“When I was sixteen or seventeen, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a playwright But everything I wrote, I thought was weak. and I can remember falling asleep in tears because I had no talent the way I wanted to have.” -Francis Ford Coppola
Writing can be quite a thrilling yet exhausting experience. When writer's block or discouragement hits, being a writer can feel like the worst job in the world.
Many of the world's best novelists, journalists, bloggers, and screenwriters sometimes feel like giving up their career to try something new; it can be that frustrating when searching for original ideas!
A measure of talent is necessary to enjoy a prosperous career but writers need more than to be good with words. Hard-work and determination are essential for success in any writing venture.
Getting advice from experienced writers doesn't hurt, either!
Superprof writers now deliver essential tips to become a successful screenwriter ready to pen films that will appear at Cannes or Venice!
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Read A Lot and Watch Loads Movies
"The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go." Dr. Seuss
Reading has lost a lot of traction, especially among millennials who prefer writing their own stories to climbing into someone else's. Reading blogs and online news articles has become more commonplace but curling up with a good mystery novel - falling into a story is not as popular as it once was.
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Millennials might prefer surfing the web or posting about themselves on social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter but they must also consider reading information about their potential careers. Burgeoning screenwriters are no different.
To learn the basics of organising ideas, formatting a script and the general structure of a feature film or television screenplay, novice writers need to spend a lot of time analysing successful screenplays in the genre they wish to specialise in.
For instance, if you're interested in becoming a comedy screenplay writer, read the scripts of Annie Hall, Some Like it Hot, and The Big Lebowski.
Where can spectacular screenplays be read and downloaded online to perfect the screenwriting art?
One of the best websites to read some of the most well-known screenplays is scriptreaderpro.com. Perfect for amateurs looking to become familiar with scripts in the genres of drama, comedy, action/adventure, thriller, and horror.
Watching feature films and television programs to take notes of how acts are introduced and scenes are played out is another way to get familiar with how a script should flow.
By carefully watching movies with a screenwriter's eye, you can adapt your style and decide which elements you would like to include in your screenplays.
Many film schools and critics dedicated to helping cinema enthusiasts reach their potential claim that there are specific movies future screenwriters must watch to acquire a better understanding of what it takes to write a masterful screenplay. For example, the experts at A Taste of Cinema recommend 15 must-watch films.
The following lists cinematic treasures with great screenplays in no specific order:
- The Big Lebowski,
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,
- Some Like it Hot,
- All About Eve,
- Lawrence of Arabia,
- Forrest Gump,
- Groundhog Day,
- Annie Hall,
- Citizen Kane,
- Pulp Fiction,
- The Godfather Part I and II,
- Taxi Driver.
Why not dedicate a few weekends to movie marathons to take notes of some of the best films of all time? It would indeed be an excellent way to learn and be entertained at the same time!
Attend Conferences With Other Passionate Writers
Screenwriters are a big deal in the entertainment industry. Without the brilliant words and ideas, there would be no story to present to directors, producers, actors, and studio executives. Even if, at times, you feel that your talent will never take you anywhere, continue to believe in yourself.
Remember the Francis Ford Coppola quote at the start of this article: even he suffered a lack of confidence at times!
Attending conferences with other screenwriters is a brilliant way to talk over your ideas and brainstorm. And, as a way to keep your dream alive, you will see that you're not the only one with occasional self-doubt.
Uniting like-minded individuals in one room, conference hall, or theatre is the perfect way to encourage one another to continuing writing stories that need to be seen on the big screen.
Also, by attending film festivals in your local community or abroad, screenwriters listen to seminars encouraging them to aspire for greatness and become better writers.
Are there any film festivals in the UK?
British cinema has won the favour of audiences and international organisations such as the Academy Awards with films such as The King's Speech, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Skyfall, Dunkirk, Under the Skin, Another Year etc.
Thus it comes as no surprise that there are many UK-based film festivals showing off the best of Britain's cinematic talent. The following list features the UK's best film festivals to attend events with fellow amateur screenwriters:
- Raindance Film Festival: a UK-based film festival that encourages independent film in the territories of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Great British artists such as Mike Leigh, Joanna Lumley, and Ken Loach laud the Raindance Festival for promoting filmmakers of the future in their own country. The various workshops included throughout the 10-11 day festival are designed for future directors, actors, and screenwriters.
- BFI London Film Festival: arguably the most important and flashiest film festival in the UK, the BFI London Film Festival has existed since 1953 and has attracted some of the world's best stars. Every the festival screens over 300 movies from over 50 countries. In 2019, the BFI London Film Festival took place from the 2-13 of October.
- Leeds International Film Festival: the best film festivals in the UK are not just located in London, there are some in other major cities such as Edinburgh and Leeds. The Leeds International Film Festival will take place in November 2019 and will feature some of the years best feature films. Not only can movies be watched, but workshops can be completed and attended.
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After travelling a few miles to attend one of the UK's glamorous film festivals, aspiring screenwriters develop skills that will set them apart when producers read their scripts.
And for those who are willing to travel to international film festivals, the best ones are in world-renowned cities such as Cannes, Venice, Toronto, and Berlin.
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"Make your life a masterpiece; imagine no limitations on what you can be, have, or do." -Brian Tracy
At any point in your career as a screenwriter, you may be plagued with writer's block. There is nothing more frustrating to a writer than experiencing periods of lacklustre imagination.
How does one get inspired?
Screenwriters can find inspiration in different ways. Many brilliant ideas stem from a single question, subject, or mental image so, if you limit yourself to the confines of your home or office, you're not giving your mind new material to analyse.
How about taking a walk? Visit a museum, go for a bike ride or eat at your favourite restaurant to find inspiration from even these simple acts. As a struggling screenwriter, you might not have the most significant budget; however, stepping out does a fantastic job clearing the mind.
As a screenwriter as in life, the most important is not travelling from point A to point B but the journey itself.
Meeting new people, trying new things and being embroiled in adventure - however mundane it may be provides aspiring screenwriters with inspiration and material for weeks, months, and even years.
So, as you set out to find ideas in the most obscure places; take your notepad and jot down ideas that can become priceless!
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Connect With Other Screenwriters
Writing is, by its very nature, a solitary endeavour.
Screenwriters may be the exception to that rule. Think about all of the television shows that have writing teams, groups who meet regularly to hash out new story arcs and plot lines, and test out their new jokes.
Screenwriters for film might be more prone to working alone, on the other hand, think of the Coen sisters, the writing team who brought us The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men and O, Brother, Where Art Thou?, just to name a few.
If you go it alone, the life of a screenwriter can be quite lonely and maybe even frustrating; you might spend a lot of time waiting for new ideas to flow. Getting together with friends and other writers may take you away from your keyboard but it will do wonders to keep your creative vibe fresh and humming.
Are you concerned about sharing credit? A screenwriting partner doesn't have to share a script with you or be your co-writer; they are great sounding boards for new ideas, fantastic editors and, because they know the business of writing scripts, they are in tune with your struggles to get your story out.
Above all, another screenwriter can become a great friend and, when a trusting bond is established, ideas flow more naturally for both of you.
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Also, it is worth mentioning that your reading partner doesn't necessarily have to be a screenwriter, they could be a close friend, a relative, or some other individual working in the film sector as an aspiring director or producer.
It's fun to collaborate with friends as you test out how the movie-making industry lays the groundwork for the next blockbuster film.
Now you only need step-by-step instructions to get started.
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How to Write a Screenplay
Now that you’ve done a fair amount of admittedly fun research; now that your ideas have germinated, it’s time to get serious. It’s time to start writing.
You may sketch notes or jot down ideas in any format comfortable to you but, once the actual work of screenplay writing begins, formatting becomes a critical aspect of the screenwriting process.
Just like an improperly formatted CV would be promptly chucked into the dustbin, an improperly formatted screenplay would be just as quickly discarded.
Have you studied the proper way to format your screenplay? Do you know that, unlike a novel, screenplays revolve around dialogue rather than description? Are you adept at visual writing?
Visual writing is the ability to put pictures into your audiences’ heads without long-winded descriptions providing the visual.
For instance, your story might include the protagonist breaking up with their lover. Rather than paragraphs of prose – or even lines of dialogue detailing the acrimony, you might simply show him/her opening the door to their shared home to discover it empty and still, perhaps with a wedding ring lying discarded on the foyer table.
Even though you will write mostly dialogue, your characters should not be still while talking. Moving around makes for better visuals, so you should include movement cues in your script at every opportunity.
Describing how your characters should move is key to visual writing. Noting that they’re walking is nowhere near as evocative as indicating they’re tiptoeing, scurrying, striding, sauntering or strolling.
Likewise with sitting: lounging, reclining, sprawling, perching… and eating: slurping, gobbling, devouring, munching, nibbling.
Each of these variations on common human activities gives a different visual and tells viewers a little bit more about the character they’re watching (observing, spying on, monitoring, staring at).
A thesaurus would come in quite handy if you’re struggling for ways to provide visuals of what your characters are doing and how they’re doing it.
Writing visually makes your script crisper, clearer and more concise, that last being most important because a well-formatted screenplay should have paragraphs no longer than three lines – four, at maximum.
That’s lines on the page, not sentences.
Everything from how your characters are dressed to what they are doing should be detailed as economically as possible.
The Screenplay Format
Poetry has stanzas and prose has paragraphs; what does a script have?
Just like other forms of writing, scripts have clear lines of demarcation indicating what the setting is, which action is undertaken and which order the characters speak.
The slugline appears at the beginning of a scene. It is written in all-caps and should describe the location and time of day. TUBE STA – NIGHT is a slugline. If your scene takes place indoors, you might limit yourself to DINING ROOM or HALLWAY.
Whether the scene takes place indoors or outside is also noted in the slugline, especially for public places such as restaurants and shops. You might need to specify EXT-LIB if the scene takes place in front of the library or INT-STORE if it takes place inside a shop.
Because visual stories involve many scene changes, you have to mark them in your screenplay.
FADE IN and FADE OUT indicate new scenes and the closing of them. You might use CUT TO to indicate something happening away from the current scene or, if you want to melt into a new scene, you would write DISSOLVE IN or DISSOLVE OUT.
Closeups are similarly written, all in caps.
They would look something like this: CLOSE UP Sean’s hands or TIGHT IN Sara’s face. Naturally, your closeups don’t have to be of characters, they can be of objects relevant to the scene.
Other such markers include:
- OS or OC: off-scene or off-camera, such as someone shouting off-screen that can still be heard
- bg (background): something important is happening in the background while the scene takes centre focus. Note that ‘bg’ is not capitalised
- V.O. (voice-over): effective if your character is narrating a scene
- montage: a good way to illustrate the passage of time or illustrate a theme
- Tracking Shot is when the camera follows the character, object or action. Any time the camera is not fixed or mounted, you will indicate that it should track.
Helpful hint: as you watch films, make note of these markers and how they’re used for maximum effect.
If typing all of these cues seems onerous to you, you might find software like Final Draft, Movie Magic or Scrivener helpful, or you could try out other applications online.
Won’t you let us know which one you like the best in the comments below?
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Steps to Writing Your Screenplay
Now that you have all the mechanics of writing down, it’s time to get serious about the writing process.
Surely you have already thought of these aspects but we list them for you now in an easy to reference list:
- Identify your protagonist; write a character profile (no more than 300 words)
- Write a logline (a one-sentence summary of your story): include your protagonist, antagonist and the story’s resolution.
- Write a treatment: a working title, your logline and a synopsis.
- Write an outline: your guide for telling your story effectively
- Act I introduces the characters and presents the act/situation that engages the protagonist
- Act II tells the bulk of the story
- Act III is the denouement
- Write a flash draft: a quick-and-dirty script whose main focus is ideas, not form or syntax
- Flash drafts are only about 300 pages, not finished scripts
- Write your first fully-formatted draft, using all of the idea-generating material you’ve created
Typically, a screenplay for a feature film consists of anywhere between 50-70 scenes.
Act I should comprise of roughly 20 scenes that introduce the characters and lay out the circumstances leading to the inciting incident around which the plot revolves.
Act II should be about twice as long; it will tell most of the story and Act III, the shortest of them all (maybe 10 to 12 scenes) will tie up all of the story’s elements and present the resolution.
By keeping your dialogue snappy and staying focused on telling your story visually, you can condense the entire narrative to around 120 pages.
That’s about the right length for a major movie script.
Final Tips for Your Screenplay
By no means could anyone read this article and think “Slap me silly! How easy screenplay writing is!”.
A lot goes into writing the stories that make it to our screens; we’ve only covered the big things so far. Now we go into some of the finer points of screenplay writing.
Write in the present tense even if the story happened in the past – say, you’re writing historical fiction or presenting a flashback.
That doesn’t mean you can’t ever use any other tense. If your character needs to ask “Where were you last night?” or “Will you marry me?”, those are appropriate.
Keep in mind that, to the viewer, everything is happening right now so, to keep the narrative flowing, avoid setting up any confusion through using the wrong verb tense.
It would be best to keep in mind that present tense usage is the rule of thumb in screenwriting.
Write for your audience – who is the story supposed to appeal to? Writing screenplays for a legal drama is substantially different from writing the latest superhero screenplay.
Make sure that everything from your choice of words to your characters’ mannerisms and actions will delight to your target audience.
What about character development?
Remember that, while screenplays are primarily visual, they give you plenty of room to paint your protagonist with all the right colours.
Through flashbacks you can demonstrate how your characters arrived at the mindset they hold, using off-camera exclamations, background action and narrative can also give clues about how characters evolve throughout the story.
If the scene involves a particularly emotional revelation, closeups work well, too.
What if, as you write, you find the story taking a different direction?
That is not uncommon; plenty of authors have marvelled at their initial idea taking a different tack than originally intended. During the creative process, nothing is set in stone – not even sculpture.
However, screenplay writing generally happens on the fly; those who write for TV or the film industry will tell you that they labour under sometimes cruel deadlines.
That is why it’s crucial to follow the guidelines laid out earlier: brainstorm, character identification, logline, treatment, outline, flash draft, script.
It sounds like going through each step would take longer than just writing off the cuff but, back to your concern that the story isn’t progressing in the direction you originally thought: isn’t that a good thing?
If you plan to write screenplays independently, you are free to develop the methods that work best for you (while remembering that, unless your script is formatted correctly, it will likely be rejected.)
However, if you hope to join a writing team – the best way to become a gainfully employed screenplay writer, adopting formal writing processes early in your screenplay writing career would be best.
These tips and advice can be helpful in building a career as a screenwriter. Who knows? Maybe we'll soon hear your name mentioned in the same breath as Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, or Nora Ephron!
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