the plot truly begins, and it lays the ground for the rest of the film. This may seem prescriptive, but it works – and there are further rules for how the rest of the film should be plotted too, such as a point when the stakes are raised, and when there’s a further setback, and when the hero finally triumphs or fails. You can’t escape any of these rules, so it’s best to follow them from the start.
5. Read lots of screenplays
Most aspiring novelists will have read hundreds of novels before they ever try to write their own. Yet very few people ever read screenplays for fun. That makes writing a good screenplay much harder, because how can you know what makes for a good screenplay if you’ve never read one? Thankfully, the internet has you covered – you can google something along the lines of ‘screenplays online’ to get countless websites, and if the film you’re interested in is popular enough, chances are you’ll be able to find the screenplay somewhere.
If you’re genuinely interested in screenwriting, you should find reading screenplays of your favourite films to be a fascinating experience. Take the screenplay for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s a film with varied and fascinating characters, and you might expect lengthy descriptions. Instead, for Poe Dameron, you get “Poe has charisma, a natural spark”. That’s it. Rey just has “the grimy face of a beautiful, young woman.” The rest you have to figure out from their dialogue and their actions.
6. Watch films critically, and on repeat
Once you’ve read the screenplay of your favourite films, it’s time to watch them with the screenplay in front of you, and with a critical eye and a finger on the pause button. Can you figure out where the film transitions through the different structural points we discussed above? Figure out what parts of the screenplay are particularly effective when rendered on film, or if there’s anything in there that you would change, given the chance. And watch films again and again, until you’ve teased out everything that you can learn from them – which will probably only happen once you’re sick of them.
It’s not just good films that you can learn something from. Pick a film you think is terrible (ideally in a genre that you usually like) and go through the same process of reading the screenplay and watching the film several times over. What do you think went wrong? How would you fix it?
7. Focus on dialogue
What really matters in a film? You might think it’s having great special effects, or amazing set pieces like fight scenes or car chases, or beautiful cinematography. But none of those things are in your hands as the screenwriter. What you get to write is dialogue – and brilliant dialogue is what will make your screenplay stand out.
Note the distinction here between dialogues and monologues. Some writers become famous for amazing monologues, but they are few and far between. You aren’t Shakespeare; you’re unlikely to end up writing soliloquies that will be remembered hundreds of years in the future. But good dialogue is at the heart of every great film. It might be the will-they-won’t-they conversations between your two romantic leads who struggle to express their feelings for each other; or the witty repartee within a criminal gang; or the banter among a group of soldiers that seems casual, but hides considerable depths of feeling.
8. Listen to conversations
If you want to get dialogue right, then a great way to do it is to start listening more to conversations around you. If you’re sitting behind a couple of people talking on the bus, see if you can figure out what their relationship is – are they married? Newly dating? Siblings? Work colleagues? Think about how their relationship is reflected in their conversation. You might think about how much they interrupt or talk over each other, whether one defers to the other more than vice versa and how they do it, whether they’re respectfully making small talk or subtly making fun of each other.
Consider other things that are revealed in conversation too. For instance, how much does education, class, age or gender affect the way we speak? Sometimes when we write about people who are very different from us, we fall into caricature, and paying attention to how these differences appear in real life can make them more realistic in your writing.
9. Think about subtext
The final point to make about dialogue (and it’s important enough to merit a third of this article) is that it shouldn’t spell everything out. Think about the people on the bus. If one of the work colleagues is hugely resentful of the other and trying to undermine them, will they ever say the words, “I really resent you?” If the two people who are newly dating are feeling very nervous around each other as they begin to fall in love, will they say “I’m feeling very nervous as I start to fall in love with you”? Of course they won’t, so they shouldn’t in your screenplay either.
It’s worth reading the Ernest Hemingway short story ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ for an example of a masterpiece of subtext. It’s a conversation between a couple who have a very serious matter to discuss (the woman is pregnant) but who never say any of the relevant topics – pregnancy, abortion, parenthood – out loud. See if you can write dialogue that has the same effect.
10. Simplify your story
Films with winding, twisty plots that always take you by surprise can be great – but they’re not for beginners. If you’re a newcomer to writing screenplays and you want to hone your craft, then keep it simple. It’s best to write a storyline that can be boiled down to a single sentence (you’ll need to boil it down when you pitch it anyway) and focus your attention on creating unforgettable characters and giving them great things to say. This is especially the case if you’re used to reading and writing novels; as you’ll undoubtedly have seen from watching film adaptations of your favourite novels, you can fit a lot less plot into 100 minutes than you can into 300 pages.
Some of the greatest film plots are incredibly simple, whether it’s “boy meets girl” or “girl fights aliens”, and when you’re just getting started, that’s what you should be aiming for. No one should need to read your screenplay twice in order to figure out what happens. A great screenplay is simple, minimal and compelling. Good luck with writing it!