5 Screenwriting Tips

5 Screenwriting Tips You Need to Know…
To Be Successful!

IMG_6157bLet’s get right down to it. You’re staring at your computer screen with one of two emotions—you’re so excited by your new idea you can barely keep your fingers off the keys, or your terrified and feel like it’s a ridiculous premise, and you already want to throw in the towel.

Whatever your emotions are about the craft, we’ve all felt them. The super highs, the lowest lows—you’re a creative person and emotions go with the territory.

Now kick your emotions to the curb, and get writing.

1. Keep it to Yourself
You’re bursting with a good idea, or you’re unsure of whether it’s something that is actually commercially viable. There’s an immediate need to talk about it with a friend, your mother, your business partner. I get it. You want buy-in.

Suddenly, you find yourself prattling about your main premise, the big idea of your story to… someone. Maybe you’ve decided to tell a complete stranger, thinking that’s a good way to save yourself the embarrassment of talking to a friend who laughs in your face. (Or an industry professional who might steal your idea.)

Don’t do it. Don’t talk about it—not to anyone. It’s the fastest way to kill an idea, possibly the best one you’ve ever come up with. There’s something magical about storytelling, so you want to share your thoughts, and that’s natural. But, you take the steam right out of it. If you’ve done this before, you know what I mean—once you’ve explained this great idea to someone it dies a little inside you.

Save yourself the death of the promise of a great movie, and keep it to yourself until you’re done writing it!

2. Write The Premise First
Instead of talking about it, get into the habit of writing about it. Start with a logline and the simple premise of your story.

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Spend the time you were going to use calling someone, and sit down and really work on the details of your story.  You’ll thank yourself later, trust me. There’s a lot of energy that goes into writing, and it has to sustain you not only until you’re done writing it, but long afterwards when you’re working on rewrites, editing, and even putting your marketing material together and pitching. This is a long road, so gear up, get excited, and write. Save all that vigor for the race ahead of you.

3. Take DIY Homework Seriously
This is like fifth grade again, when your teacher tells you how important homework is. People think screenwriting is easy. I was a novelist long before I became a screenwriter, so I get it. (Look at all those pages in a novel!) Screenwriting must be easier! It’s only 90 to 100 pages!

You’ve read this quote before, right?

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

With books, you have more canvas to work with. Screenwriting isn’t easier than writing a book, it’s simply different. It takes A LOT of work to become good at it. One rule of thumb—if you’ve never written a script before, never give your first screenplay to an an agent, a producer or a studio.

Screenwriting is a nuanced talent. Hollywood has a million scripts, and a million ways to get them. So make sure you have “gold on every page,” as one executive producer told me. Every scene should move the narrative along so quickly, it gives new meaning to “page-turner.”

Read scripts. This is the single best thing you can do. Read lots and lots of movie scripts and analyze them. But read ones that are current (in the last 5 years).  The movie industry changes dramatically from year to year, so to keep up to date with the latest style and content in the marketplace, so do your homework, and read! You can find some good scripts here: IMSDB

Watch movies. I’ve talked with more writers than I can even count who don’t watch films. Does that sound outrageous? It is, if you want to be a screenwriter. You need to be a cinephile—a consumer of great films. I’m talking about variety, not just the big budget summer blockbusters, but indie, art-house and foreign films. Go back to the classics. Watching films is different from movie scripts, because every good story has key elements laid out in a specific way with plot points (or beats), that are essential. It really makes a difference when you watch films. You are educating yourself and no one school, or single person can do that for you.

4. Walk Away from Your Writing
I don’t want to interrupt your flow—that magical thing that happens when you’re on a roll and ideas are pouring out of you. But, once that flow stops, and eventually there’s a lull, keep writing—just do something else.

Go back to writing your marketing material: summaries (in varying lengths), hone your logline, write your treatment, work on a look book, or update your blog.

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Even when you’re writing fiction, there’s always research along the way. I spent four days online researching, and even went to my local bank, just to understand what a bankteller does. It boiled down to three sentences in my movie script. Seems like too much work? It isn’t. You need to know your material, so there’s always work to be done. And when you’ve stared at your movie script for far too long, take a break and do something else.  You’ll come back with fresh eyes.

5. Polish and Get Feedback
Now you can talk about your great idea. Here’s what I hear a lot: Do I send my script out for coverage? From Wikipedia: Coverage is a filmmaking term for the analysis and grading of screenplays. Often, we’re talking about someone you pay who gives you a report that analyzes your script.

The short answer is no, don’t send it out for coverage. It’s a lot of money, and it’s often wasted with people who simply want to capitalize on your fear that it’s not good enough.

Spend the time to edit your own work and polish it. Give it to people you know, or friends in the industry, and ask for constructive criticism. You’d be surprised what you get back, even with people who are unfamiliar with movie scripts. If you do decide you need coverage, and are willing to pay for it, make sure the person has signed an NDA (a nondisclosure agreement.) Even if your script is copyrighted material, you want this extra step to ensure that no one will steal your idea—or even your entire screenplay. Think this can’t happen to you? Look up Walk of Shame and follow the lawsuit trail. (Hint: No, the writer didn’t win.)

Even though there are no hard and fast screenwriting rules, there is some conventional wisdom you should take to heart before you write: “Fade In.” Get writing and go for gold!

Jennifer B. White is an award-winning director, writer and Hollywood copywriter and tagline writer. All her opinions and photos are her own.  

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