How to be a Screenwriter
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1 – Watch Great Movies
If you want to learn how to be a screenwriter, one of the very best things you can do to start learning and imbibing screenplay structure is by watching lots and lots of great movies. Now, even if your personal preference is for obscure avant garde films, horror movies, or high-concept films, stick to watching the classics which are lauded for being great films and/or watch the films which have won numerous awards, especially those who won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay for the past five to ten years.
Don’t watch with abandon. Rather, pay close attention to your protagonist (the leading character) their journey and the forces they go up against, whether those are internal, external, or both. Cue into the moments which strike you as especially important, as turning points or moments when the protag seems to have gotten some or all of what they were going after or trying to overcome.
After the film ends, take note of how the story started, how it ended, and the points in-between which were integral parts of transformation. Don’t worry about getting the act structure down or even nailing the moment of climax. You’re better served just steeping in the medium for now. Don’t worry, the knowledge is getting in there and doing its work.
2 – Read Killer Scripts
Think back on a number of your favorite films from item 1 above. Now, get those screenplays and read them. Don’t skip over any of it. Read the scene headings, the crucial bits of action, the parentheticals which are aimed at conveying important information on how a particular line of dialogue is delivered.
As you become more accustomed to reading in screenplay format, chances are you’ll start seeing parts of the movie replay in your mind’s eye. That’s fine, actually better than find, and to be expected. As you read, take note of where parts of the screenplay leave you with a different reaction or impression than the same scenes did in the movie. Take time to think about those areas. Read key scenes aloud to get a feel for the impact of dialogue.
3 – Hone your Knowledge of Story Structure
Now that you’ve already done the important work of watching films with a critical eye and learning how to read screenplay format by simply deep-diving into the format, you’re ready to take off those training wheels and get the knowledge that’s going to give you the foundation you need to start writing without having to go through the pain of fumbling around probably at a loss to what’s bothering you and what isn’t working as you get down to writing. If you’re Film Connection student, your mentor is working with you to answer your questions, add clarity to the process, and be a reliable system of support who can guide you through to the last page and beyond.
Now is when you take your knowledge of screenplay structure and use it to identify where the various acts start in a number of the films you’re already very familiar with (Film Connection screenplay mentor Ron Peterson excellent insight on structure).
has given us some You should also be able to identify the midpoint, turning point, climax and resolution. There’s no need to identify all of the key parts of a screenplay here since there’s a wealth of information out there on the web. However, bare in mind that there’s a chasm between being able to define the key parts of a screenplay and actually knowing and being able to produce a screenplay which has the necessary dynamism and which breathes life. Millions of people can talk about screenplay structure. Far fewer can write it well.
4 – Dream & Ideate
You’ve done the hard work of learning what great scripts are made of as well as absorbing the way words work as the blueprint of a movie which, if done well, should enable the reader to see the movie, unfettered, within their mind’s eye. Now’s the time to have some fun! Step back from your reading and critical thinking and give yourself permission to explore that thing that’s been pricking you at the back of your neck, or that idea which seems to be percolating just below the surface.
Whereas before your attention was cued into specific things you had to learn, questions you had to ask and answer, during this phase of the screenwriting process don’t worry about nailing things down or making decisions. Instead, pay attention to what captures your imagination. Feel free to write lines of poetry, to free associate, sketch, or do anything that fuels your creative spirit. As you go, store all of those free writings, pictures, and other stuff in a specific place so that they don’t get lost. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Seinfeld keeps his notes in a brown bag. Feel free to do the same, just make sure it isn’t somewhere where it could get accidentally tossed out.
5 – Research & Organize
After you’ve spent some time exploring you’ll find you’re ready to start making decisions and nail things down a bit. Take all of the various things you’ve collected, those scraps of paper, screenshots of images and whatnot and organize them into a specific folder on your computer or a physical binder with pockets to hold anything which can’t be hole-punched. While this is a process of whittling the unnecessary bits away, remember to keep some of the stuff which conveys a certain texture, tone, or aesthetic. A square from an old quilt, a tattered matchbook, an image torn from a magazine, all of it can be important when you’re knees deep into the writing process and need to remind yourself of the soul of you’re movie.
Film Connection screenplay mentor Ana Bendaña has a terrific way of organizing all of her materials to that she can access them throughout the writing process.
6 – Set a Writing Schedule and Write!
You’ve learned the form and thanks to your mentor, you’ve gotten firsthand insight into what makes great screenplays work. Come up with a schedule you can stick with and stick to it. A lot of research has been done on the subject of sticking to a writing schedule so we won’t expand upon that here. If you’re serious about becoming a professional screenwriter, setting and sticking to a writing routine will yield more results than all the inspiration in the world. Furthermore, when you condition yourself to write even when you’re not downright chomping on the bit to do it, that in itself is a great practice to develop. Pros write even when they don’t want to. So, get in the saddle, observe your tendency to resist, and then commit to the practice of writing. Film Connection screenplay mentor Ron Osborn (Meet Joe Black, The West Wing, Moonlighting) shares how he goes about working his writing schedule and shares other key bits of writing advice you can bank on.
7 – Be Open to Critique and Criticism
Whether they’re writers who just completed their first full-length screenplay or professionals with box office busters under their belt, all writers have to deal with criticism. If you are a Film Connection student, once you’ve completed and polished your screenplay, you will send it to your mentor and a trusted group of readers for critique. You may also choose to extend that group and send submit your script for coverage. If two readers have similar notes for you on something, say they find a character boring or hard to visualize or don’t understand the protagonist’s motivation, consider what they’re saying. The solution might be something no one else can see which is fine. It’s for you to figure out. Nevertheless, if you’re getting the same note again and again, it’s worth heeding. Sleep on it and let the answer bubble up to the surface.
Behind the closed doors of a production company’s conference room, professional screenwriters who make a very nice living plying their craft receive notes. It’s just par for the course. Sure, they might quietly be resistant to some of the proposed changes a development executive wants to make. Nevertheless, they’re open to the advice. The more open and receptive you can be to their criticism, the better. In the long run, anyone who’s optioned your script and devoted their time, talent, and resources into bringing that movie to the big and small screens is invested in it’s success so put any notions of the starving artist or misunderstood genius on the shelf. There’s work to do!
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