How to become a screenwriter - part 2

Fri 27 Aug 2021

See more top tips for adapting your work for the screen and starting your journey to becoming a professional screenwriter. 

In part one of How to become a screenwriter, MA Writing for Script & Screen Course Leader John Finnegan explored how to format and structure your work for the screen.

In part two, John shares his tips for writing treatments and other development documents, networking and honing your portfolio and skills:

Write and rewrite

At a certain point, you’re going to have to start writing and this should be something you approach carefully. The single biggest mistake I see from first time screenwriters is that they start writing the screenplay without proper planning. Bad idea!

Instead, map out your story using index cards or post-it notes, or open up a blank page on your laptop and start bullet-pointing what’s going to happen.

A summary of the story from beginning to end is called a ‘treatment’ and can range from a short document to tens of pages long. Here are some tips to consider when planning out your project:

1. How long do you want the script to be?

2. How long will each scene be (map this out first to be sure you have enough scenes to reach your target length)?

3. Is there a logical structure to your story or are you just making it up as you go along? If it’s the latter, you might not be ready to start writing.

4. Can you confidently walk people through the story from start to finish without tripping yourself up or without raising critical plot holes? If so, this might be a good indicator that you are ready.

Writing treatments and other development documents should be embraced by any screenwriter looking to efficiently work through the nagging issues that plague any writer in those first few drafts of the project. But if you plan accordingly and rely on such techniques for as long as possible in those early stages, your first draft will be the equivalent of draft 4 or 5 for the person who instead just rushed into the process.

I mentioned ‘rewrite’ didn’t I? Rewriting is part of the game. You won’t get it perfect in the first draft and, even if the script is exactly as you want, it will go through further rewrites as more collaborators (producers, directors, actors, etc.) come on board the film production.

This is part of the job and a great screenwriter can navigate these waters confidently and still deliver a great script at the end.

PRO TIP: Learn how to write treatments effectively as part of your screenwriting toolkit. Sometimes these are more important to agents and producers looking to shop your project around the industry. In many projects like television, treatments are as important as the pilot episode script!

Missed part one of how to become a screenwriter? Take a look at the ground rules for writing for the screen:

Read part one >

Remember the key three; Network, Portfolio, Skills

At the end of the day, even if you have a great script, there are an infinite number of factors that can determine whether or not you are successful in adapting your work for the screen.

Most of the time, these will have little or nothing to do with you and are out of your control. So don’t let these external factors get in the way of your growth and otherwise success as a writer.

Instead, concentrate on the key three things you can control:

1. Network. You are the only one who can increase your exposure in the industry, so network where possible. Meet new people (either physically or virtually) and engage with them. Help them how you can and they’ll respond in kind. Creating working relationships with people who want to be part of your journey as a screenwriter is so important. Films aren’t made by one person, remember.

2. Portfolio. You need to have a strong portfolio of work that can demonstrate your skills as a screenwriter, so make sure that you are always putting your best foot forward out there. Your portfolio will continuously develop and evolve but that’s a good thing - it’s proof you are growing as a screenwriter.

3. Skills. I mentioned a good portfolio is key to showcasing your skills… Well, make sure you keep honing your skills. Never stop learning and always keep reflecting on your own process. Be the best writer you can be so that when opportunity knocks, you can confidently answer the call.

Obviously there’s so much more to being a screenwriter, but these are things that you develop over time and with the guidance of those you meet on your journey. But don’t forget, you are a screenwriter as soon as you type that first glorious slug-line of your opening scene. Where you go from there, well, that’s the fun!

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Writing for Script & Screen

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