Screenwriting Basics Tips

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Complex, Not Complicated

I recently read a script by a novice writer that was more like five different movies. Each of the five characters had a complicated story with enough drama to rival Jerry Springer. Keeping track of a single storyline was hard, never mind weaving them together. It was impossible to care for the characters because we didn't have time to follow any of them through a character arc. As a result, the they remained two-dimensional cardboard figures.

In an effort to give their stories depth, many writers confuse complicated plot lines for complexity. They are not the same. When talking about plots and characters, complicated means confusing. Complex means intricate and interesting.

Action is not story. Events are not story. We don't have story until we have a determined character with a goal who faces mounting obstacles along the way to achieving that goal.

If your hero's goal is to win the state championship, that's enough. Stay with that and find events that act as obstacles toward that goal. Don't have him also trying to solve a murder, save his girlfriend from drugs, and help his best friend launch a home-made rocket ship. Keep it clean and simple. Pick a single, central conflict.

Instead, add complexity through subplots, subtext, and the kinds of obstacles you give your hero. Choose character traits that create inner conflict. Give him a flaw that makes us worry he won't achieve his goal. Escalate the conflict in unique and interesting ways. Set up and pay off events logically and organically. Even an accident in your screenplay shouldn't be "accidental." If it doesn't launch or sustain the story, then it's coming out of the blue, and it doesn't belong in your script.

Throwing in a bunch of complications is simply confusing. Do your story a favor and keep it lean.


Show, Don't Tell

Movies are visual. Their stories unfold through moving pictures—pictures that show action—with the help of dialogue. This is why scripts are always written in the simple present, as if the film were rolling before our eyes. A novelist has the luxury of entering a character's head and reading his thoughts. A screenwriter doesn't. The old adage "show, don't tell" is never more applicable than in screenwriting. You simply can't write anything that can't be shown on the screen or heard in dialogue.
The mark of a good writer is the ability to draw the reader into the fictional world. For screenwriters, this means finding dramatic and visually interesting ways of externalizing everything which is internal, be it conflict, thoughts, or feelings.
In daily life, we read situations all the time. If we notice a couple at a restaurant eating in strained silence, we look for details. Tight lips, lack of eye contact, wedding rings. We watch for emotional cues and listen for tone of voice so we'll know how to interpret a comment. We make decisions and assumptions based on our interpretations.
Part of the fun of reading a story is having the chance to exercise our innate ability to assess situations and reach conclusions just as we do in real life. It makes us feel we are living the experience rather than standing on the outside looking in.
Guide your reader skillfully toward the conclusions you'd like him to reach. Mona is upset is telling. Mona throws the dishes across the room is showing. Robert is a neat freak is telling. Robert folds the end of the toilet paper into a perfect triangle and rolls it on the holder until it is perfectly aligned is showing.
As entertainment lawyer Judith Merians put it, "A story is what happens, not what one says happens. A young woman smacks down a package of condoms at the checkout stand in the supermarket. She pays without embarrassment, pockets the package, and then calls her husband on her cell phone to tell him she's working that night. This shows us everything we need to know about who she is—bold, independent, self-defining, and unfaithful—in a brief and dramatically-satisfying scene."

Keep brainstorming to find unique ways of showing. Avoid cliché by never settling for the first idea that comes to you. Show rather than tell, and your writing will sparkle.


Passion: Yes! Formula: No!

"In Hollywood, everyone thinks they have to be commercial," says producer Maggie Soboil (Myron's Movie). "That often makes for formulaic writing. I don't want formula. I want a compelling story."

If you hope to make a living as a screenwriter, it's important to be savvy about the market and to understand what kinds of concepts sell. But it's equally important not to become obsessed by the market, because the market is difficult to predict. Don't write something just because you think it will sell. Focus instead on coming up with a fantastic concept that you love, and then telling the best, most heart-felt story you can. Your job is to deliver on the potential of the concept you chose without being formulaic or derivative.

Producers are in the story-telling business. They buy and sell great emotional experiences. For that, they need…compelling stories! What they don't need are pale imitations of successful movies or gimmicks—car chases, explosions, cheap sex—that have been thrown in to make the story more "commercial." That's writing by formula, and it isn't interesting to anyone. Instead, keep digging until you find solutions that are unique and fresh.

"When I'm considering a story, I'm looking to get excited," says director Randa Haines. If you're passionate about your concept and are willing to keep searching for ways to tell your story in the most exciting way possible, your passion for your material will be hard to resist.


Watch Movies Like A Screenwriter

When most people watch a movie, they react to it on an emotional level. Did they like it? Were they transported? Did the story make them laugh or cry? They base their judgment of the movie on their subjective experience and rarely think about it beyond that.

Writer Pedro de Alcantara says, "Most moviegoers tend to take the screenplay for granted. They don't know, and don't want to know, that what they see onscreen is Dustin Hoffman speaking lines written by Avery Corman, lines further chosen and edited by Robert Benton. All they care about is Kramer fighting, Kramer making mistakes, Kramer nearly destroying his child's life. Moviegoers don't leave the theater saying to themselves, 'The subtext in the dialogue was so subtle, it gave Hoffman's character tremendous verisimilitude.' They don't use six-syllable words. They say, "That bastard! He almost screwed it up!'"

From now on when you watch a movie, notice your subjective experience as you always have. But afterwards, take a step back and look at the film more objectively. "The writer in a permanent writerly frame of mind, goes home angry, tearful, elated—but also pondering character arc, the inciting incident in the first act, the length and variety of scenes, the point of view. Ask yourself, 'Whose story was it? Was there enough foreshadowing to prepare and justify the climax?'" says de Alcantara.

Start asking questions about what worked and what didn't. If you laughed at a joke, analyze how the punch line was set up and delivered. If you were bored, think about the movie's pacing and focus. If you didn't care enough about the main character, figure out what you would have done differently.

It's always easier to spot problems in other people's work. By doing this exercise, you'll train yourself to see flaws in your own work and you'll learn to generate solutions.


Read Other Scripts

No serious writer would compose a novel without having studied and learned from dozens of novels. So why do so many beginning screenwriters neglect to study scripts of produced movies? Reading scripts is one of the best ways to learn the craft of screenwriting. Don't skip this vital step!

Download scripts of your favorite movies from the Internet. Read as many different kinds of scripts as possible, and then watch the movie while following along with the script. Notice the differences. Perhaps a scene was cut, or some dialogue was changed. See if you can figure out why. Do you think the changes improved the movie or not?

If you do this exercise, you'll be able to answer many of your basic formatting questions, and you'll begin to see how screenwriters structure their stories.

Online resources for scripts:

Free downloads:

Classics, new releases, and hard-to-find scripts at reasonable prices:


A Collaborative Art

When you've spent months and even years developing a story, it's not easy to listen to others tell you it needs rewriting. In reality, it takes hundreds of professionals to make a movie. You're working with other creative people, and you have to let them bring their talents and vision to the final product, too.
"Creative friction is necessary," says director Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God, The Ron Clark Story). "It stretches you, it pushes you. It's what enables two people to build something greater than each of them could have done individually."
Rewrites, studio notes, development hell, and actor and director involvement are a fact of a screenwriter's life. How does a writer step out from behind her computer screen and navigate collaboration?
"It's important to know how flexible you are," says Haines. "You need to feel confident that you and the director or producer you're working with are in agreement about the movie you're trying to make. If not, if you're making two different movies, the resulting script will be diluted to nothing."
Your collaborator's suggestions may not always be ideal, but they could potentially reveal underlying problems. It's your job to define these problems and search for creative ways of solving them. As you gain experience, you'll learn which battles are worth waging. If you choose to argue a particular point, speak your piece with confidence, but don't be insulting or dismissive of other ideas. Stick to the essential points and avoid quarrelling over trivial matters. If you find yourself getting worked up, stop talking and start listening. Take notes, thank everyone for their input, and tell them you'll get back to them with some fresh ideas. When you look at your notes again in private, you may start to see things from a different perspective. Away from the pressure, you just might come up with some great solutions.
Bemoaning the screenwriter's lowly status in Hollywood is never the best use of a writer's time or energy. In the end, the only things you have control over are your attitude and the quality of the work you deliver. If your heart is set on screenwriting, pick your battles and your assignments wisely, keep honing your craft, and work on your team player skills.


A Script Is Not Literature

Novels and stories allow for liberties of pacing not possible in cinema. Scripts have to keep moving. The best screen stories unfold with a sense of rhythm and swing through action, sound, and pictures. Every word on the page should contribute to the images and flow of the story. If the words themselves stand out too much, the reader becomes conscious of the writer, and the fictional world is broken.
The key to writing a good script is economy. The Traveling Wilburys had a line in one of their songs: She wrote a long letter on a short piece of paper. To me, that sums up screenwriting beautifully. It isn't about the beauty of language, it's about telling a rich story within a limited frame. In striving for brevity, screenwriters drop pronouns and commas and don't always use full sentences. Yet their stories should still have the stuff of literature—the emotion, the drama, the experience—without striving to be literature. A screenplay can be beautifully written, even poetic, but its beauty lies in a tightly structured story and a perfectly delivered emotional experience, not from the language itself. Poetry is reached in an ideal image rendered by a single word, not through lush descriptions.
Writing a good script is hard. It takes the same blood, sweat, and toil as writing anything else—and then some. Yet it's true that you need specific sensibilities to write a script. A novelist may balk at the limitations of the script format, but a good screenwriter will find the tight framework challenging and even liberating. Novelists don't necessarily make good screenwriters and vice versa, though a study of both forms could prove useful to all writers. I suggest you compare a novel with the screenplay of its movie adaptation. You may be amazed at how supremely different they are, even though they represent the same basic material.


The Screenplay as a Blueprint

Screenplays are often compared to blueprints, and for good reason. A blueprint for a house represents an architect's vision. It gives detailed information regarding a building's structure, proportions, and materials, enabling the work crew to see and build what the architect sees. Similarly, a screenplay conveys the screenwriter's vision and helps the reader—and later the film crew—see what the writer sees.

In the movie The Hudsucker Proxy (written by Ethan and Joel Coen and Sam Raimi), Tim Robbins plays a country hick intent on becoming a successful executive in 1940s New York. He shows his design for a new invention to anyone who will listen. Unfortunately, his blueprint consists only of a circle drawn on a piece of paper. "You know, for kids!" he announces, with an excited smile on his face. But nobody gets it. The board members of Hudsucker Industries think he's an idiot. They don't realize he's just invented the hula hoop, a craze about to sweep the country.

In his mind's eye, the Tim Robbins character had a clear vision, but his skimpy blueprint failed to communicate that vision. The script is your opportunity to communicate your vision. No producer will buy a screenplay if he can't see a movie unfolding in his mind's eye.


Character vs. Plot

What's more important in a good script, the characters or the plot? That's like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. In the best stories, characters and plot are solidly intertwined. Story events force a character to make decisions. And the decisions a character makes influence what happens in the story. They each drive the other. Ideally, your script will have both a riveting plot and three-dimensional characters we can care about.

That said, there is a difference between plot-driven and character-driven stories. The question is not so much which is more important, but what's the entry point into the story?

If you're writing a plot-driven story—an action film, a spy story, or a natural disaster movie—you probably have some idea of what is going to happen. The bad guys are going to steal a secret weapon and try to gain world domination. The question quickly turns to character. Who is the hero going to be? Who can stand up to these evil villains? And just how bad are the bad guys? What kind of people would do such a thing? For your plot-driven story to really resonate and become something special, you need compelling characters.

The same holds true if you're writing a character-driven story. The Painted Veil (novel by W. Somerset Maugham, screenplay by Ron Nyswaner) is about an English couple in a loveless marriage set in the 1920s. The wife is a selfish socialite and the husband a timid doctor. When he finds out she's having an affair, he gives her a choice that will change both of their lives forever: to face the scandal of divorce or follow him into the remote countryside where a cholera epidemic is raging. She chooses to follow him, and thus begins her transformation from spoiled brat to mature woman. The plot was triggered by a character's decision, but the main character's transformation was triggered by the plot. Had these two stayed at home, had nothing happened to shake them out of themselves, there'd be no story. When you start with character, the questions to ask are, "What can happen to this person to totally transform her? What situations will test her to the core? How can I exploit her worst fear? How can I threaten what's dearest to her?"

Focus exclusively on plot, and you'll end up with a formulaic story packed with action but performed by puppet-like characters. Focus exclusively on character, and you'll end up with a rambling, talky, pointless script. Whether your concept is character-driven (As Good as it Gets, Tootsie) or plot-driven (Alien, Titanic), remember that the best movies deliver both great plots and amazing characters.


The Old Lady In The Fifth Row

One afternoon, I went to a showing of Casino Royale on Manhattan's Upper East Side. It was full of neighborhood residents in their 70s and 80s. They talked throughout the movie, commenting on events as they unfolded. After the lights went on, they sat there discussing the whole film! Fascinated, I did what any good writer does: I eavesdropped. The words I heard most often were, "I didn't get why…" and "I didn't like…"

I'm sure these moviegoers see whatever is playing in the neighborhood, regardless of genre, just to get out of the house. It's a chance to meet their friends and have a social outlet. They probably knew James Bond wasn't their cup of tea when they bought their tickets, but they were still disappointed. Like all moviegoers, they had wanted to like the movie.

Becoming attuned to audience reaction is an important part of your job. As a writer, you're a people watcher, so put those people-watching skills toward your education. Go to a movie you've already seen, but this time place yourself in the very front row, off to one side. Instead of facing the screen, turn and face the audience. Notice the expressions on their faces during a tense scene. See where they get bored or where they lean over to their friends and hiss, "That would never happen!"

Watching an audience watch the movie will teach you the most important lesson you can learn: your job as a screenwriter is to involve the audience every step of the way. Do this exercise with movies you love as well as movies you hate. Do it with high-concept blockbusters, indie hits, even obscure Iranian political dramas (hey, you never know what you might learn). Do it with movies like the ones you aspire to write or in genres you work in. Who is the audience for these films? Are they younger, older, male, or female? Are they intellectuals, average folks, or a cross-section of the population? See the same movie in different theaters, even in different cities if you get the chance.

Then let this little study in human psychology inform you as you go back to your own script. You can't please all of the people all of the time, so don't even try. But after you hear a sweet little old lady in the fifth row exclaim, "I just didn't think this James Bond was very nice," I bet you bring a different understanding of the audience to your work.



A script's format allows busy professionals to find the information they need at a glance. A producer estimating a budget can look at a 110-page script in 12-pt. Courier font and know he's dealing with a 110-minute film. An actor can flip through the script and quickly find his lines. A director can count up the number of night shots needed. The conventions of script formatting make it all possible.
Proper formatting is an absolute must for any serious screenwriter. Sloppy formatting screams "amateur" and will get your script tossed in the reject pile faster than you can say, "But you didn't even read the story!" Screenwriting software, such as Final Draft or Movie Maker, makes the task easier, but you still need to understand the conventions.
Below are the bare-bone basics, but if you're writing your very first script you'll need to learn more. One of the best overviews of formatting that I've come across is in chapter two of Screenplay, Writing the Picture by Robin U. Russin and William Missouri Downs.

• 90-120 pages, but 100-110 is considered ideal.

• 12-pt. Courier font.

• Top, bottom, and right margins: 1".
• Leave a larger (1.5") left margin for binding.

Scene Headings (Slug Lines):
• No indent.
• Capitalize.
• Start the slug line with INT. or EXT. to indicate whether the shot is indoors (in a room, a car, or a tent) or outdoors.
• Give the location: DAVID'S APARTMENT.
• Type a dash and indicate if it's DAY or NIGHT. Don't specify what time (noon, twighlight, etc.). Example: INT. DAVID'S APARTMENT – DAY

• No indent.
• Action, scenery, and character descriptions go here.
• Keep blocks of text short (3-5 lines).

• Use CAPS for all character headings and the first time a character is introduced.
• Indent character headings at 3.5."

• Directly follows a character heading.
• Start at 2.5," end at 5.5."

• Avoid using them. It's the actor's job to interpret your lines. But if you must use them:
• Follow a character's name on the next line.
• Indicate how the dialogue is delivered: (angry), (nervous).
• Start at 3" and end at 5.5."

Camera Angles and Transitions:
• Don't use them. This is the director's job.

• Single space your script, but double space between scenes.
• Leave lots of white space on the page by limiting your text and dialogue blocks to 3-5 lines.

• US letter-sized 8.5 x 11 inches, plain white.
• 3-hole punched.

• Use ACCO No. 5 or 6.
• Use two brads, not three (on the top and bottom holes).

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