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10 Tips to Write a Better Screenplay
by Brian Scott

It is well known that during our lives, many of us feel we have a story to tell that would interest others. Perhaps you are a published writer, an experienced magazine writer, or somebody who writes for fun and pleasure. You may feel that you can tell your story through a certain writing style, such as a poem, a play or even a screenplay. If you dream of people watching your story on the movie screen or TV screen, you can make this a reality by writing a screenplay based on your story.

1. Believe you can do it

The first step to compose a marketable screenplay is to believe that you can do it! It is easy to assume that only New York Times best-selling writers can adapt their novels into screenplays, but everyone must start somewhere. Commit to putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and start outlining your story into scenes.

2. Analyze

This doesn’t suggest formal academic study — though it can do if that suits you. To discover what really makes a good screenplay, the best place to start is by analyzing other screenwriters' scripts. Use your local library and online resources to obtain manuscripts, watch your favorite movies, watch award-winning movies (and especially watch movies in your chosen genre) — and analyze them all. Pick them apart, understand how they work, why they work, look at the creative and technical tools that screenwriters use to sculpt them into a successful movie.

3. Study

Support your study by reading books and online resources that provide insider secrets on how to write a screenplay; of course, if academic study is an option or a route that you desire to embrace, then research academic courses and workshops in your area or online.

4. Define your idea

Define your genre; outline your idea on paper. Unless you are an experienced screenwriter (in which case you probably won’t be reading this), focus on keeping it simple and doing it right — don’t combine two genres or too many complex ideas. Make sure your idea passes the “elevator test” before you progress further.

5. Outline your story

Break your story down into manageable pieces — this will help you to focus on one step at a time; it will ensure you do not overwhelm yourself by committing your whole screenplay to words. Look at the structure of screenplays that you have studied, and note their similarities. Define how your story unfolds, roughly dividing it into the following sections:
  1. Set up
  2. Problem
  3. Debate about how to solve the problem
  4. Commit to problem solving plan
  5. Sub plot
  6. Events surrounding solving the problem
  7. More events surrounding solving the problem
  8. Overcoming problems
  9. Aftermath

6. Familiarize yourself with industry standards

Unlike writing a novel (in which you collaborate with your agent and your editor alone), making a film involves many different people who perform many different functions. It is a collaborative process involving the director, the actors, the screenwriter, the production crew and other parties. Because of this, it is important that a movie script conforms to strict industry standards.

Typically, screenplays are written on 8 1/2" x 11" white 3-hole punched paper. The upper right hand corner should contain a page number, and no page number should appear on the first page. Scripts should have a top, bottom and right margins of between half an inch and an inch and a wide left margin of 1.2 to 1.6 to allow for binding. The standard font is 12 which is used for timing — one script page in Courier 12 equates to approx. one minute of onscreen film time.

7. Invest in some screenwriting software

Investing in screenwriting software can greatly simplify the creative process and save you hours of work. Rather than defining shots, setting industry-standard margins and focusing on all technical aspects of formatting your story for filming, a screenwriting program will handle all formatting for you. It will allow you to focus more on the details of your plot, the quality of your dialogue, and the visual experience that you want your viewers to enjoy.

8. Think in words and pictures

If you are an experienced writer but are trying your hand at your first screenplay, remember that a screenplay is not just about words but also about pictures. This may sound obvious, but it can be easy to focus on creating clever dialogue at the expense of creating a visual experience. Focus on what the audience will see as well as what they will hear. Make notes for the filmmakers that support your written text.

9. Script length

A script should generally run between 95 and 125 pages long — equating more or less to a feature film of between 95 and 125 minutes. Comedies tend to be shorter and dramas longer, though you will encounter variations. An experienced pro can tell a long film simply by the weight of the script.

10. Some tricks of the trade
  • Give your protagonist an inner obstacle to overcome, one that will be “healed” by the end of the film
  • Make sure you have a hook — a key concept that will set your screenplay apart
  • Keep it short — think of filming costs
  • Ask yourself if you can remove a scene without affecting the viewer’s understanding of the story — if it can, it isn’t necessary
  • Edit, edit and edit
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