How to become a screenwriter - part 1

Fri 27 Aug 2021

How do you bring your ideas to life and take the first steps to becoming a screenwriter?

This post is by John Finnegan, founder of The Script Department Ltd, a screenwriting network that showcases up and coming writers and their work. He is also a Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University and is the Course Leader of MA Writing for Script and Screen, an online screenwriting masters course.

Everyone has, at one point or another, pitched an idea for a movie to a friend or family. Even if they aren’t a filmmaker, they’ve probably seen enough movies or television shows to know whether or not the idea has potential.

The problem is, most people never act on those ideas, because they don’t know the next steps. And sure, making movies can be complicated, expensive and incredibly hard. It’s understandable. But the good news is, you don’t need to make the movie, you just need to write a great script!

Long before any movie goes into production, before budgets are raised and cast and crew are assembled, you can be sure that a script is going through numerous rewrites to make sure it’s ready to be translated onto the screen.

It’s the screenwriting stage where movies come to life (and sometimes go to die). It’s where characters are discovered, worlds are created and where the seeds are sown for the emotional rollercoaster ride that audiences will hopefully remember for the rest of their lives. For me, it’s where the magic of cinema is born and it’s the best job in the world.

So how do you take that first step to becoming a screenwriter? In this two-part blog post series, I’ll walk you through the fundamentals so that you can take the right steps towards bringing your ideas to life.

Writing for the screen

The first thing to remember when writing a script is that you are writing for the screen specifically.

One of the most common mistakes that I find with people starting out is that they write as though they were creating a novel or a stage play. They write long winded descriptions of scenes and locations, they describe the inner workings of the characters’ minds and put their energy into other areas that are not conducive to screen storytelling.

So with that in mind, let’s lay down some ground rules:

1. Only write what we as an audience will see and hear on screen. If we can’t, it doesn’t have a place on the page.

2. Only write in present tense, what is meant to be happening, as it is meant to be happening on the screen.

3. Don’t use references to cameras or editing techniques (i.e. CLOSE UP, CUT TO, etc.) as these are not your area of expertise. There’s an arrogance in writing as if you know exactly how the scene should be filmed and edited. Let other professionals worry about that later when the film is being made.

PRO TIP: To practice these three points, pick a scene from your favourite film, watch it and transcribe what you are seeing and hearing as it plays out on the screen. Be concise and to the point. Don’t let too much detail slow down the flow of the scene. This should get you into the habit of writing for the screen.

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Formatting

Screenwriting formatting is one of the most important factors in taking that first step into becoming a screenwriter. It’s the thing that is instantly noticeable when done incorrectly and a professional will (sometimes unfairly) make a judgement about your skills if you don’t get it right.

The good news is that there are screenwriting software programmes out there to do all this work for you. I’ve been writing screenplays for nearly two decades and I’ve never manually formatted a script in my life, so neither should you!

There are countless programmes available online, but the industry standard ones include:

1. Final Draft

2. Fade In

3. Celtx

Find a programme that works for you (they’re all pretty much the same at their core) and you’ll be formatting your scripts in no time. To take your formatting to the next level, here are a few additional rules to keep in mind that the programmes might not help with:

1. A single page of a screenplay is equal to one minute of screen time (as a rule of thumb). So if your script is 90 pages, an agent or producer will assume the movie is 90 minutes approx. Keep this in mind when trying to determine how much detail to include in your script. Eventually it’ll become second nature.

2. Introduce your characters in uppercase, but only in the first instance. Afterwards you can keep them in lower case. Many people make the mistake of having every character in uppercase all the time. This is not good and negatively impacts the reading of the script. Remember that a 90 minute film will have lots of characters - that’s a lot of names for a reader to have to keep in mind.

Introducing characters in uppercase signals to the reader that we’ve never met this person before - so it’s a new character. An easy one to forget but one that can make all the difference in the comprehension of your screen idea.

3. Don’t use parentheticals (the bracketed notes that sometimes appear before dialogue) too much. Sometimes writers use these to give the actors performance notes and it can be negatively received by other practitioners.

Remember, in the same way that you wouldn’t tell the cinematographer or director how to do their job, you wouldn’t presume to tell a professional actor with years of experience how best to interpret and adapt the character for the screen.

PRO TIP: Read lots of screenplays. You can find them online by searching for ‘screenplay pdf’ after the title of the movie you want to find. Avoid ‘transcriptions’ as these are not the original artefacts and instead look for the script itself.

Also, be cautious of blindly following everything you see. Remember that even industry scripts are sometimes filled with errors or bad habits that the writers picked up. As a new screenwriter, you’ll be held to a higher standard and your work should demonstrate this. But if you follow the rules above, and the general presentation guidelines of the samples you find online, you’ll be okay.

Structure

Familiarise yourself with story structure. Films, particularly mainstream ones, are written with specific structural conventions in mind. Television is even more heavily structured because of the episode nature of the stories.

It would be too much to cover in an article like this, but make sure to give consideration to structure. You can learn a lot about story structure from reading any screenwriting book in your local bookstore or library and YouTube is littered with countless video essays that talk about story structure.

Ready for more tips on starting your screenwriting journey? In part two of this series, John looks at writing treatments and honing your portfolio:

Read part two >

Writing for Script & Screen

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