Once you understand this intro to screenwriting, be sure to check out Screenplay Formatting for the next step.
So, you're going to write a screenplay. That is awesome. And if you're a little nervous about it, you're not alone. After all, screenwriting isn't usually something that we learn in school or do for fun on the weekend. It feels more like a mysterious art practiced by hermits who only emerge from their caves for Academy Awards appearances.
But the truth is that anyone can write a screenplay. Indeed, if you've ever told a story in your life, you already have the basic knowledge needed to write a movie.
That said, we've included a few tips that might help you better understand your screenplay and make your first draft go a little more smoothly.
1) Remember That This Is a Rough Draft
The entire month of April will be much more fun if you repeat these words each morning in front of a mirror: "This is my first try. It is only a rough draft." After all, these words are true. You are writing the first, messy, flawed, why-not-try-this-crazy-idea draft. It's a time for experimentation and risk-taking. You can go back and make it perfect when you rewrite it later.
2) Start Reading Movies
Most of us can talk tirelessly about our favorite movie scenes, plot twists, and happy endings. So why, when it comes to writing a film, do we feel scared? Could it be, that unlike reading a book or seeing a movie, very few of us have ever read a screenplay? Yep!
There's a very easy, enjoyable remedy for this: reading screenplays. Here are some screenplays that you may recognize. Just click on the links and read them online (or you can print them out)!
- 10 Things I Hate About You
- Ferris Bueller's Day Off
- Independence Day
- The Nightmare Before Christmas
- Toy Story
First, try reading a screenplay for a movie you know and love. Pay attention to how the familiar elements in the filmplot, character, settingwere described using text. You'll probably be surprised at how few words are in a screenplay, how it has only the information needed to tell the story. Look at how scenes relate to one another, how the dialogue flows, how conflicts are created and overcome.
Next, read a screenplay for a movie you've never seen before. Try to imagine the finished film in your head. Then watch the movie and see how the text was made into something you can see. If you do this again and again and again, you won’t need any more tips. You’ll feel screenplays in your bones.
3) Choose an Idea That Excites You
We know that it is easier to write about the people and places you see everyday than to invent a realistic-sounding alien language or authentic details about a wildebeest stampede, but we would like to remind you that you're writing a screenplay to explore something new.
Think of it as an adventurea chance to step outside your everyday life. You, and your characters, aren't going to make it through 30 days and nights of screenwriting if your subject matter is so familiar it puts you to sleep. So write a story that excites you, one that you want to tell to your friends, one that you can't stop thinking about, one that would be a movie you'd love to go see. Don’t worry if it's really, really weird. In fact, it's probably best that way! The greatest thing that your script can possess is excitement.
4) Practice and Planning
While some professional screenwriters map out their entire movie in amazing detail before typing a single word, the rest of us don't have time to write a 100-page summary before April. Besides, if this is your first screenplay, that level of planning probably won't do you much good, considering how much you're going to learn about scripts just by writing oneand how much you're going to want to change later on.
That said, it helps to know the general story you're telling before you begin. It can be as simple a plan as: "When two sisters find out that they have the power of invisibility, they take it into their hands to defeat the evil robots by sneaking into robot headquarters and shutting off the machines' power source." If it has a beginning, middle, and end, you're doing great! (Don't forget, we've also got boot camps to help you come up with these ideas.)
One way to improve your storyline is to tell it to people. Come up with a one- to three-minute version of the plot and tell it to your friends, your parents, your dog. Notice what excites them (and you), what areas feel weird, where you lose their attention, what questions come up. This is a form of what is called "pitching," and while pitching usually is used in Hollywood to sell a script, it's also a good way to determine whether you understand your story and whether it can stand the judgment of your friends and parents. If you find yourself saying "I dunno, then something happens that changes everything," you should sit down and brainstorm about what that "something" might be.
Once you have your basic story, there are plenty of fun ways to begin thinking about it in terms of major scenes and turning points. Try sitting down and imagining the trailer for your movie on the screen. What is the opening scene like? How do we meet the main character? At what point is a problem or conflict introduced? What next? Are there scary moments? Will there be funny dialogue? If you have time, pick out a song for your imaginary trailer (or your whole film). Or clip images from magazines to make the movie poster for your film.
5) Get to Know Your Characters
People don't go to the movies to see scary, romantic, or exciting situations; they go to see great characters in scary, romantic, or exciting situations. Which means your big goal as a screenwriter is to create realistic characters that the audience will want to watch, whether they're falling into volcanoes or falling in love.
No idea how do this? It's okay to start with just a basic picture of your character: a young mongoose who lives for dirt bike racing; a fifty-something unicorn who dreams of being a rap star; a streetwise superhero with a soft spot for chicken tacos.
Try actually stepping into your main character’s skin. Imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes and fill out our character worksheets and questionnaires located in the Young Scriptwriter Workbooks.
In creating characters and filling out their personalities and pasts, don't be afraid to add major weaknesses. Perfection is boring to watch, and the best movie moments usually occur when a character comes face to face with his or her flaws and fears. Indiana Jones? Terrified of snakes. Superman? Allergic to Kryptonite.
Finally, don't focus just on your hero and leave the rest of your cast stranded without personalities of their own. The best villains possess a rich history and complexity; even supporting characters are worthy of unique obsessions and quirks.
6) Give Your Story a Gazillion-Horsepower Engine
As you're working with your characters and plotline, it's helpful to remember that what you're writing will one day be viewed in a single two-hour sitting. Which means your film has a lot of stuff to cover in a very short chunk of time, while holding an audience's attention for a bladder-testingly long period.
Your story doesn't have much time to dawdle or drift. What it needs is a souped-up engine that can push it from 0 to 60 in the first act, up and over a whole mountain range of obstacles and setbacks in the middle, and maintain enough speed to cruise right through to the end. Luckily, you can "build" this engine by putting powerful elements into your script. Here are two important examples:
PASSION: Nothing moves a story along better than a character with real passion. Just look at the great sports movies, like Hoosiers or The Mighty Ducks and you'll see they're entirely powered by a person or team's desire to be the very best. Now imagine how much you'd want to watch these films if the main character had little interest in winning. They'd crumble in the first game.
DANGER: There's nothing like a dangerous situation to give your film some tension. Harry Potter movies are great examples of popular films that get their fuel from the danger of the situations their characters find themselves in.
So start looking around in your mental garage for something to build your engine with. If you're excited and moved by your story, it shouldn't be too hard to find!
7) Change is Good
Whether you know it in the theater or not, change is what makes movies so emotionally satisfying. The thrill of Spider-Man isn't in watching a superhero swing from buildings and kick bad guys' butts; it's in watching a geeky guy turn into a superhero who swings from buildings and kicks butt.
Given this importance of change, it's not a bad idea to stick a "GOT CHANGE?" Post-It to your laptop or forehead. As you're writing, go ahead and put your characters in tough situations that force them to face their fears and to make tough decisions. Don't let them off easy: throw them curve balls, put them in the path of some serious conflicts that make them rethink who they are. If you've provided them with flaws and failings, they'll have plenty of room to grow. And the audience will love being along for the ride.
Writing great dialogue is really hard. It's right up there with math homework. Besides plain old practice, the best way to learn how to write dialogue is to listen to how people talk. Do they talk a little or a lot? Do they use slang? How does their gender, age, and personality relate to their way of talking?
Don't just listen to your friends and family, either. Seek out people and situations that may be found in your screenplay. Sit with the high-school basketball team; go watch a trial lawyer's dramatic opening statement; chat up the gum-smacking cashier at your local market. Become a dialogue detective, and carry a pocket notebook with you at all times!
Of course, after listening to how real people talk for a while, you'll notice something: no one is nearly as funny or smart as they are in the movies.
"I am going to step out for a few minutes here, um, and I might be gone longer than five minutes, and if I am, um, don’t worry, I will be back. You might have to just wait a little bit longer than you expected to."
"If I'm not back in five minutes... wait longer!"
Since no one goes to the movies to hear people ramble, it's okay to make your dialogue snappier, and more to the point than it is in real life.
The best test: Read your dialogue aloud. Does it zip along? Is it too wordy or does it sound fake? Get your friends and parents to read the other characters. Whatever you do, just don't let dialogue slow you down. When you can't think of something clever or specific to say, put in whatever you want and then make it more fun on the next draft. Your best lines will come to you later, while you are spacing out in class and on the bus, and in those weird dreams you're having. For now, keep writing.
9) Have Fun
If you're having trouble with this, see Tip #1. You'll have plenty of time to be miserable and worried once the studios start hiring you to write movies for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Enjoy your Script Frenzy days!