8 Things Aspiring Screenwriters Really Need to Know

8 Things Aspiring Screenwriters Really Need to Know

The idea of being a screenwriter is such an exciting and glamorous notion. There you are sitting on your laptop tinkering away on dialogue that is going to SLAY.  Maybe you’re in your writerly LA apartment or maybe you’re knocking back coffee in a Wellington café – doesn’t matter - the whole situation is dreamy. Later in the day you’ll be taking important meetings with film types who LOVE your work and then you’ll hang out with other cool screenwriters discussing films and current projects.

In truth, the reality of being a screenwriter is somewhat more, erm, real.  I love being a screenwriter but as someone who also teaches screenwriting let me offer some practical tips that you won’t necessarily find in screenwriting books.

Aspiring screenwriter? Here are 8 things you really need to know…

Thing #1 – You’re Going to Spend A Lot of Time Rewriting

Like other forms of writing, screenwriting tends to be done in solitude. This means you’ll need to be self-motivated and develop a strategy for dealing with procrastination and doubt when it inevitably arrives. (And it will.) You'll spend quite a bit of time alone and rewriting. (This is true for beginners and professionals alike.) Writing a screenplay is more of a marathon than a sprint.    

Thing #2 - You Need To Read Screenplays

Holy hell people – this is a no-brainer. If I was about to start writing Haiku the very first thing I would do is check out some Haiku in order to understand the form and structure of said verse. Reading screenplays is a FREE and easy way to get a sense for how screenplays look and feel. You’ll also develop an understanding of how screenplay formatting works and see how a screenwriter puts words on the page in order to convey what we see or hear. Which leads me to Thing number 3… 

Thing #3 - Screenwriting Isn’t Just About Writing Dialogue

Writing dialogue is fun – I get it! But there’s considerably more to a screenplay than people talking. Screenplays tell the story in pictures because we’re working in a visual medium. Which means you need to get your head around how to write images and people taking action i.e. the stuff we can see.  And because a screenplay is a story it needs an engaging plot. If you’re smart you’ll work that part out before you jump in and start writing your scenes. Tip: An excellent way to cut back on extraneous dialogue is to read your screenplay out loud – it becomes obvious when the characters are rambling on. Or even better, look for places in the screenplay where you can replace dialogue with the character’s action THAT WE CAN SEE.

Thing #4 - Film and Television are Collaborative Mediums

When you’re writing a novel, poem or short story it’s just you calling the shots. It’s all about you. There may well be an editor or assessor further down the track but ultimately you’re making the creative decisions on the finished product. A screenplay, on the other hand, isn't a film or TV programme yet. It requires the involvement of others to become the finished product i.e. the film or TV programme. Which means lots of other people are going to be involved in the delivery of your baby. It also means you won’t be making all the decisions re: casting, wardrobe, design, music etc because, well, that’s someone else’s job. You may well be included in the casting process (every team/situation is different) but ultimately you won’t get final say. And unless you already have some director cred behind or you’re planning to self -fund/self-produce the film then you’re probably not going to be directing your first screenplay either. It’s not to say it’s unheard of for a new writer to direct their own screenplay but investors and producers are generally reluctant to put an untried director at the helm until they’ve proved themselves. (If creatively collaborating with others and receiving opinions about your work makes you feel queasy maybe stick with that novel.)

Thing #5 - Everyone Thinks What You Do Is Easy

I think this happens for two reasons. The first is that screenwriting is something usually done alone – so people (even industry folk) just don’t see the amount of work that goes into crafting a great screenplay. In fact, most people don’t see the screenplay at all. Most people just see the shiny, finished product. PLUS to the casual observer most films and TV programmes can look a lot like people talking to each other so all you did was make up some dialogue for the actors – right? (See Thing #2)

Thing #6 - It’s Something You Need to Learn

As with most things in life, it takes time to become competent and then good at screenwriting. It’s handy to have the talent and requisite skills from the get-go but it’s going to take some practice to master the craft of screenwriting. And there’s really only one way to get that practice – and that’s to start writing. Happily there's plenty of good advice out there from people who have more experience than you.

Thing #7 – Worrying About People Stealing Your Film/Series Idea Is a Waste of Energy

Ideas can’t be copyrighted. But a piece of work can. The copyright is automatically yours once you write your screenplay. Some people like to register their screenplay with a registration service (run by local writers’ guilds) but this actually has nothing to do with copyright-ing your work – it is more to do with proof of ownership if your copyright is ever challenged. So it’s possible that someone could steal your idea but they can’t steal your work and content. And in order to see your story become a film or TV series – you have to put your work into the world.  If this issue causes you anxiety jump on the Google machine and check out just how many sites and forums there are dedicated to loglines (a one or two sentence that encapsulates your film or series premise.) That’s right, thousands and thousands of people post their film ideas online. 

As a learned friend said to me some time ago – the best way to stop worrying about having your film idea pinched is to have more than one film idea.

Thing #8 - You Don’t Need to Be Afraid of Screenplay Format

This is something you have to know. But truly, this is the least of your worries. Screenplay format is the easiest part of screenwriting to learn. Google free screenwriting software and download the various free trials on offer and discover how simple it is to use. Do you need to use screenwriting software? No. But why, for the love of God, would you put yourself through the pain of not using it? Unless you enjoy spending hours of laborious formatting when you could be playing with kittens or eating cake.

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