25 Screenwriting Tips Guaranteed To Help Your Screenplay
Learning to write a screenplay is hard but once you learn, you’ll be churning out screenplays with ease. But how many of those screenplays you’ve written are actually worthy of writing a pitch for an industry professional? You’ve maybe written a good one, but you know it could be great. You might not be sure of how to take it to the next level. If you’re wondering what you can do to improve your screenwriting skills, here’s 25 screenwriting tips guaranteed to help your screenplay
1. Get Feedback
Every writer from Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan to Steven Spielberg needs feedback. As writers, we can never see our own work for what it really is. Our sight is blocked by our own bias for our own creation. We need criticism from other in order to make our work better. It doesn’t matter who reads your script as long as you’re getting feedback. When you get feedback, be sure to consider each note individually. You’re not a perfect writer and the person giving you feedback isn’t perfect either.
2. Read The Greats
Before you start hacking away at those keys, do some research. And by research, I mean reading. You’ve seen many movies in your lifetime but have you read any scripts? So make a list of your favorites, classics, or just movies similar to what you want to write and try to study them. You’ll be surprised at how much you enjoy scripts for reading pleasure and there are several floating around in cyberspace just waiting for you to get a hold of them. The Script Lab, Movie Scripts and Screenplays, Simply Scripts, and Go Into The Story are good places to find scripts.
3. Research Your Story’s World
In this context, research is about getting into the zone and feeling that world you’re about to explore. Try going to a bookstore or library for hands on research. An even better idea would be to go directly to the locations and people that are relevant to the world and subject matter that you’re writing about Whatever that world or subject matter may be, dive into it before typing a single word.
4. Feed Your Creative Mind
Too many screenwriters jump the gun and go into the screenwriting phase. Patience. With a fresh concept, you have a seed that needs to be nourished so it can grow to something great. You need to look for inspiration and context. If you’re writing a movie about zombies, you need to study up on the subgenre. If you’re writing a war drama, you need to put yourself in that world and find some tone and atmosphere to work with visually. Watching movies is a great way to feed your creative mind because it helps get you in the mood of creating.
5. Visualize Your Movie Every Day
Writing is about visualizing images and putting them together like pieces to a jigsaw puzzle. When writing a script, you can’t write a cinematic story without seeing what you’re tasked with describing. So when you’re walking, running, eating, daydreaming, be visualizing your movie playing in your head. Use the imagery and inspiration you obtained by feeding your brain through watching movies and tv shows. Take a month to do this. Develop the big moments of your story in your head. See them. Feel them. Write them.
6. Analyze Movies With A Critical Eye
Analyzing movies is something we do naturally without even knowing it. Everybody has an opinion after they’ve watched something to make judgment on whether they liked it or not. You can use this to your benefit though. Maybe there was a line that didn’t sit right with you or wasn’t believable. How would you make it better? Maybe there was a character that should have been likable but wasn’t. How would you handle that character to make them likable? Or maybe the story just didn’t work for you. What would you do to fix that and make the film better? In this case, it helps to be a critic to help the perfection of your craft.
7. Read Anything And Everything
Don’t just read screenplays. Read comics, manga, read it all. Poetry, history, science, all of it. Reading a wide array of content can help you come up with ideas for future scripts. Moreover, it’ll also help you be able to come up with the solutions on how to write your scenes, characters and plots to your stories. Reading makes it so your mind is constantly in that creative frame of mind and it just helps your brain operate quicker. Good writers read a lot.
8. Listen To Professional Screenwriters Analyzing Scripts
If you’re more of a passive learner, then just sit back and listen to the pros talk. There’s a youtube channel called Film Courage that has professional screenwriters giving interviews on the craft of screenwriting. They talk about it from every angle imaginable and there’s great advice in there for you. The best advice comes from people who have actually already done it and done it at a high level.
9. Write a Screenplay FAST
Some writers suffer from the fear of starting a screenplay; the perilous white space on the screen. There’s a ton of inhibitions that creep in about writing a screenplay. One way to kill those inhibitions is to write a screenplay fast. Writing a screenplay fast helps you write on instinct which is good because a lot of the time writers stress over what to write when deep down, they know what to write but are afraid to just do it. Writing fast forces you to cut the BS and get down to business. It puts you in a go, go, go mindset that makes you avoid procrastination. You’ll be surprised how well it turns out and if it doesn’t, that’s okay. You can go back and rewrite it.
10. Never take breaks
There should not be a single day that goes by where you’re not working on your script. If you’re able to skip a day, then you obviously don’t love what you’re writing enough and you will struggle to finish it. The only exception to this is if you experience a family crisis. If not, your butt should be hacking away at that script. Take care of your baby. You wouldn’t go a day where you don’t take care of your baby, would you? Why should your script be any different? Breaks in writing can cause you to become disinterested with your creation. A day can turn into a week and a week into months so ABW. Always Be Writing. Taking breaks while writing your script can lead to poor quality in your script. It’s very hard to take a break and try to pick back up where you left off so it’s strongly advised to never do this.
11. You must LOVE your script
Your script is an extension of you. You spend hours, days, months laboring over it and nurturing it. In a way, it’s like your offspring. The amount of love you have for your kids should be the amount of love you have for your artistic creation. Having this love will help you avoid waning passion for your script over the length of time that it takes to write it. You’d be amazed how quickly you write it when you have this kind of love affair with your work.
Character is important because it’s who the movie is centered around. If you don’t have a good character, forget about it. People want a character they can identify with. A character that is flawed, but likable. Somebody that can get empathy and stir emotions within them. A common mistake is making a character too perfect to the point that they’re a mary sue. People can’t relate to such perfect human beings if you can even call them that since all humans are flawed.
Conflict is what keeps the audience glued and engaged to the story. You must craft the conflict in your story so that the protagonist is always in the chase position. There’s something that he/she wants and the people that they interact with throw wrenches to keep them from getting it. There must also be a secondary conflict that exacerbates the main problem. By doing this, you’re able to add that hook that keeps the story going and doesn’t grow dull by the second act.
The amount of people that have a great idea but no plot for their story is astounding. Before writing a script, make sure you know what happens in each act of your script. It helps to at least know the climax of each act and how you plan on building up to that climax. Having an idea is less than half the battle so do your due diligence and map out the acts in your head. You’ll find that if you do this, you may not even need an outline as you’ll know what each scene is supposed to achieve.
15. Avoid Second Act Destruction
If you have an idea for a script, but don’t know how to go about writing it so that it doesn’t fall apart by the second act, the following advice will help you immensely.
When I first started writing films, I chose to write a futuristic space adventure. Guess which movie I chose to help craft my script around; Yup, Star Wars. Honestly, I’m not even a big Star Wars fan, but I chose to use it because it’s impact on pop culture and the movie industry is undeniable and I respect what George Lucas created.
So I went ahead and wrote the script, but upon completion I realized something was wrong. I found myself going back and trying to add in more scenes, but it still didn’t work as a story and I couldn’t figure out why.
I eventually moved on to writing my second script. The high I felt from completing my first propelled me through the second script and I ended up finishing it quicker than the first. The second script took influence from one of my favorite movies, Back To the Future. This is when my screenwriting method began to shape out and I started to understand how to write a story. Back To The Future is one story with two plots. Most movies use this method of story telling.
In Back To The Future, the first plot is about Marty accidentally being transported back to 1955 and he has to get back to 1985. The second plot is about his mom falling in love with him and Marty having to get his parents together so that it doesn’t ruin future events like him being born. Emulating Back To The Future helped because that second script I wrote had both an A plot and B plot. The first movie I wrote only had an A plot that I unknowingly tried to drag through out the entire script. The second script had more twists and turns in the story and was much closer to a cohesive story.
So when crafting your story, make sure there’s an A plot and B plot. You want to make it so that the B plot complicates the A plot. If Marty didn’t get his parents together, he couldn’t have gotten back to 1985 because his very existence would have ceased right there in 1955. Following the structure of Back To The Future helped me in spades by getting the second act to be as compelling as the first.
16. Make Sure The Concept Is Fresh And New
Nothing sucks more than to spend hours, days, weeks and months laboring on that script only to find out that Hollywood has already tackled that same concept. It’s helpful to do thorough research and know what’s going on so that you can avoid making this mistake. Since we all ingest the same media content, we can sometimes end up having the same ideas inspired by said content. This leads to people writing the same things. It’s imperative to do some basic google searches on the subject matter before typing a single word.
17. Choose Your Concept Wisely
You need to be diligent when developing a concept for your script. Too many screenwriters write their version of their favorite movies or they have a half baked gimmick. Writing your version of what’s come before isn’t going to attract people to your script. The half baked gimmicks aren’t enough to drive a compelling narrative for an entire story. The concept you choose has to be chosen for a reason. Maybe it’s a personal story that only you can write or maybe you’ve found a way to combine two genres into one. Whatever it is, it has to be well thought out.
18. Show Don’t Tell
Mad Max Fury Road is an example of a movie that does this well. The screenwriters didn’t write dialogue heavy scenes. Mad Max let’s the action be the main course and the dialogue be the dessert. Mad Max Fury Road was a spectacle, but no matter what you’re writing, you’ll always capture an audience with more action and less talk.
19. Write Between The Lines
When a character avoids the truth, that’s the best dialogue. This isn’t to say that the character has to lie but the dialogue can’t be on the nose. Think about Breaking Bad. How many times did Walter White say the complete opposite of what he was thinking? When the viewer gets to be in on the joke because of prior knowledge, it can be very interesting or funny watching someone lie or misrepresent their true feelings. Learning this helps you create scenes with layers that your dialogue can exploit.
20. Unique Voice
You should implement the different speech patterns, catch phrases, and the unique tempo of how people speak. If you can identify each character purely based on dialogue by covering up the character’s name, it’ll help in knowing if you’re writing a unique voice for your characters. Forcing you to think in terms of personality and motivation with each moment is one of the reasons why character archetypes are useful.
21. Don’t Say The Same Thing Twice
This is a scene from Birdman that illustrates this point.
Riggan:“Yeah, yeah sure, no not at all.”
Mike:“Okay, just stay with me….you’ve got four lines after that, that all say the same thing. “I didn’t even know the man, I only heard his name mentioned in passing, I wouldn’t know, you’d have to know the particulars…” The point is, you don’t know the guy, we f – king get it. Make it work with one line:
“I didn’t even know the man.”
Once you’ve said or shown something… move on. We get it… make it work with one line.
22. Stretch Important Information
You shouldn’t show your cards right away just because you have important information to convey to your viewer. Make them work for it. Use breadcrumbs to lead the viewer. For example, with two people in a scene, use little hints about the relationship between those two characters while also giving some backstory.
23. Show Us The Interesting Stuff
“Arrive late, leave early” is an old screenwriting tip. Basically, this means skip the pleasantries. We don’t need to start a scene with two divorcees in arbitration, like Wedding Crashers, with the clerk opening up the meeting room door, setting up chairs and filling up the water glasses. How does this relate to writing dialogue? You will quickly learn this when writing a screenplay: The extension of your scenes is your dialogue. There is a pretty good chance the accompanying dialogue won’t be much better if your scene is trudging along through some super boring situation.
24. Interrupt Other Conversations
Have you ever had your conversation interrupted by someone walking up while you were telling a secret? It makes for an entertaining scene in a compromising situation where you can stretch important information, write between the lines, and add logical conflict. You’ve now set up a perfect moment of conflict for your characters even if the interrupter immediately asks for a private conversation. Why? Because we get to see our character make decisions that we get to physically see and how they handle that delicate situation. How they handle said situation will speak volumes about that character and what they’re about.
25. Take Advantage of Every Role
Throw away characters with throw away lines should never exist. It’s self explanatory what to do with them if you do have them. Die Hard has one of the great first lines of a film:
Businessman:“You wanna know the secret to surviving air travel? After you get where you’re going, take off your shoes and your socks then walk around on the rug barefoot and make fists with your toes.”
John McClane:“Fists with your toes?”
Businessman:“I know, I know, it sounds crazy. Trust me, I’ve been doing it for nine years. Yes sir, better than a shower and a hot cup of coffee.”
Why is this great? Two reasons:
- This character never comes back, yet he has some fun dialogue, a point of view, and even a piece of helpful advice that most people would be interested to try the next time they got on an airplane.
- This interaction leads to a great piece of conflict in the film, because it is the impetus for John McClane to take off his shoes. When the terrorists burst into the party, he is forced to run away…shoeless.
Also, John is given the go ahead to tell us that he’s a cop after the businessman sees his pistol. John has a logical reason to fill us in that he’s a cop because the filmmakers show first the outsider’s reaction.
Adhering to these 25 screenwriting tips guaranteed to help your screenplay can help you take that screenplay to the next level.
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