What does a screenwriter do?
The screenwriter is the person who creates, takes, or adapts an idea and formulates a screenplay. Without the writer, there would be no movie. Period. He or she is the starting gate. He or she is the person that starts the ball rolling down the hill.
Sure, some films are made backwards. There are studios who come up with ideas and package actors, then go find a writer, but the film being made still hinges on that writer or group of writers putting together a screenplay.
The Script is King
This is a term used throughout both Hollywood and Indiewood. What it means is that, at the end of the day, the most important element comes down to the script.
Many of the best films of all time are considered such not because of performances, or because of elaborate sets, or action sequences. They are considered great because of the script. Movies such as “Pulp Fiction,” and “Chinatown” are renowned for their reliance on tight action and plot. Movies such as “Streetcar Named Desire,” “Casablanca,” and “Ordinary People” are known for their amazing dialogue that made it easy for their actors and actresses to perform. Your job, as the writer, is to produce the KILLER SCRIPT.
How Film School Student Dominic Perfected His Dialog
The Killer Script
The “Killer Script” is the script that isn’t merely good. It is beyond good, and it is beyond great. IF you have a Killer Script, when someone reads it, they read it in one sitting, and immediately get back to you.
When an actor reads it, he or she gets his or her agent on the phone. When a production company reads it, the project is green lit.
Here is a universal truth that many people do not know (even many who think they are in the movie business): KILLER SCRIPTS GET MADE. Remember that. It’s the good, mediocre, and downright horrible scripts that constitute 99% of what other writers put out there. Our Screenwriting Film School Course is geared towards empowering you to write your own KILLER SCRIPT.
Lesson One: Getting Started
We dissect a script to find out what makes it a killer script. We also, discuss the importance of reading classic screenplays and begin understanding what essential elements all good screenplays have in common.
Lesson Two: The Story
Everything starts with the story. What story are you trying to tell? Is it based on a true story, a book, or some other published work (An Adapted Screenplay), or an original idea that you came up with (An Original Screenplay)? You will learn that you need to write what you know and that every script has a beginning, middle and end.
Lesson Three: The Three Act Structure and Plot Points
Pretty much all movies follow the same plot format, which consists of three separate sections of a film to tell a story. This is called the 3-Act Structure.
Act One: The Setup
- Main Character
- Dramatic Premise
- Dramatic Situation
- Inciting Incident
Act Two: The Confrontation
- First Culmination
Act Three: The Resolutio
Lesson Four: Character
Your characters must be alive. Your characters must be real. Some of the greatest screenplays of all time are great not just because of the memorable lead and supporting characters, but the one-line characters that are featured. Sometimes a character can say one line and you instantly feel you know him or her. Every character in your screenplay (especially your lead characters) have to have substance. Substance is achieved by back story.
- The Reality
- Back Story
- Character Arcs
- Taking What You See
- Supporting Characters
Lesson Five: Theme/Genre
This lesson defines what kind of film you are making and writing for. Genre is defined as a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content. For films, genre is the form of film that your story is going to reveal.
- Science Fiction
As well as these variations:
- Dramedy (Drama and Comedy)
- Black Comedy
- Film Noir
- Romantic Comedy
- Street Drama
- Horror Comedy
- Musical Comedy
- Crime Thriller
“Theme” is different from genre. A theme addresses the question “What’s it about?” Not “What’s it about?” in a general sense… more like what it’s about in a topical, idealistic sense. A story can be made deeper by adding a theme.
Examples of themes include:
- Forgotten Love
Additionally, this lesson will spend time getting you ready to sell your screenplay.
- Identifying the Genre
- The Two Line Pitch
- The Two Movie Pitch
Lesson 6: Actions and Descriptions
A screenplay has to move. We’ve talked about having a beginning, middle and an end. All of the scenes within the three acts must be targeted to move the story along, whether it’s character exposition or action.
- The Novel vs. The Screenplay
- Write What’s Seen
- Writing Scene Action
- Shooting Scripts vs. Reading Scripts
Lesson 7: Formatting
If you submit a script to a literary agent, and it is typed in Microsoft Word in Times New Roman font, it will most likely never be read and end up in the trash. Screenplays have to follow certain rules:
- They need to be formatted correctly.
- They need to be the proper length. A screenplay page is roughly a minute of movie length, so a 120 page screenplay is a 2 hour movie.
- They need to be printed and presented correctly
In marketing “packaging is everything.” If you plan on selling your script, or raising money to produce your own film you need to know how to format and present your finished screenplay.
- What screenwriting software to use
- Your title page
Lesson 8: Dialogue
When writing dialogue, you’re not writing what looks good on the page. You’re writing what sounds good. One of the best ways to become good at dialogue is to listen to the people around you. Every line you write should be able to be spoken aloud, and you should be able to visualize and hear your character saying that line of dialogue.
You have to try to be as tight and as economical with your dialogue as possible. Try to never “over-write”. Again, this is a screenplay, not a novel. People rarely talk in paragraphs. Make all your words tight and to the point.
- Giving your characters a voice
- A word on narration
- Do you ever use it?
Lesson 9: Synopsis and Treatment
The short synopsis is a one to two paragraph summary of your story. Be careful here. You don’t want to give away the ending! You just want to give a quick rundown of what the story is about. This is another one of those tools that both helps you before you write (it gives you a short, tight picture of your story), and after you write (your short synopsis is many times the way to get your foot in the door).
- The Long Synopsis
- The Four Page Treatment
Lesson 10: The Scene Outline
Start getting excited, because you are very close to beginning your KILLER SCRIPT. The outline is an essential tool for many writers. Though many veteran WGA writers still use outlines, it’s quintessential for beginning writers who have never completed a script to have a general idea on where, specifically, they are going.
- Scene Ordering
- Marking The Plot Points, Acts, Midpoints and Climax
- Sample Scene Outline
- Your Guide
- The Main Rule of Writing
- Create Your Rock
Lesson 11: The First Draft
As we mentioned in the last chapter, the main rule of writing is not to be afraid to write crap. You have to understand that even the best writers in the world do not write brilliant masterpieces on their first drafts. Many of the greatest screenplays of all time have been written and rewritten numerous times over. Just focus, get excited, and begin to write.
- Create Your Rock, Part Two
- Pushing To The End
You’ve finished your rough draft screenplay. Isn’t it a great feeling? It’s fantastic to hold those 120 or so pages, 3 hole punched, 2 brass brads and say, “I did this.” Okay, don’t get too confident. The script you hold in your hands you will show to NO ONE. EVER.
- The first read
- The “professional” first draft
- Making a cohesive story
- Judging the logic and movement
- Your job
Lesson 13: Polishing
The first aspect of your script polish deals with tightening. As we stated in the last lesson, you MUST have a script that moves. After your first rewrite, you may have altered major aspects of the story. Now it is time to polish them. Polish the script is like operating with a laser. Another way to look at is that you’ve now shaped the rock, but it’s time to pull out the small chisel and start working away.
“Tightening” is the process where you make the script shorter and quicker. There’s no such thing as a script that reads too fast. You need to be economical on your dialogue and your action, but not lose essential elements.
- Good tightening
- Bad tightening
- Fixing a scene’s structure and flow
- Making it error-proof
- The first 10 pages
- Your job
You are too close to your script. Even the most veteran of writers, when they are finished with their first drafts, might have an idea how good/bad their screenplay is, but they never truly know until they’ve gotten “The Good Read.”
The Good Read is the read by an objective person who will cover your script and give you feedback. This shouldn’t be a friend or a family member, even if you find them critical or think they’re objective. They’re not. They know you and they have a sense of you, so their view of your script is always tainted.
- Where to find good readers
- How to interpret their notes
Lesson 15: Rewriting, Part Two
One of the first essential steps in your 2nd rewrite is to identify the problems that the “Good Readers” pointed out. What do you need to change? How do you change it? Again, the best way to improve something is to see how the section that needs improvement was done with a successful script. If one of your consistent notes from your readers were, “I wasn’t buying the action sequences,” then you know you’re not writing great action sequences.
You need refer to at least two screenplays where the action sequences are known to be excellent. Always, always refer to what has worked in the past. That’s what makes this course and its version of screenwriting instruction so powerful. We’re using the technique of “modeling” to create a KILLER SCRIPT. “Modeling” involves duplicating successful paths so that you can be successful as well. You’re going to be modeling your KILLER SCRIPT after the techniques and qualities that previous KILLER SCRIPTS had!
- Don’t be afraid to kill your babies
- Go back and read
- Your job
Lesson 16: Agents
Literary agents serve to sell your screenplay in exchange for a 10% commission. They have the connections to the studios and the production companies who buy your script and potentially make it into a film. In essence, that’s what you’re paying the 10% for…their rolodex of contacts and relationships. The more powerful the literary agent, the more pull he or she has with the studios and major production companies.
- The pitch
- The query letter
- Getting them to read your script
Lesson 17: Selling Your Script
There are tons of scripts written each year. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) has less than 12,000 members. Of these members, only a small percentage are making a living by writing. Becoming a professional writer takes time, hard work, and talent. As we stated earlier in this course, if it was so easy to sell a screenplay for mid-six figures, everyone would be doing it.
The best thing you can do to protect yourself and plan for success is to write a KILLER SCRIPT. That’s what matters in the end. If you can create a true Killer Script that’s backed up by good reads, and has been rewritten, and can potentially be reshaped (more on that in the next lesson), you have a much better chance at a sale.
- Be realistic
- Production companies
- Don’t be afraid
Lesson 18: Rewriting, Part Three
Okay, so maybe your script isn’t selling. Maybe you cannot get an agent, even after you’ve gotten some great feedback. What are you doing wrong? Perhaps your script needs to be altered. Maybe if you wrote a thriller set in the 1970’s, it needs to be moved to present day. Maybe you’ve written your lead character as a male and you might need to change him to a female. There are so many variables.
The key is, you need to be flexible and open to changing your script. A script is almost never finished. Once your script is optioned, it will be rewritten many times, and by time the screenplay makes it to the screen, the script may be completely different. You must be open to this.
- Be open for changing your script
- Writing is rewriting, but…
- Director’s notes
Lesson 19: On Set/Credits/WGA
Sometimes it seems like the writer has one of the least important roles on set, and, in many ways, it’s true. You, as the writer, were the inspiration and the cause of a film. You created the idea (or adapted the idea) that caused the movie to take place. You might have completely taken an idea from your head and singlehandedly turned it into something real and tangible. Now get out of the way. It’s unfortunately true… when it comes time to shoot a film, the writer’s job is regulated to the sidelines. That’s exactly why, according to the WGA, the writer has to be paid in full 100% by the time production starts. Their work is done. Kind of.
- Your job on the set
- Actor’s notes
- Credit rules
- The WGA
Lesson 20: Your Career as a Writer
You can become a professional writer. If you have followed the steps in this course and created a killer script, that’s your ticket to having a career in this field. Remember to always go back to the screenplays that worked. You need to have something to model your technique and style off of. Imagine learning to sing without hearing any other music. Reading screenplays is the most important aspect of this course. If you want to become a better writer, become a better reader. If you want to have a career in the future as a writer, start reading.
- The future
- Branding yourself
- Establishing a body of work