Writing seems both mysterious and easy. That’s because, to anyone other than the writer, the work is pretty much invisible.
In reality, the easier a script was to write, the worse it probably is.
Here are four simple rules to make your screenplay the best it can be.
1. Test your concept
The hidden work of screenwriting is actually pre-writing. That doesn’t start with the outline, or the character descriptions – it starts with your concept.
Most people get an idea and are swept off their feet by how great it is. Spoiler alert: it’s usually not that great. Playing with the concept before writing elevates it to a higher level. Ask questions like:
A. Can I change the characters in a way that makes this more interesting? (By changing their careers, gender, etc.?)
B. Where can the story be set that makes it more interesting? What do different settings bring to the idea?
C. Think about potential marketing hooks. What angle could make this more appealing to more people? What would the poster art look like?
D. Come up with a list of concepts and run them by a few people. Gauge their reactions. Don’t waste your time on an idea everyone wrinkles their nose at – writing a script can take years. Find an idea that seems interesting to most people and use your time and energy on that.
If you want to save time and energy, outline your screenplay.
Screenplays are not wild expressions of creativity. Yes, you have to be creative to bring those characters to life – but screenplays themselves follow a remarkably strict set of rules and have to build tension in just the right way. If you don’t outline first (What’s your first plot point? Your second plot point? Your turning point? Your character crisis?) then what you’ll usually wind up with is a rambling mess that needs to be completely rewritten.
So you outlined, your story hits all the plot points, and you’re ready to write 90-120 pages. Wonderful. Now, what’s going to set it apart from the billion or so other scripts out in circulation?
You need to apply strong writing techniques. Do you know how to alternate between fear and relief during even the most mundane of conversations? Do you use misleads and reveals? Are your characters well-defined enough that, if you picked any line at random, you would know who said it? What are the dramatic choices you’ll make in EACH AND EVERY SCENE to make it both necessary and entertaining?
If you can’t answer the above questions, learn more about writing technique. There are tons of writing exercises and articles you can find online to help you.
I’ve never heard of a successful script that didn’t need at least one rewrite.
The best piece of advice I ever got about revising is “revise your outline first.” Start there (after receiving feedback from script consultants, teachers, and friends), because it’ll be easier to move around major pieces of your story when it’s in outline form. Does it seem like you’re missing a key scene? Find out where to put it by looking through your outline. Does your climax seem to happen too late or too early? Figure out how to re-position it in the outline.
Otherwise, the script itself might seem so daunting that you never look at it again.
Writing a screenplay is definitely a challenge – but it’s a rewarding one. If you dream of seeing your words on the big screen, just keep working on your writing skills! Like anything else, they’ll get there with practice.
By Digital Film Academy Blog Manager Sara McDermott Jain
3 thoughts on “4 Rules for Writing Your Screenplay”
It’s amazing how many writers refuse to outline like it’s a childhood trauma issue from English class. It’s so much easier to see the big picture when working with an outline versus “finding” your way through a rough draft.
I am in the process of learning to write. Your article is full of relevant questions.
It is very useful. Thank you.