Figure out how the parts work.
- Learn how to tell small complete stories within the bounds of the format. Learn the format by reading actual screenplays before you read any books about screenplays.
- Big films are usually made up of lots of little films. If you figure out how the little movies work, the big ones are easier.
- You don’t have to start out by writing a whole feature. You can try writing just scenes first, then work up to a short film or ten, and eventually stitch a bunch of scenes together so you’ve got a whole feature.
- Writing is a practice. You don’t start out as the best you can possibly be, you get there by sitting down and writing one thing after another. Practice, practice, practice.
- When you write something you really like, stick it in a drawer for a week and don’t look at it while you write other stuff. Then go back and edit it with fresh eyes. Or try rewriting it from memory without even looking at it. Set up little exercises like that for yourself, so you’re doing write, write, write, but it’s an evolving cycle, not a closed loop. Maybe try writing in different environments and see how they affect the work. Becoming a strong writer does not happen overnight. Pace yourself. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
- Scenes tend to exist to show that something important happened. If you don’t know what at least one key thing is that your scene is supposed to be presenting, you may be doing it wrong.
- Don’t worry too much about formatting. William Goldman said screenplays are structure. He did not say they are format. Standardizations in screenwriting software and the popular beginners’ books push you in a certain direction, but take a look at this series of Page One examples compiled by the Writers Guild Foundation Library. See how varied the styles are? Goldman himself didn’t even use scene headings. You should eventually find a style that works for you. Learn the rules, and why they’re rules, so you can break them with style and gusto.
“It is perfectly okay to write garbage as long as you edit brilliantly.” – C. J. Cherryh
- Editing is the work. You cannot get out of it. This is why people in the business say ideas aren’t worth anything. The job of the writer is to hammer them out for everyone else. If you haven’t done that part, you haven’t done shit.
- Just get it all down, then go back and fix it. And fix it. And make it better. And fix it. Go work on something else for a while. Come back, make it even better. Writing 10 to 20 drafts is not uncommon.
- The more you write, the faster you’ll probably get, and the less necessary rewriting should become, but everybody’s different. If you’re still outlining in detail at 150 scripts in, who cares? You do what works for you, as long as it sells. But, yes, it should get easier.
- Don’t Try To Sell Your First Draft of Your First Feature. As has been said many times, writing takes practice. Finish your first feature, then write something completely different. Then go back and look at your first feature… you won’t like what you see. The more you write, the more aware you become of your own mistakes, and the more effective you become at eliminating them from new work. So, when you “finish” that first script, put that shit in a drawer.
- Don’t start calling Netflix Customer Service asking to speak to the head of development when you’ve just finished writing your first scene. You will be competing with people who have been writing screenplays for 40 years, so you absolutely must bring your top game. Build a network of fellow screenwriters and swap scripts to exchange notes. You don’t have to take all their advice, but you also don’t want to be living in an echo chamber or only get feedback from people who just want you to be happy.
You can plan and outline all you want, but your characters should ultimately drive the story.
- If something in the outline isn’t true to who the character has become as you’ve fleshed them out and given them words, don’t force it. Don’t be afraid to go offroad, ignore the outline when it hinders the truth and voices of interesting characters. Fuck the plot, follow the characters. That’s the key to a great story.
- You start with some contrivance, and you put in your characters, but if you’re doing your job right they’ll take on a life of their own.
- You create these wonderful and interesting and complex characters who start to feel like real people with real feelings, and then you start throwing stuff like unexpected pregnancies, divorces, trees, bullets, machetes, werewolf bites, inlaws, and anvils at them, and really that’s the whole job. Invent interesting people who have strong goals, then torture them with obstacles while a story unfolds. Then just write that shit down so it makes sense.
- If you get stuck and feel uncomfortable writing at any point, refer to the page on Writer’s Block for help.