So you’re about to work on your first screenplay, I was in the same position years ago. You’re in for a wild ride, for some of you, this might feel natural for others it might take a while to understand. No matter what the case is, we all go through the learning phase.
I’ve structured this post to help complete beginners to intermediate learners. Here are the top 11 screenwriting tips for your first script from idea to creation.
- Read Screenplays
- Limit your learning
- Idea Creation
- Story over everything
- Screenplay structure doesn’t really
- The Correct Screenplay Format
- Manage your time wisely
- No one cares about your feelings
- The importance of the first ten pages
- Rewriting is writing
notefrom writing examples
The first three points are to be done to before you start writing your screenplay if you passed this stage skip to step four.
1.) Read Screenplays
This tip might seem obvious to everyone, but the question is why haven’t you done it? Read the screenplay then watch the movie scene by scene. This exercise gives you the language of a screenplay at the professional level.
The first screenplay I’ve ever read was The Matrix by the Wachowski’s. The moment I finally understood screenplay language is when I sat their scene by scene reading and then watching the dialogue happen in front of me.
2.) Limit your Learning
Limitations should never be put on learning which is true. The problem is sometimes it can be an excuse for what you should be doing.
I have a friend who reads and watches non stop video on how to start a business — hes been doing this for two years now. He hasn’t done anything related to starting a business in those two years. I tried to tell him the logo and the color of your website isn’t more important than acquiring customers.
These are all excuses we repeatedly hero’s ourselves to avoid what we need to be doing from doing. Taking your seventh class or buying your 13th book would be a great idea if you have a couple of screenplays underneath your belt. But the problem is when you’re doing all this without even typing fade in. Stop making excuses.
3.) Coming up with an Idea for a Screenplay
Do you like horrors? How about thrillers? Or maybe a horror thriller. This tip has more do with what excites you then trying to put your film in a genre box. Some people might want to write a movie that hits close to home with a family issue. Some want to see a murder solved. Whatever gets you going think about it.
Take a minute and think about the films that made you want to become a screenwriter, in the beginning. Ask yourself:
- What are my favorite movies?
- Why are these my favorite?
- How can I relate these scenarios to me?
- How can you dramatize this?
Think about a Concept
Your screenplay might not need this but if your looking to sell most producers go after high concept movies. Now, what is a concept in movie terms? A movie concept is a film that can be pitched and understood very easily. They have to meet 2 or more of these criteria:
- Have a unique and original idea.
- The idea can relate to a massive audience.
- The idea is visible to people. (They get it)
- You can explain it in one to three sentences.
Here are a few examples
A Las Vegas-set comedy centered around three groomsmen who lose their about-to-be-wed buddy during their drunken misadventures then must retrace their steps to find him.
Let’s break this idea of a concept down, with the difference between that and of a gimmick.
A Nightmare Elm Street
The evil entity named Fredy can only kill you when you’re asleep.
This text isn’t the official logline, but you can see how the movie meets the criteria of a high concept. Everybody has to sleep, and the thought of not sleeping sounds insane. The character Fredy himself is a gimmick. If he couldn’t manipulate dreams take a shotgun and end the movie.
This film is more of a thriller than a horror, but I wanted to show you the versatility of a high concept.
An evil monster that is making people go crazy isn’t a concept its a gimmick. The concept is when you see that the remaining people alive have to survive without using their eyes. It’s almost the opposite of A Quiet Place.
Now you don’t need your film to have this. Most Oscar-nominated films don’t have this actually, but it’s a high selling point and one thing you should think of before you even open final draft.
Market Test your ideas to Complete Strangers.
Strangers are great for feedback because they give you the most honest answers. Your mother or your friends might lie or at least say it in a way to not hurt your feelings. Strangers don’t care. Get 100 people on your side then you got an idea worth writing.
How to pitch your idea to people:
1) Pitch your idea within 2 minutes or less.
Give them the logline and a quick breakdown.
2) Do they understand it?
Why or why not? Ask them. Do they have any follow up questions? If yes that’s a good sign that there interested.
3) Gage there reaction.
Watch there face expressions. Their eyes will tell you everything you need to know about your idea. If their eyes glaze over, then you’re losing them, and If peoples eyes get bigger, then they’re interested.
4) Change or pitch or the story.
Based on peoples feedback you might have a new angle to pitch your idea, or even better you see holes in the story that you didn’t see before. You now can to make changes tightening it up the loose ends.
The first three steps are just for the idea development phase. These next steps are for your writing.
4.) Story over Everything
When writing your first script people always want to focus on the action, the explosions or the for the lack of a better word cool scenes. Think about the story you’re telling what the essence of it. What’s the theme? Focus on this don’t worry the cool cinematic scenes are coming.
Compelling conflict is when the hero’s journey is so severe that the hero must change who he or she is even to have a chance. Think about your favorite movie. Most of the time the goal your character is trying to achieve feels like the figure is climbing a mountain weather they are trying to get a job like in the Pursuit of Happiness or trying to save the world in Die Hard.
Ticking time bombs
What is a ticking time bomb in a screenplay? These are the micro events that happen that move your character to take action sooner rather than later.
It could be a ticking bomb in the popular series 24 or be as simple as the bills piling up for a single mother trying to make ends meet. In the world of a story, nothing can go on forever. Keep this idea of a micro catalyst to keep your screenplay moving towards the end.
5.) Screenplay Structure
Typically there is a three-act structure within a typical script with the second act being the most extended act. The first act being the set up with an inciting incident giving the character a reason to pursue a goal. Then the third act where the character changes for the better or for, the worse.
That’s the long answer the short one is I don’t believe in story structure. Take a look at this video for a perfect explanation.
6.) The Correct Screenplay Format
ake a look at the diagram below; this is typically the correct script format you would want to follow below if you would want more information about things like scene heading to check out the format tab on our website. For the most part, a lot of screenwriting software now aways writes the format for you. Leaving you to type freely check out those programs here.
Spec scripts are written for free in hopes that it will get picked up by someone and turned into a movie, so chances are if your wring your first script its a spec.
Shooting scripts are made by and for the director and camera department to understand how to set up shots.
I’m explaining this because you shouldn’t be writing a lot of camera directions within your script. WIDE SHOT, ANGLE ON is not needed and will distract from what you should be focused on which is the story.
Also, stay away from writing acting directions. Action cues like:
She tapped her foot as her eyes widened with impatience.
Is something actors and directors will work out for themselves. Now I’m not saying you wouldn’t write any of it I’m just saying script readers will see you as an amateur by doing it too much keep it to significant moments.
The page count of a script is generally between 90-120 pages long. Don’t marry yourself to this guideline. You can go longer or shorter than this. But keep in mind normally a page equals a minute on screen. This rule could change ofcourse, say if you have a lot of dialogue in the script one page might end up being two minutes.
When you develop characters its best to look at the people in your own life. This strategy is the quickest way to make real characters. The goal here is to make your characters as relatable as possible.
One of the most significant problems newer screenwriters have is making there characters one dimensional. The bad guys are just bad the main characters are good This doesn’t work. People are multifaceted. Some good people do some terrible things sometimes because of personal reasons and vis versa this is what makes characters real.
For your first draft of your we are going to work on writing active dialogue this means words the serve the story your telling. Yes in the rewrites you can get creative, but before you write poetry, you need to understand why characters talk.
According to David Mamet characters only talk to get something from one another. Its to get a result that it and that’s all. If your characters are speaking for the hell of it, it better be entertaining as hell, or you lose the reader. Have you ever asked yourself when watching a movie, whats the point of this scene? It’s is because there wasn’t one. When your characters talk, there are trying to complete there objective.
Now after you’ve done this, you can get creative just as long as it doesn’t stray from the characters desire line.
What do I mean by writing cinematically? When it comes to screenwriting, you have to write for all the senses, and this pertains to what someone might hear, see and smell. Instead of stuffing everything in the dialogue between two characters take your time in writing action lines and scenarios that say what you’re trying to get across. For example:
Julie walks in from work.
What's wrong you have been mopping around all day. Is it because you just broke up with Greg last week?
Jullie sits down in the chair next to Cindy.
Yea its been bugging me out he won't answer my calls.
Julie walks in from work throws the keys down on the couch. She checks her phone.
Opens the bottle of wine in the fridge and starts to chug.
There are other guys out there.
I need closure.
These two pieces say the same information but the second one leaves the reader guessing what’s going to happen next by telling the story cinematically.
7.) Manage your Time Wisely
Yes, no one is paying you to write just yet, so you technically have all day, all year and all your life to write. This mentality is the wrong approach. Yes doing something creative can take time but push yourself, the plan is to get a production company to buy or pay for your time to write. This reality will happen in slow motion unless you push yourself.
Most professional writers get about 12 weeks to create their first drafts. Treat it as if you were getting paid. I would give yourself a little leeway and push it to 15 weeks But it’s about reps and sets here if it takes you three years to finish your screenplay your going to stay at your accounting job for three years before you get your first drafts feedback.
8.) The First 10 Pages are the most Important
The first ten pages are somewhat the most important part of your screenplay. They capture the reader’s attention. If you write a fire ten pages, you can at least guarantee that your entire screenplay will be read in its entirety.
Every spec screenplay sent unless you pay for notes is read by script readers to determine if it should be passed along to the head producer. These readers read hundreds of scripts a year most of the time for free, leaving them drained and unimpressed with most screenplays. They are just looking for a reason to write yours off as a fail.
So how do you pass the first line of script readers? No misspelling grammar problems, run on sentences are things that will get your script dismissed instantly. The second thing you want your writing to have is interest after the first ten pages. What’s happening, that will make them turn the page?
9.) Get Proper Feedback
Ok now, you’re ready to submit your spec screenplay in for review. There are two options for this.
If your paying for reader notes this is a great way to start the feedback process. They will read your script in its entirety and tell you everything wrong with it from structure to character. There are several packages on different websites ranging from 1 reader all the way to 6 readers. There is also a website called scriptdoctor.com that will have someone go through your script and fix the problems one on one with you.
When you submit your spec script to any organization like Amazon studios or a literary agent you should be 100% positive that this is the best work you can write at this given time. I have a whole article on spec scripts and where to send them here.
10.) Rewriting is Writing
Say if you did submit your writing to readers for feedback. It’s now time for the part no one ever wants to do. Rewrite. I’ve heard a lot of screenwriters say writing is rewriting. When you finish your first draft know you are probably going to get 4 to 10 more drafts before you write something that truly stands out. Don’t fight this process everyone from Aaron Sorkin to David Mamet rewrites there screenplays.
11.) Use Writing Examples
Take a look at some famous writers first screenplays these writers have gone along the way form this point seeing where they came from can inspire you to keep going in your writing.