10 Practical Tips for Writing Your First Screenplay
#1 Always Introduce Your Characters
Often, screenwriters focus on the action, the plot, and forget that first impressions are incredibly important and will be the decider for any reader (or producer – eek!) whether or not to giving you any attention. Alongside this desire to plunge straight into the action, there’s a trend within the industry to gloss over characters’ first appearances, especially main characters who appear abruptly and are launched straight into fast-paced action.
This is the first time meeting your character, and given that we can’t see beyond the page and inside your head, we need to have an idea of how you’re imagining them.
Spend sufficient time — one segment of action lines, at least — detailing the profile of your character, starting with the obvious: their fashion, age, gender, race. Are they haggard or mean-looking or sweet and bouncy? How do they carry themselves — with poise and dignity or with slothfulness and self-neglect? How do they speak — with a distinct accent or idiolect? With trilling intonation? How do they fit in, or contrast with, the aesthetic of their environment and the other characters?
#2 Keep Descriptions Succinct
Equally, you shouldn’t aim to describe every single detail exhaustively, from the positioning of your characters flyaway hairs to the exact elaborate design of their polyester tie that will only see two seconds of screen time.
Page space is a precious resource that should be used precisely and sparingly. Include enough descriptions to maintain the intrigue and beauty of your story, and not so many that attention is drawn away from the principal content and towards less significant, whimsical aspects.
Given that you’ll most likely be working with a creative team to have your project come to life, you’ll want to give these creatives leeway to bring their own creativity and imagination to the work, too. Leaving descriptions impactful but open can be the needed stimulus for some amazing ideas from your collaborators.
#3 Screenplays vs Books
Film is an audiovisual medium, i.e. it relies on sound and visuals. Without some form of narration or dialogue [a form of sound] or some abstract or symbolic depiction [visuals], we would have no idea as to what is going on in the character’s minds, and so your script shouldn’t detail such matters as could another literary form.
Keep in mind that you should only detail what we see and hear; your script should read as one would watch the film it produces.
#4 Live in the Present Moment
Similarly, your narrative and descriptions should be in real time. Include no indication of the past: how a character used to feel or, worse yet, why a scene is relevant based upon a scene that happened earlier or that will happen later in the script. If you feel the need to explain to your reader why your scene makes sense, it probably doesn’t make any sense at all, and you should think about reimagining it, or, at least, communicating its content in a different, more coherent manner.
Whether your character is travelling backwards through time or forward normally like the rest of us, and whether your plot is organised chronologically or fragmented, the way we experience your independent scenes will always be progressive, continuous, linear, and so they should be described accordingly.
#5 Stay Within the Word Limit
The average feature-length screenplay is 95-115 words. If you’re looking to get your screenplay made into a film, you’re going to want to stick to this word count . Receiving a ridiculous amount of screenplays per week, page counts are an easy way for a producer or film company to filter out the useful from the unimpressive.
Too short, and the impression will be that you are unable to maintain a detailed and powerful story. Too long, and you will seem amateur and overly ambitious. There’s a word limit for a reason.
If you’re looking to produce/direct your own screenplay, however, you go ahead and make it as long or short as you want! Don’t let oppressive ‘industry standards’ hold you back there!
#6 Write What You Want to Write
On the topic of transgressing ‘industry standards’, don’t make a screenplay that you think your audience wants; write what you want to write, whatever interests you. Writing for others will either lead to further pollution of an industry already plagued by hammy clichés and unoriginal narrative formulae, or to creative exhaustion as you find yourself increasingly uninvested in your own work.
Of course, know your target audience and be aware of existing trends within the genre, but let this be your inspiration only , a framework to guide your writing — if you need it — and not a dictatorial force that comes to dominate your every written word!
#7 Know Your Formatting
If you’re just dabbling, this might not be so important to you, but if you’re enjoying screenwriting and want to further a career with the art form, make sure that you’re not just going in blind and relying on software like Celtx to format everything for you.
Make sure you know your craft inside and out and that you memorise formatting standards. This is the difference between someone who likes writing screenplays and a serious screenwriter-artist, as without the software to do it all for you, where would you be?
(I've actually got a screenplay formatting course coming out soon! So, keep an eye peeled wide for that!)
#8 Speculative Screenplays vs Shooting Screenplays
Speculative (or “spec”) screenplays are essentially intended to “sell” your idea to prospective producers and directors. As such, there are certain things you shouldn’t be including unless absolutely essential to the telling of your story: camera angles, scene transitions, references to ‘the viewer’ [you’ll notice many amateur scripts modelled off of Hollywood shooting screenplays with phrases like ‘we see’ and ‘we hear’ — don’t do this. Including these items is another surefire way to have your script rejected.
Again, if you intend to direct/produce your script yourself, include whichever instructions you deem will be necessary and useful in post-/production. Although, it might be worth getting the story itself down first, and then thinking about how it will be depicted on screen.
Further along the process, you might want to develop two separate scripts, too: one for your actors, and another for you, so that you can litter the latter with however many annotations you like whilst keeping the former clean and legible for your other creatives whom such messy notes do not concern.
#9 Be Conscious of Your Budget
Explosions and graphic gore, fantasy worlds in the sky and talking, walking trees might not be recommended subject matter if your budget is a modest one.
But use this limitation to your advantage! See it as a challenge and let it channel your creativity and guide you to create a poignant and vivid story that is still feasible and realisable.
#10 Read Some Screenplays!
There are thousands of screenplays, speculative and shooting, within the public domain. Use them to your advantage and see how the artists whose work is most attractive and effective to you communicate their ideas through their scripts. This will help you especially to find new, engaging and articulate ways to communicate the more abstract and particular imagery you have in your head — black holes expanding across space, a common flower mutating into a dog-eating monster…etc!
Make sure you choose a speculative or shooting script in accordance with the type you are writing, though!
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