What You Should Know About Screenwriting

In my screenwriting class at Pepperdine University there are undergraduates majoring in creative writing, film and film theory, technology and production, plus a sprinkling of unrelated majors, and some graduate students from the MFA in Screen and Television Writing program. Some want to be screenwriters, while others want to add to their writing repertoire, and some just want to know more about the movie industry.

 Most students have the experience of writing short stories and their first impulse is to just reformat a story into a screenwriting form. However, screenplays have a unique format. The best way to learn how to format a screenplay is to either buy a book like The Hollywood Standard, by Christopher Riley, or to find the websites that have examples of screenplays. Look up your favorite movies and find as close to an original draft as you can since you want to analyze what intrigued someone enough to purchase the script. Shooting scripts are screenplays that have been sold, are ready to be filmed, and have been altered for production. Transcripts are created from the dialogue of a film already produced and generally not formatted like a screenplay.

 Screenplays are on average 90 to 120 pages and there is lots of white space on the page. Dialogue is written in short lines formatted down the center of the page under the character’s name. In between the dialogue are action shots and a few directions written in a sort of code. The action shots represent the images of the movie. While dialogue is important and must tell a story, what we see is crucial. This is when showing the story really matters, which is almost inverse to writing short stories and novels.

A short story or a book contains lots of description and insights of what the character is thinking or feeling. Everything has to be shown and revealed through words. Screenplays only include what can be seen with a minimum of description and pacing is critical to keep the story moving forward. Audiences are often frustrated by movies from book adaptations because screenplays are more limited in showing internal details and by length. A movie has 1-1/2 to 2 hours to tell the story while the book may take many hours to read. A screenplay, like a short story or novel, should have its own voice, but that voice should not get in the way of showing the story. It is the combination of good dialogue and good writing that sells the story. Think images and creating metaphors, however, try not to write in terms of camera angles and shots or give too many details—that’s someone else’s job.

Screenplays are collaborative, meaning the director, the actors, the cinematographer or DP (director of photography), the set, costume, and sound designers all have input into what the images of the movie look like. These collaborators do not want to be told how to do their job, so the writer has to figure out how to show a story without telling everyone else what to do, while including the key details the writer wants noted—not so easy.

Success as a Screenwriter

Selling a screenplay is much harder than selling any other form of writing.  According to The Numbers, an industry database of box office numbers, in 2010 there were 895 movies distributed in theatres. This is down from 1145 movies in 2009, which is probably due to slipping ticket sales. I assure you that the number of existing screenwriters, plus those graduating out of college programs, far exceeds the number of films with box office distribution. There is an old joke in Hollywood that everyone, from the waiter to your dentist, has a screenplay to sell. And don’t even get me started on the wannabe producers who will get innocent writers to write screenplays they will never see a dime for and which will never be produced—and in the end, the writer probably won’t have rights to the work.

 But Don’t Give Up

I saved the best news for last. This is an amazing time for writers. If you want to be a screenwriter, then learn how to write screenplays and produce them yourself. We live in a world where this is not only possible, but affordable. There are lots of film festivals to enter, there are ways to distribute your film via the internet. You can rent professional equipment, but if your goal is to shoot for the internet, you can use much more affordable consumer equipment.

Find a group of friends who want to participate and are willing to learn lighting and sound and acting and directing. Think Steven Spielberg who started creating films when he was young, or director Robert Rodriguez who used the family camera from the time he was a child. In Rebel Without A Crew Rodriguez details how he created his award-winning film El Mariachi on a small budget. Sherwood Pictures (Flywheel, Facing the Giants, Fireproof) was created by a Baptist church, and is producing its 4th film. The volunteer crew, including actors, comes from their church members. They found an underserved audience and create the type of films that fulfill their mission and tell the stories they want to tell.

Getting a Screenwriting Degree

“Do I need a screenwriting degree?” No. You need to know how to write and how to specifically write screenplays. If you are still learning, a degree might help you, and it might open other doors for you. There are a variety of academic programs that offer a variety of degrees, some specifically for screenwriting. A good screenwriting program might help you make connections to enter the industry, but good programs are difficult to get into. The best programs for screenwriting are in Southern California, followed by New York. The most important thing you want to know is whether you will graduate from a specific program having taken classes and networked with people that will give your career a head start. Are there strong alumni resources you can tap into and who will be responsive? Otherwise, you will have a degree, but you will still have to forge a career on your own.

Some colleges and universities offer classes that don’t require being in a degree program and some of those have courses available online.

Key to a Great Screenplay

Great dialogue and great imagery. The images should show a story without words. The dialogue should  be succinct and impactful. The best way to learn good dialogue is to listen to how others talk, how they reveal themselves, how they paint word pictures. When writing, say everything you want the character to say, thinking about how people really talk, then condense down to the essence. Whenever possible, use the setting to speak for the character. In the newest movie of Karate Kid, one of the characters loses it and begins destroying a car he had painstakingly restored. There is an image of a newspaper clipping and the character sits behind the wheel of the car he’s just destroyed. He doesn’t have to tell us this is the anniversary of his wife and son’s death, the photo and headline on the newspaper clipping showed us what happened.

How can you use images or metaphors to show the story you want to tell?

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