Screenwriting 101: Questions, advice, tips & tricks!

So as you know, I’m a screenwriter. I don’t say an ‘amateur screenwriter’ because I believe that term is very belittling. I may have not had anything bought from me, but my scripts have been made into films, and I have been writing for near five years. I have a portfolio of several features and short films. I am by no means claiming to be a professional, nor have the knowledge of one. I am a film student, and a writer, but that’s it. I do not profess to be anything more.
I get a few questions on my Tumblr about screenwriting, and as I was learning to write (although we are all always developing and learning more, of course) there were often times I wished I could find answers to some of these questions. There are some great resources out there, but they’re often difficult to find, confusingly written or just condescending. So I’ve compiled a list of some FAQ and some I just thought might be interesting to helpful. These are all just my opinions, they do not have any supreme scholarly backing, they’re just based on reading, learning and experience.

Sidenote: I haven’t gone into format basics, because I expect everyone reading is familiar with how to format a screenplay. If anyone thinks it’d be helpful then I’ll happily make a post on how to format. If not, a simple Google search will help out! 

First off, some key tips:
1. If a scene doesn’t add to characterisation or plot development i.e. if the story makes sense without it – get rid of it. I learnt this the hard way when I had just an 80 page script, and about one third of that was filler. Only have a scene if it is necessary in some way.
2. Every scene should have a problem and solution for the protagonist (and even other characters) – this can be as simple as ‘I don’t know how to find ___’ and then at the end of the scene they realise, or learn ‘Oh I can ask ___’; it doesn’t have to be a completely solved major problem, but some kind of solution can help progress the plot, keep characters developing and keep audiences engaged.
3. Write character profiles. Even as basic as hair/eye colour/body/age, or incredibly detailed, with all their backstory and subtext and future. But if you can’t even fill out a basic character profile then they are probably not going anywhere.
4. Keep every single idea you ever have. I have ideas that I had when I was a kid, which only now can I put into words. Some writers have film ideas which they make twenty years after thinking of them. Never throw anything away, shelve the idea or the script, but don’t ever chuck it completely.
How do you/ should you plan plot or character development? 
Sometimes. That’s the simple answer. Some people say you 100% should never write anything without a plot mapped out, some people say just go for it. I personally find ideas come to me either just as a basic idea, or a specific opening or ending scene. And when that happens, I write it. Then I think ‘Right, how do I get here/ where do I go from here?’ and I begin to develop an idea of the basic plot. To be honest, a good idea will often write itself. I often get writer’s block about fifty pages in, and that’s when I’ll do my bulk planning. Forcing myself to map out where the film is going and the course of the story helps cancel out that block, because you know what you need to write next. It’s really just a personal choice. It is hard to write an entire script without any idea of where you’re going, but it’s not impossible. Normally you’ll have the idea for where you’re going; you have point A and B, but you just need to work out how you’re getting between them. Most people when they get an idea have a skeleton for the film, and planning the plot out is just how you fill it in.

I do suggest you write character goals though. As basic as [for example, in one of my current projects] ‘protect his sister and reach the sanctuary’ can work as a goal – then you can develop those to how they will reach that goal, what they’re willing to sacrifice to reach it etc. Once you have a goal in mind for the character, you’ll often find you’ve got half their storyline mapped out.

How long should it take to write a screenplay?

It can take anything between one day of solid writing to years. My biggest script (my baby), I have been working on for four years, and that’s just the first draft. After that first script, you need to rescript, redraft, rewrite, until you cannot do anything more or you are filming it. I will be adding bits, altering bits, deleting bits for years to come because I won’t get to make this film until (if) I make it big. Most film scripts don’t get ‘finished’ as such, they just run out of time for writing. Basically, you can almost always keep developing a script, it’s just when you feel it works, or when you have to stop.

What about this taboo or risky idea, can I write that?

YES. Write it. Whatever it’s about, write it. Whether that’s one sentence scribbled in a notebook or a detailed plot outline or the whole thing – write it. A good idea will not go away, and every idea you have should, and can be, explored. Even if it goes nowhere. Lots of my scripts would be considered hard to make, or risky to show to a mainstream audience, but I write them because a) I write predominantly for me and b) I just need to write them. I need to get the ideas out of my head. Art is meant to be risky, it is meant to be explorative and make you think. Don’t be scared to explore your ideas ever.

Is it bad that I mostly write gay/black/whatever characters?

No. We write what we know. It’s good to challenge yourself and make your characters as diverse as possible, but it is absolutely fine to write mostly one kind of character. By that I don’t mean the same character, I mean the same sort of character. In every film that comes from my own idea, I undoubtedly end up writing a gay female. I can’t help it, it just always happens. I never think ‘Right who’s gonna be the lesbian in this?’, it just sort of happens! And that’s fine. It’s good, even. You need to write what you know, and make your stories interesting and complex, and if they feature characters from minority groups as well that’s even better. You can actually read my full thoughts on minorities in film here.

Can I have more than one script on the go?

Yes yes yes. Absolutely, 100% of course. If someone tells you you shouldn’t, or you can’t, then they clearly lack ideas. I am currently working on five feature scripts and a couple of shorts. As soon as I finish one project, another one begins. That, in my opinion, is good. It means the creativity is flowing and I’m not running out of ideas. I switch between my scripts, and sure I’ll often focus on one heavily for a while, but I always come back to the others too. When you get writer’s block it can be great to have something else to go work on, even if it’s just one scene. It’s also important that if you have a good idea, you can just write it and don’t restrict yourself to ‘I need to finish this one first’ – that’ll just mean you either forget the idea or you write the other project sloppily because you’re distracted.

As a new writer should I just write shorts?

Absolutely not. My first script was a feature of about 160 pages. Don’t limit yourself. Dream big, write big and just go for it. At this moment, all you need to do is write, practice and do it for yourself. You have no deadlines, no bosses to please and no grades to achieve – so just do whatever the hell you feel like doing. Don’t limit yourself just because you’re new to this, or because you’ll ‘never get to make it’. That is not important right now. Push yourself, test yourself and write whatever you imagine. 

When/how should I edit?

Whatever you do, don’t edit as you go. I’ve fallen into this habit, and it just stops you getting any work done. Of course everyone does things differently but personally I find I get stuck going through everything previously written, rather than writing what actually made me open the script in the first place. When you’re writing you automatically learn stuff. You get stuck or confused, so you Google a question and you find out something new. Even just as you’re writing you teach yourself new techniques – I had one hour lesson on how to format a script before I started writing, and only this year am I actually having any professional teaching because it’s part of my film degree. You can learn all you need to from Google and a decent selection of screenwriting books. And you will, even just small formatting stuff. So if every time you learn something you go back and change the way you previously wrote it, you’ll find yourself in a constant loop of re-writing. Of course if you decide ‘Actually I’m gonna kill that character’ then go back and change that. But in terms of basic editing (format, spelling, perfecting dialogue etc.) leave it ’til the end. Your script may read a bit disjointed before you’ve edited, but it’ll give you a better flow to write with. Then when you’re done, or when you have writer’s block, go back and edit it through.

How much should I compromise when selling a script?

Now I have no experience on this. But these are my slightly jumbled thoughts….

All my ideas have been written already?
Yup. This is going to happen. Just the other day I was ranting on Facebook about how a screenplay pitch I wrote for my uni interview two years ago is now the exact same premise of a film coming out next year. Sadly, ideas are recycled. Even before Hollywood’s classical narrative and the institutional mode of representation came into play, people were probably making the same films as each other. There are film historians who say 90% of early cinema is lost, so we can never know for sure whether our ideas have been thought of before (although chances are your futuristic love story wasn’t made by Lumière brothers). What I’m saying is, whether it’s an old film, or an indie internet-distributed film or some giant blockbuster, it’s near impossible to write a completely original idea now. Someone will have done it. But that doesn’t mean you should stop writing it. Your idea and consequent screenplay will be different, and that means it should be written. On the plus side, just imagine how future generations will feel when they have even less chance of a truly original concept.

What screenwriting ‘process’ or routine should I work by?
Whatever you want. I don’t have a regular routine because at the moment, I’m busy with university and projects a lot of the time. Although I have regular days off I can’t always guarantee I’ll be free to set aside several hours for writing. I also think it’s better to write in a more relaxed, natural routine so I just write when I have an idea or something to add. Sometimes I just feel on edge and I know that means I want to write, so even if I don’t have inspiration I’ll open up a project and normally words will flow. Of course if you have a deadline or are a professional screenwriter, then a routine may be helpful, but I can’t really advise on that situation…

I hope this may have helped or even just informed anyone, and if you have any questions or thoughts then as usual comment down below or drop me a message. I’ll happily make a part two for this if anyone would like. Just remember:

Plan hard, hope harder and dream hardest.

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