Writing your first screenplay can be a daunting task. There are rules to be learned about everything from formatting to structure to style. The sheer scale of a project that can take months, or even years, to fully realise can be enough to deter even the most enthusiastic first-timers. That said, the skill set you will develop throughout the process is invaluable, even if your aspirations aren’t to become a full-time writer. Actors and directors will discover that their understanding of storytelling on screen will compound as they learn how ideas are formed and refined on the page. And your screenplay itself, regardless of whether or not it has been produced or sold, is a valuable calling card in the industry; it is a sign that you are willing to commit to a long-term creative venture and see it through.
This article is intended to help you write that very first screenplay, to get you started on the right track, and caution you against the kinds of mistakes that can stall or sink you. You won’t find advice on how to structure your story, or craft compelling characters, or weave interesting plots; these kinds of things are best learned through continued hard work and self-assessment. What is contained below is the kind of information that will help demystify the writing process. Writing is not a talent or a calling. It’s a skill. And skills can be learned and improved by anybody willing to invest their time and effort.
Some excellent books have been written about screenwriting. There are also podcasts by industry insiders who speak candidly about their craft and process—not to mention articles like the one you’re reading now that promise quick, free advice. When it comes to background reading on the subject of screenwriting, don’t let yourself feel overwhelmed by the wealth of information available. There is, after all, an industry built on helping people learn to write, and this industry will do everything it can to convince you that you’re going to fail without paying for its advice. The best background reading you can possibly do before attempting a screenplay is other screenplays. Try to track down your favourite films and television shows and read how their writers put those stories together.
Writing software is the best way to navigate the often intimidating rules of screenplay formatting; it will help your work look considered and professional, and ensure that a producer won’t dismiss your script because it looks as though you couldn’t be bothered to learn the rules. Final Draft is the industry standard and a worthwhile investment for anyone who can afford the price tag (it also sports a generous education discount for students and teachers). Free options such as Celtx and WriterDuet are also available, as are formatting templates for word processing programs like Word or OpenOffice. Look for something that streamlines your process. If you find yourself fiddling too much with settings and margins, there is probably a better option to explore.
Love Your Idea
For all the work you are committing yourself to doing, make sure the idea for your screenplay is something you love and believe in. It needs to excite you when you talk about it, live in the back of your mind when you’re doing something else, and spur you to keep writing on days when insecurity takes over. And while this may sound like obvious advice, it is very easy to find yourself writing something for the wrong reasons. Sometimes you might think a story “deserves to be told”, like that of a historical figure or family member. Other times you may be approached by somebody with an idea of their own, who is convinced it would make for a great project. Later in your career, paid writing opportunities can confuse things further, as they offer the dangerous one-two punch of compensation and validation. While you can find projects you love in the above scenarios, any that you do undertake devoid of true passion will eventually drain you of your energy and enthusiasm. The resulting work is often lacklustre and hollow.
Set A Deadline
Once you have your topic, set yourself a deadline for when the first draft will be due. This will stop your project from losing momentum, and give you a concrete goal to aim for. As you start accruing material, and you get a sense of how long your draft will take to complete, feel free to give yourself extra time to work—everybody writes at their own pace, and it’s something that you can only learn from experience. Just remember to keep yourself accountable, especially when you are the only person invested in the project.
Planning Your Approach
A divisive topic among writers; some like to plan everything out to a tee, others prefer to sit at the computer and let the story unfold. When it comes to planning, do as much as you feel is necessary for the project, and will support you in your own process. Complex plots in feature-length screenplays can benefit from a ‘post-it-notes-on-the-walls approach’ where each scene/beat is carefully mapped out to give you a visual representation of how the story will unfold. For those less visually inclined, you may want to write a treatment; start with a log-line that summarises your idea, adapt this into a paragraph, then a page, and then ten pages.
Much like the planning stage, there are several research approaches that work better for different writers and different types of projects. When starting out, the best rule is do as much research as is required to get your first draft down—remembering you can always revise names, situations, and dates in later versions. Inexperienced writers will often get bogged down in the researching of their work; it is an effective stalling tactic (whether you are consciously aware of doing so or not), and can help you convince yourself that you’re being productive without actually typing anything out. If you believe your project will require extensive research, plan out specific periods in your schedule that are completely separate from your writing sessions. When one bleeds into the other, you risk stalling yourself and losing momentum.
Get It On The Page
Finally, the most important piece of advice is to start writing and keep writing. Keep your descriptions short, avoid being clever or glib (your audience should never feel like you regard them as inferior), and stay away from describing camera angles or movements like “we push-in” or “close up on” that tell the director how to do their job.
First drafts are always terrible, and yours will be no different. When you find yourself aware of how terrible it is, just keep writing and remember that the worst screenplay ever put to paper is still better than the brilliant idea somebody is yet to write down. Every version after the first will get easier, and read better. A great tactic for keeping yourself moving through a first draft is to never read back more than a page from where you begin a writing session. If you keep returning to earlier scenes, you will lose yourself in the endless polishing and re-plotting that you think will solve problems in what lies ahead. Resist the temptation. If there are characters or subplots you completely forget to revisit, take it as a sign that they should probably be cut outright from later drafts.
The Second Draft
Once you have completed your first draft, celebrate your hard work. You have come further than most writers ever will. Then, put it in a desk drawer and forget about it for at least a week. Some writers choose to leave that first draft in the drawer forever—having gotten the bad ideas and impulses out of their system, they start again afresh. For your first screenplay, read through your first draft and take extensive notes. Write down what does and doesn’t work, and ask yourself questions about things that require clarification.
For the second draft, start a brand new document and type the whole thing out again. Use your notes for reference on what to change, try not to look at the first draft too much, and never copy/paste to speed up the process. You will find that the good things from the first draft are relatively easy to remember. If you really have to scour your own words to remember what was said, there is likely a better way to say it. Stephen King states in his book On Writing (a must for writers of any genre and form) that the second draft should always be ten per cent shorter. Trim the fat and streamline your reader’s experience so the story is always clear. And when it comes to screenplays, less is always more in the big print. Look to your descriptions of characters and places as the first place to kill some darlings.
The second draft will be the first version of this story that you show to others. Have your trusted friends and peers read the work and give you some constructive feedback. Often, it’s best to ask about specific areas of the screenplay so the criticism isn’t misguided or vague (think about the kinds of questions you wrote down to be answered when reviewing your first draft). If you are lucky enough to have actors in your support network, organise a table read and hear it read aloud. A short feedback session should follow, moderated by somebody other than yourself. Keep quiet, take notes, and say “thank you” to every piece of advice no matter how misguided or hurtful.
In workshopping your script, aim for five drafts. Each one will be simpler to complete as there will be less to explore or fix. And for each of these, set a deadline as you did the first; promise the script to your brains trust so they can hold you accountable.
Completing your first screenplay is an incredible feat; it’s also the very first step in (what is hopefully) a long process that ends with your film up on screens around the world. If you’re looking to sell the script or see it produced, research production houses that may be interested in reading your material. You could also approach producers directly who could help you kick-start the funding process. Online, there are a number of prestigious competitions that grant exposure and support to emerging screenwriters; these have the added bonus of offering criticism that may help you improve the work further or prevent you from making similar mistakes in your next project.
A screenplay is a curious thing. Its ultimate goal is to pass on its status as the authority on the story it tells to the film made from it. If you are fortunate enough to see your work produced, don’t forget that a process will take place in which actors and directors and the rest will add and subtract and augment in the name of making it truly sing. Learn to embrace change, and remember that you gain nothing by being precious or defensive. And if you find yourself particularly affected by the act of letting go of your screenplay, the best remedy is to start the next one.