5 Tips for Beginner Screenwriters
May 14, 2013
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It’s simple: you need to know what makes a screenplay good.
Even if you wish to pursue directing or producing, screenwriting is a foundational filmmaking skill. Whether you are beginning to write a screenplay or want a Screenwriting I refresher, review these five tips before you start drafting:
Understand the Audience
Why do people go to the movies?
Understanding what drives the audience to the movie theater can improve your screenwriting abilities. Storytelling is powerful; the importance of a good story can be traced throughout our culture, back to oral traditions and myths.
Consider your audience. Watch movies that are similar to the screenwriting you hope to do. Pay attention to what works – not just in award winning movies, but in a variety of films that fall into your genre. Read their screenplays and model the techniques that you consider interesting or innovative.
People will always seek out stories. Knowing how their emotions drive them can improve the quality and the potential of your screenplay.
Revisit the basics of writing. Focus on character development, dialogue, plot and setting. Without the fundamental elements of a story, your screenplay may lack conflict and drama. You may have a great idea, but unless you can express it on paper, it may never make it to the screen.
Ask yourself these basic questions:
- Who is my hero?
- What does my hero want?
- What prevents my hero from getting it?
- What’s at stake if my hero succeeds? If my hero fails?
Ask yourself these questions as you edit and revise. You should be able to answer them in context to the screenplay – and in context to an individual scene. Test your script.
More than a Good Plot
We have all been to one of those movies. The entire plot relies on a flashy finish: intense climax, hundreds of explosions, heroic sacrifices, unexpected deaths. Yet, walking out of the theater, you can’t help feeling disappointed. When people ask what you thought about the film you reply, “It was alright, but—”
Remember when you are writing that your screenplay should not depend completely on the plot or the climax. The audience wants to feel moved, or changed, in an internal way. Many viewers wish to relate to the on-screen characters and their lives, regardless of setting or reality.
Plot still matters, of course. Utilize it as a means to your end. Focus on the story, on the journey and on the transformation of the main characters.
27-word Concept Test
Story analyst Peter Exline recommends his screenwriting students take on the 27-word Concept Test.
The test requires students to express their ideas in a single sentence, exactly 27 words long. The process of refining your ideas to 27 words allows you to interrogate the entire concept. The test reveals what works and what does not.
It also provides you with a concrete concept that you can return to. As you continue to write and revise, you may find yourself devolving into tangents. Having your main idea written out in a concise sentence allows you to stay true to that theme – without straying too far.
Talk about Your Idea
Many writers like to keep their stories and ideas secret. However, the audience is essential to screenwriting – so you should take the time to talk about your ideas with potentials viewers.
Especially as a beginner, it is possible that your screenplay needs work. Your idea might need to undergo revision. Like the 27-word Concept Test, discussing your ideas with others reveals what works and what doesn’t.
Allow someone to ask you questions about the story. Break it down for them. Make sure the story is logical and there are no loose ends or holes. Talking through your screenplay, especially in early stages and as you revise, can reveal a variety of weak points in your storyline.
Remember that revision takes time. Allowing someone else, who is not intimately attached to the script, to critique and question something that you have worked so hard on can be difficult. But, as you talk, you may realize what you need to focus on. In the end, your screenplay can benefit dramatically.