How To Be A Screenwriter
Are your dreams are full of action paragraphs, headlines, dialogue lines, and parentheticals? Is it your hope to one day see your name after WRITTEN BY when the credits roll? When you watch movies or TV shows, do you want to create something just as incredible for others to see?
I think you might want to be a screenwriter. If that’s the case, follow these 34 lessons.
STEP ONE: DARE TO DREAM
Declaring yourself a writer
LESSON #1: Watch As Much As You Can
This is the fun part. No one wakes up one morning and knows they want to become a screenwriter; dreams don’t appear in a vacuum. Something — a particular movie, that one episode — was the beginning of it all. In order to be a screenwriter, you have to love the finished product. You have to watch movies; you have to watch TV. What others do to unwind after a long day at work, you must do in order to pursue your dream. How awesome is that? Watch, watch, watch. And watch some more. Go to the theater alone, load up the streaming queue, get out the DVD collection, figure out how to play those VHS tapes stacked up in your basement. When Netflix inevitably asks, “Are you still watching?” the answer is yes. The answer is always yes.
LESSON #2: Read As Much As You Can
It is my honest-to-god opinion that there isn’t a profession in the world that can’t be improved by reading. Screenwriting included. Screenwriting especially. Movies and television are visual, but screenwriting is a written art. In order to write scripts, you must first read some. You must know what a page of a screenplay looks like, how it feels to read something that is meant to be seen. Get a feel for screenplays themselves before trying to write one. After all, every writer is also a reader.
LESSON #3: Study Your Favorites
It’s one thing to watch a movie or read a screenplay, and another thing entirely to study them. But that’s precisely what you should do. Pick some favorites and get to studying! Analyze. Breakdown. Note. Look at material you know well with a critical eye. That doesn’t mean critique — quite the opposite. Studying involves understanding; to understand a piece of entertainment means that you need to be an active audience member. No more passive viewings for you. Notice what is happening and what is being said. Pay attention to when you start to fidget or yawn. Observe what works and, more importantly, why it works.
LESSON #4: Believe In Yourself
The cool thing about screenwriting (that cannot be said of most professions in the world) is that anyone can do it. Yes, you must learn the format and stick to some basic rules. Yes, it’s true that it’s incredibly hard to make it as a screenwriter who actually gets paid enough to make a living. But who cares? Anyone can be a screenwriter. Did you hear that? ANYONE! Even you. The only thing you have to do to get started is believe in yourself. What are you waiting for?
STEP TWO: FIGURE OUT HOW TO DO IT
Understand the craft of screenwriting
LESSON #5: Learn The Form
Slug lines, parentheticals, transitions, title pages, INT/EXT — these things should be every screenwriter’s bread and butter. Screenwriting as a form is tricky. Unlike novel writing or poetry or other creative outlets, you can’t just make up the rulesand decide how you want to write a script. There is a format, and if you want anyone to read your work, you’ll learn it. Become a master of structure and format. Use the screenwriting format to elevate your writing (aka: learn the rules so you can break them later).
LESSON #6: Cultivate Knowledge
Now that you know the basic screenwriting format, it’s time to dive deeper. Read blog posts and articles, listen to podcasts, skim listicles, watch YouTube videos — anything that adds to your overall knowledge of screenwriting is helpful. Take notes. Write down helpful hints and tricks. Get advice from other writers. The more you know, the more confident you’ll feel when it comes time to hit he page.
LESSON #7: Choose A Genre
If deciding on a major in college gave you anxiety, I can happily say that this will be nothing like that. Sort of. Well, it’ll at least be easier. As a screenwriter, it’s good to know, in very general terms, what types of stories you write. Comedy, drama, romance, sci-fi, action… Figure out your genre in broad strokes. Don’t worry, you’re not making a lifelong commitment; it is totally possible to “take classes” in other genres, and thankfully you’ll never have to meet with an advisor and hear “It’s too late to change your genre if you want to graduate on time.” You can always write something different, but many of us tend to stick to the same types of stories. Know your type.
LESSON #8: Ask Questions
How should a phone call be formatted? What about a text? Does a script need act breaks? Exactly how many montages is too many? Am I even doing this right? The number of questions that will come up as you write a script is endless. Ask. Them. All. Don’t wonder. Don’t guess. ASK!Anything is fair game, including your subject matter. When it comes time to do a bit of research, ask away and follow that rabbit. That’s what the Google machine is for. (And it won’t judge you for searching baby names each time you create a new character. I may or may not know this from experience.)
STEP THREE: WHERE IDEAS COME FROM
Finding your material
LESSON #9: Notice Inspiration
I won’t sugarcoat it: finding an idea for your screenwriting project will not be easy. It never is. Ideas are fleeting. The sooner you learn to notice anything and everything that strikes you, the better off you’ll be. Don’t be fooled — this will take practice. I highly suggest a notebook (either the physical kind or digital kind will work — who are we kidding? Use both!). The word “ideas” can be daunting. So don’t think of it as noticing ideas… you’re noticing inspiration. If it piques your interest, take note. A clever song lyric. A piece of a scene. A line of dialogue. Heck, even a single word.
LESSON #10: Brainstorm Ideas
Brainstorming: some people love it; others despise it. Either way, it’s an important, nee necessary, part of the creative process. It requires that, instead of just noticing inspiration and slivers of ideas as you go throughout your day, you set aside some time to sit down and think about them. This part of the process is tough because you must be creative at a certain time in order to succeed. Like any muscle, all you have to do is flex it to get stronger. Try different brainstorming techniques until you find one or two that you like — mind-mapping, the five whys, starbursting, stepladdering, round robin-ing, brain-netting, reverse brainstorming. No, I didn’t make any of those up. Thankfully the time you spend brainstorming can also include friends and snacks.
LESSON #11: Steal From Others
Repeat after me: stealing and plagiarizing are not the same thing. Cool. Now that that’s over with…
When you’re first starting down the long yellow brick road to screenwriting Oz, it’s okay to steal. Seriously. Aaron Sorkin said, “Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright,” and Quentin Tarantino said, “I steal from every movie ever made.” If they’re thieves, then you’re in good company. As a creative, stealing (or, emulating, if you want a less-criminal word) is encouraged. By doing or trying things similar to what those before you have done, you’ll stumble upon your own way of doing things. Then you’ll do things your way until you see another incredible thing and must try it yourself. This is how creative subtly push one another to get better. What are you waiting for? Just take it already!
LESSON #12: Commit To An Idea
Much like in the world of dating, there comes a time when you must commit. And, like in the world of dating, I suggest you commit to only one idea at a time. “But,” you’ll protest, “I want to try them all! They’re all so pretty and shiny!” I know, I know. Unlike dating, maybe one day you can try a few at a time. For now though, just stick to one. That one you can’t stop thinking about before you fall asleep, that one that drives you crazy, and often comes back to you while you’re mid-shampoo in the shower… that’s the one. That’s THE idea.
LESSON #13: Develop To Death
Congrats! You have an idea! Seriously, turn on some music and do a happy dance because settling an idea is no small feat. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Now, back to the business at hand: development. There’s a saying in the industry about projects that take forever to make it to production: stuck in development hell. In order to avoid development hell, you must make your idea as good as it can be. Get to know your characters and their world. Look at the idea from different perspectives and points of view. Discover the details. Write the family history or magical mythos. Spend time here. Push yourself, and your idea, to the limit.
LESSON #14: Outline Your Story
Some screenwriters skip outlines and jump right to the page, but that’s a risky move. A bit like trying to drive across the country without highways, GPS, or a map. Best of luck to you, sir!
Notecards or Post-Its. White board or pen. Detailed descriptions of every scene, or just the faintest nudge in the right direction. Outlining is like building your own personal map so the journey will be a bit easier. Do it however you want, but make sure you can see the final destination.
LESSON #15: Tell Your Story
Doesn’t matter if you’re writing a space epic set on one of Jupiter’s moons or an autobiographical piece about your own family — no matter the story, you’re in it. Stories come from within, and the ones you create come from you.They are part of you for that reason, and there’s some of you in them too. Somewhere in your story there is a nugget of truth about the human experience that rings true for you. That’s your story. Tell it.
And all you naysayers in the back — yes, even if it’s about Freddie Mercury or toys come to life or a haunted house. Somehow, you’re always in there.
STEP FOUR: GETTING READY
LESSON #15: Invest In Software
Remember that quirky, horrible, but amazing format we talked about you learning in Step #5? Yeah? Good. Now I’m here to tell you that, even though you painstakingly memorized the correct margin space and page positioning for headlines, action paragraphs, dialogue, character names, and transitions, you don’t have to remember them! Thanks to a thing called technology, screenwriting software does all the work for you. Final Draft is the industry standard, but there are plenty of options out there to choose from. I know it’s expensive, but trust me; you do not want to try to write a screenplay using Microsoft Word.
LESSON #16: Create Your Space
Stephen King wrote in his laundry room. George Bernard Shaw wrote in a small hut outside his house. Dalton Trumbo wrote in the bathtub. Every writer needs a space. Yes, most have a desk or an office or a den (or if you’re really fancy, a study), but there’s no telling what kind of space you’ll work best in creatively. Me? I need a desk, a chair, and a door to shut. So consequently I write in the walk-in closet in my apartment. Hey, it works! Figure out what kind of space works for you, whether that be a tree house, the second booth on the right at the diner down the street, the beach, or the bathtub. Make that space yours, and get to work.
LESSON #17: Make Time
The problem with screenwriting — with any writing, really — is that it requires time. And time, of course, is a precious commodity for most of us. We can’t afford to spend all day writing… literally! Most of us have day jobs so that we can write in our free time. But in order to be a screenwriter, you have to set aside some time to be creative (yes, all that brainstorming and developing I talked about counts as writing too). Tell your spouse, children, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors. And when it comes time, sit down, close the *closet* door, and start working.
STEP FIVE: THE PART WHERE YOU TYPE
Writing your heart out
LESSON #18: Start Typing
Whatever that first word is… just get it on the page. Something is better than nothing, especially when it comes to a blank page and a blinking cursor.
LESSON #19: Write, Write, Write
There’s a reason Ernest Hemingway advised, “Write drunk; edit sober.” Writing is not easy. It sucks. It’s difficult. It’s hard. Any way you say it, writing is tough. And when you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to see any sort of light at the tunnel. In fact, you might not even be in a tunnel. Who knows? It’s just dark and cold and you’re hungry and sad… but it’s there. And you’ll get there. Just get the words out.Vomit them out if you have to. And remember, as our buddy Hemingway also said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
LESSON #20: Procrastinate well
Unless you’re a wunderkind who can sit down and write a screenplay in a single sitting, this writing stuff is going to take a while. Inevitably, you’re going to want to do *anything* besides writing. And I’ll give it to you, cleaning the inside of your fridge is a good option, yes, but true pros procrastinate by doing things that will help them creatively. Some of my go-to creative procrastination techniques include: searching for downloadable PDFs of my favorite movies and TV shows, reading entertainment news, and Googling interesting baby names for new characters. If you’re going to procrastinate, might as well be productive!
LESSON #21: Continue writing
That tunnel really will seem endless. So when you’re slogging through in the dark, remember Dory’s mantra in “Finding Nemo” and just keep swimming. Okay, I think my metaphors got mixed up somehow, but this brings me to an important part of the process. When you’re writing, just write.Don’t go back and edit. Don’t re-read what you’ve written. Just go with it. You can fix all the mistakes later (including your mixed up metaphors).
LESSON #22: Save Doc
Command + S. Command + S! Save right now.You’ve never known true heartbreak until you’ve lost some writing to the save function.
LESSON #23: Discover Your Voice
Screenwriting can be a difficult type of writing to get used to. It often seems like there’s no room for any kind of personality, any kind of flair or pizzazz. But somewhere in that tunnel, ocean, forest, or thicket of writing, you’re going to stumble upon your own unique voice. Every screenwriter has one.Trust the process and you’ll discover yours too.
LESSON #24: Take A Break
Oh my god! You did it! You finished that draft, you gorgeous screenwriter you. “Now what?” you’re asking. Now, you get to celebrate. Completing a draft is difficult stuff, so take a break and walk away from your project for a while (not forever, we’re not done and we’re not abandoning). Unlike Alexander Hamilton, you do not have a bill to get through Congress, so do what Eliza and Angelica urged good ole A. Ham to do and *sings* take a break!
STEP SIX: Know How To Improve
Improving your work
LESSON #25: Revise Everything
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Boy did Elmore Leonard know what he was talking about. Now that you’re back to work, it’s time to revise. Dig out those magnifying glasses and take a good hardlook at every single thing you’ve written. It’s done, but it’s not perfect. Yet.
Pro tip: With each round of revisions and edits, save a draft of your script. It never hurts to have a record of what changes you’ve made, plus when you’re finally done, you can see how far you’ve really come.
LESSON #26: Edit Ruthlessly
I often compare editing to hacking down tall grass with a machete (not that I’ve done that personally…). You must be cutthroat. Only the most essential, most important descriptions get to stay. All extraneous dialogue must go. Any repetition? Cut. Any pointless scenes? Cut. Do not be afraid editing. Diamonds undergo intense pressure before they can shine; your script is no different.
LESSON #27: Share With Others
You didn’t discover your dream of becoming a screenwriter in a vacuum, and your screenplay isn’t going to get any better in a vacuum either. Sharing your work with other people is like the declaring-your-love-for-someone, villain-knows-your-deepest-darkest-secret, and everything-is-lost moments all rolled into one. But it gets easier. Eventually you might even like sharing your writing with others. (GASP!) Just don’t share with the mailman, the checkout girl, your second cousin twice removed, and that co-worker you despise. Show your work to people whose opinions you trust and get as much feedback as you can. (Then be willing to give it to other writers, too.)
LESSON #28: Listen To Your Gut
Remember that you do not have to implement every note and suggestion you get. Take what you want, take what you think is right, but don’t compromise writing that you like to satisfy someone else’s vision of your project. This script is yours. In the long run, you know what’s best for it.
LESSON #29: Adjust Until You’re Happy
Screenwriting is a never-ending spiral of writing, revising, writing, editing, rewriting, writing some more… the point is: you can keep polishing forever. Don’t. Get the script to a place that you’re happy about, then stop.
STEP SEVEN: Know You’re Good
LESSON #30: Print It Out
There is nothing better than being able to hold your finished work in your very own hands. (In other news, I think I just figured out why the book industry will never truly die.)
LESSON #31: Love The Process
If you accept that the creative process can and will be frustrating sometimes, you might just learn to love it.
LESSON #32: Do It For Yourself
Because if you’re doing it for someone else, why do it at all?
LESSON #33: Be Fearless
Try new things. Experiment. Fail. Get up and try again. Do not be afraid. Be bold. Be daring. Be fearless in your pursuit of the screenwriting dream.
LESSON #34: Repeat
With every single new project you begin.
Published on TheScriptLab.com on July 12, 2019.
None of the photos in this post are my own.