Screenwriting is one of the most competitive fields to get into. There are unfortunately a lot of people who aspire to be writers and don’t succeed at this goal. This is why a writer must seek out screenwriting tips and advice to get ahead of the competition.
Breaking into Hollywood requires hard work, talent, and luck. A lot of factors that affect your career may be ones out of your control. While these statements are not meant to dissuade someone from pursuing a career in screenwriting, it is an accurate description of what the industry is like.
All this considered, there is one basic and prerequisite task that all aspiring screenwriters can focus on: writing a good script. And then going on to write better scripts.
When it comes to writing a screenplay, there are so many things that can go wrong. Too many to list off. Even objectively good scripts can benefit from certain notes or criticisms. It is very difficult to point to a list of all the mistakes that a screenwriter can make and then just add a blanket statement that tells people to avoid these errors.
This is because screenwriting is an art, but there are also rules and conventions that screenwriters must follow.
Now there are quite a lot of scripts that break traditional screenwriting rules or conventions and still end up becoming great movies. And there are quite a lot of scripts that do the same, only to end up with an awful reception from audiences and critics alike.
Even after this comes the matter of taste and creative choices. Sometimes a writer might make bold decisions when it comes to the theme or tone of a script. This might mean that they follow all the rules but still make ill-received movies.
On the contrary, a writer might stick to all the conventions. Following all the guidelines and using many past scripts as inspiration to craft theirs.
Now there’s a risk of the script being deemed as too cliche and completely unoriginal. No matter how meticulously one analyses the writing process, there is always going to be room for error in one’s script and story.
This error could come from a variety of different sources due to the varying opinions of a large audience.
Tips on Screenwriting That All Writers Should Use
Even professional screenwriters are not immune to avoiding these pitfalls. Commercial blockbusters also receive criticisms of either being too by the numbers or too niche. And if professional writers can falter, then it is no surprise that amateur writers can also go wrong in the different stages of writing a script.
So instead of trying to list all the mistakes, a writer can make. This article will list screenwriting tips that can elevate a script. This will be especially helpful for amateur beginner or intermediate writers.
Some of the advanced tips will apply to more seasoned writers.
These screenwriting tips will help, they really will. But reading the list does not ensure that one will be able to write a perfect script right off the bat. It often takes a complete beginner multiple tries before their script starts to receive decent feedback.
Practicing your writing and reading other scripts is essential and imperative when it comes to improving your writing. Knowledge of different story concepts and the common pitfalls associated with writing will only get a writer so far before they begin working on a script.
The tips at the beginning of the list are aimed at novice writers. These are the fundamentals that any writer must know before they begin to write their script. While they are simple to understand and seem basic, they are extremely important to write a good script.
The screenwriting tips in the middle of the list are to be focused on once a writer has an idea of the story and possibly even a first draft. They are more focused on making a script meet professional writing standards.
Lastly, the advanced tips are meant for rewrites that a writer can make after receiving notes, or make certain changes in the story that elevate a script. These tips are most debatable as a lot of movies do not make use of them, but still end up making fine movies. That of course doesn’t mean that they are useless tips.
Their complexity comes from the fact that a writer must know when to make use of these tips and when to break these conventions to benefit a story.
Beginner Screenwriting Tips:
1. A Good Logline
Before a writer gets anywhere near writing the script, it is important to know what the story is about. What is the subject? This seems like a very trivial question, but many blockbusters and professional movies make the mistake of not knowing what the subject of the movie is.
Some movies face criticism like “The audience doesn’t know who the main character is” or “There are so many different plotlines which make the movie convoluted”. These problems can be solved right at the beginning of the screenwriting process if the writer can answer a few basic questions.
These questions are:
- What is the subject?
- Who is the main character?
- Can I express my story in a few lines?
According to Syd Field’s Screenplay, one can begin to write a screenplay if they can express the idea in terms of action and character. This information must then be condensed into a logline.
Blake Snyder details that a good logline must have the following characteristics:
- A good logline must hook the audience’s interest.
- Loglines must paint a mental picture of what the movie will be like.
- A logline must indicate the general audience of the movie.
- Every logline must be accompanied by a really good title.
Another reason a logline is important is that it contains the essence of the movie. A lot of times a movie can feel all over the place because it has too many different themes, too many characters, or a constantly shifting focus between what the story is really about.
If a writer can refer to a clearly defined logline, then it becomes very clear to understand the subject of the movie along with who and what the story is about.
2. Show don’t tell
This is probably the most commonly used principle of screenwriting that all writers ought to know. ‘Show don’t tell’ is something that many films fail to do, and often become lesser movies because of it.
It was earlier mentioned that some writers break certain rules and make better scripts because of it. But the Show Don’t Tell rule is something every writer abides by. Screenplays are a visual medium. Unlike novels where the audience gets to see the story unfold from the mind of the protagonist, a screenplay can only use visual images to convey information.
Any movie would be quite bad to sit through if the characters constantly spoke about their exact train of thought at all times so that the audience could keep up with them.
A simple example of “show don’t tell” is to have a character knock a few items off a desk instead of telling another character in the scene that he’s angry. Using this tip as much as possible will help reduce overly expository dialogue and always improves the quality of a film.
A script needs to follow an industry-recognized screenplay format.
Any writer who is serious about becoming a screenwriter will make an effort to follow the proper screenplay format. Thankfully, this is something that most screenwriting software and apps can take care of.
Once a writer is familiar with basic screenplay elements like descriptions/action lines, sluglines, dialogues, transitions, etc. Simply knowing which one to use is enough, the screenplay writing software will take care of the rest.
4. Spelling and Grammar Check
This is a mistake many new, aspiring screenwriters make. They usually get excited about having written their first screenplay and can’t wait to get feedback, only to realize that the script has many errors and typos in it.
These errors and typos are always plentiful no matter what the level of writer is. What matters is that the experienced writer will read the script up to five times or more just to make sure that all the typos and grammatical errors have been removed.
It is very important for writers who send their scripts to agents/managers to have their writing look professional. Not having any typos and grammatical errors would be the first step in ensuring that.
Intermediate Screenwriting Tips
5. Writing The Action/Description
One thing to instantly improve any script is to re-read the already written script and try to reduce the length of the narration. When writing the first draft, writers tend to describe the scene in too much detail and end up over-writing. While this works in novels, it doesn’t do much for screenplays.
It is acceptable to overwrite when working on a first draft. Because a first draft is more about getting your ideas out there and writing something. The re-writes are about making the script into something readable.
It is advised that the narration paragraphs not be longer than three lines and be as concise and to the point as possible. Whatever doesn’t add to the story does not need to be described.
Dialogue is something that many writers struggle with. Writing believable dialogue is difficult and even feature films have characters that often sound too unrealistic in the manner of speaking.
A commonly known tip is to read each character’s lines out loud multiple times after the first draft is written. This helps identify what lines sound natural and which ones need to be changed. Another important point to remember when writing dialogue is that every character must have a unique way of speaking.
If all the characters speak the same way and use similar vocabulary, it degrades the quality of the script. While reading all the dialogue in the script out loud, it becomes clear to the writer how certain character’s lines need to be changed so that they have a more original voice.
This also helps make every character seem more realistic and interesting to the audience.
7. Camera Angles
Books like Syd Field’s Screenplay do offer the correct way to format camera angles and directions like close up, tracking shots, etc. But it is not usually considered to be the screenwriter’s job to decide how the film will be shot. That responsibility falls upon the director.
Hence, unless working on a very small project with friends or working on a short film you will direct yourself, it is advisable to not include camera directions in a script.
8. Reading a script multiple times
It is not important to read a script multiple times only to check errors in language. Reading a script multiple times also helps catch plot holes which the writer previously missed. The trite expression “Writing is Rewriting” is only used so often because it is true.
Reading a script again might help a writer identify some scenes which have no purpose in the film, or a better way to convey information by changing a character’s lines. It also helps analyze the structure of the script and how all the different elements hold together.
Maybe after reading the script for the second or third time, a writer can make a certain scene or event seem more important in act one so that the audience understands the payoff in act three.
Reading a script multiple times is something that every writer must do until they are sure that they have done justice to the story and script and worked up to the best of their ability.
Advanced Screenwriting Tips
9. Handling Exposition
Writing long dialogues filled with exposition can make even interesting concepts seem boring in a movie. A lot of movies make this mistake where the characters are just explaining certain concepts or backstories to each other and hence the audience. These scenes can be quite uninteresting.
One way to handle scenes with exposition is to hide the exposition within another action or setting.
A few examples of good exposition can be found in the scene with the two guards in Pirates of the Caribbean, the start of Wonder Woman where Diana learns about the Gods, or the batting cage scene in A Clear and Present Danger.
10. Increasing the stakes
As a movie progresses, so should the dramatic tension between the characters and their goals. The plot of a movie should not just move from one event to another, but it should have an increasing impact on the characters.
As the plot progresses, there should be more challenges or obstacles that a protagonist has to face. This makes a film more exciting as it becomes uncertain whether the character will succeed.
Even if it is predictable that the movie will have a happy ending, introducing such challenges will make the audience wonder how the protagonist will overcome them.
11. An active protagonist
If the main character in a screenplay is always finding himself in strange situations, or being told what to do, or coming across certain events at the exact right time, chances are that the script has a passive protagonist.
A passive protagonist brings down a movie because it decreases audience engagement in the movie. Ways to avoid this are to ensure that the protagonist is always working towards his goal. This goal comes from the protagonist’s motivations and not from the instructions of a supporting character.
The protagonist must always be taking action and not wait for the right coincidence to drive the story forward.
12. The Rule of Two Magics
This is the last and perhaps the most interesting screenwriting tip because while it has worked for many films in the past, it is a rule that has become obsolete.
Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat states that every movie must contain only one kind of supernatural phenomenon to be accepted by audiences.
For example, this means that a movie with aliens cannot also have ghosts. But so many films and TV shows have disregarded this rule and still found great success. The Avengers movies feature both Iron Man and Doctor Strange, but everybody is okay with that.
A recent Amazon prime show named Invincible featured a demon from Hell investigating an alien murder. And while these lines may seem absurd when read, they make the movie/TV show much more compelling.
While it might be wise for scripts outside the comic book genre to abide by this tip, the lines are blurred over how much of a “rule” it is.
Those were twelve screenwriting tips that every writer can use to considerably improve their work. As stated before, they don’t guarantee an amazing script but will be sure to improve the quality of writing.
What is important is that one writes and knows which tips to consider and which ones to put aside. That is something that comes with experience and changes from project to project.
It might be overwhelming to use all the tips at the same time, but incorporating and thinking about each one at every stage of the rewriting process might be the best way to use all this information in an actionable manner.