Writing Pictures: A Beginner’s Guide to Screenwriting
So… You want to write scripts?
It is safe to say that every writer I have ever encountered has had the dream. If you are a writer (which, let’s face it, if you are reading this, you probably are), then you know exactly which dream I am referring to, spoiler in the title or not. It could be that there is little or no representation in this business of writers who are in the middle of things. You know, the ones you are more likely to meet in real life, not dirt poor, but not filthy rich either. Regardless, if you are just starting out, or have been punching keys for years, as sure as the sun will rise and fall only to return again at approximately the same time tomorrow morning, if you have written anything at all, you have probably had thoughts of Hollywood contracts and movie deals that would take care of the bills for now and eternity.
Sadly, it doesn’t usually work out like that, and despite what those same movies will tell you about writers who have made it, the Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings of the world are the exception, not the rule. In fact, many screenwriters working today, former novelists or not, usually work just as hard as any other writer.
Perhaps the wealthy writers on the screen who never seem to have any financial issues at all are merely wishful thinking, manifestations of dreams that never feel quite so real walking out of the theatre as they did walking in.
So, my first piece of advice, before we roll up our sleeves and put the work in is this:
Those dreams, for as pleasant as they are, should not be your only reason for screenwriting.
Learn the form and write because you want to write and because you love movies.
Not because you see yourself in some smoky backroom signing movies deals for more zeroes than whatever you find in your current pay stub.
With that cursory tangent out of the way, let’s get started.
Most writers I have met are uncomfortable with the style
Once you have spent so long writing in one style that is essentially the same, with little to no variation, it is difficult to acquire something completely new. A style that seems so foreign to most writers, appears antithetical to everything they know or have learned up to this point in their careers.
Remember, a screenplay or script (terms I will be using interchangeably throughout) is the skeletal outline of what a movie will inevitably become.
Let’s take a look at a relatively simple example of what this might look like to a complete beginner:
INT. YOUR WRITING SPACE – DAY (CONT.)
A WRITER of indiscriminate age stares into their computer and they begin to furiously type. Google. Bing. Facebook. A flashing cyclone of webpages dance across the reflection of their thick glasses.
C’mon! Just tell me how to
write the thing already!
Enough with the intro!
They continue to type and scroll, faster and faster, the only light illuminating their space being the light of their laptop.
Different, isn’t it?
It doesn’t look or feel like any other form of writing. And to be perfectly honest, it isn’t a writing style that is always transferable, either.
Many will find this style difficult to adapt to for a variety of reasons, first and foremost of which is that it is nothing like what they are used to writing. Most prose writing is formless to a certain extent. It is uncharted territory that you can make your own and do with as you please. Want to explore deep into dark space? Get into your spaceship and write away. Be it romance, suspense, or my own personal beloved horror genre, you can do whatever you want, however you want to do it, with your only budgetary concerns being your imagination and time.
You are free to explore the uncharted space as you wish, without rules or regulation. With prose, the page is yours to do with what you will. Screenwriting, on the other hand, is not quite so free.
Screenplays must be pragmatic and economical. A writer must write a screenplay fully aware that the interpretation of the world they are mapping out will not be the final version of this space, and they are not the only voyagers who walk here.
Astute readers will notice that in my brief example, I gave no direction for emotion, yet frustration is clearly painted on the writer’s face. And how about that camera angle? What camera angle, you ask?
A flashing cyclone of webpages dance across the reflection of their thick glasses.
That camera angle. There was no camera direction anywhere in the sentence. Why? Because just as the director must direct, the set design must design, and a cinematographer must work their magic with the camera. You’ll notice that I did not say “the camera zooms in on the reflection of webpages on their glasses,” and yet the only way we could see the reflections is if the camera pulls in tight on the character’s glasses to see the reflection.
Remember, just as you are not the cinematographer, you are not the director.
You are creating the skeletal frame by which others will work. A screenwriter should not write an excessive amount of camera angles or direction in their work as it is not their job to do so. As screenwriters, we are merely guiding the process along.
And emotion, it always comes back to emotional cues. Stephen King once wrote that “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” While many prose writers rely on them to convey the emotions or actions of their characters, you will notice that the screenplay, though containing none of them, the actor has enough cues to know what to do and the director has enough cues to know how to direct the sequence.
Even without this, it is clear in the dialogue that there is some frustration as the writer, very clearly, does not care for my introduction, they just want to learn the form, damn it!
Screenwriters must learn to convey their story in this way, shedding all sense of the more novelistic elements that they may be used to.
All of the camera angles, emotion, and even some direction (as they see it in their heads), is something that good screenwriters learn to convey through their writing, not by telling, but by showing.
With that in mind, let’s get to the nitty gritty and finally look at the actual format and see what it is all about.
It’s all a matter of form
Let’s breakdown a scene I wrote for this post as an example and I will explain everything that is going on with the format and why they are used.
While there are many elements that can be used to creatively draft your screenplay, I will go over some of the basics, as many of these concepts would require an entire book or video series to truly explain.
Here are the basics of formatting:
Slug line – A signifier of where and when a scene is taking place
Action line(s) – Typically appear between lines of dialogue to describe the action of scene, such as where your characters are or what they are doing at the time the conversation begins
Character names – The names of characters used in a scene
Character parentheticals – This briefly describes a character’s action while they are speaking their lines of dialogue
Dialogue parentheticals – This briefly describes how a character is saying their lines
Transitions – Typically a simple “cut to” or “fade in” (or out) to describe the transition between scenes
Caption: An example of a scene in what would be a very bad movie
While much of this will inevitably speak for itself, there are a couple of points I would like to touch on before letting you run off to write your very own screenplay.
The first is an important one, so please listen to it. You will notice the parentheticals above do not necessarily match up with my diatribe earlier regarding the lack of emotional cues in screenwriting. The presence of parentheticals do not make this point moot, but I wanted to add it in just so you know it is something you can do to make an intended emotion clearer if you are having a difficult time conveying this in your writing.
Parentheticals, and I cannot stress this enough, should not be overused, but instead used to convey something only when it needs to be clarified. If one character interrupts another, then use a parenthetical to says (interrupts). If a character randomly begins to cry, then add in (slowly begins to cry) or (screaming) or (confused), but only when the dialogue does not make this clear.
There is no bigger sign of an unconfident screenwriter than the overreliance on more novelistic features.
The second (and final) piece of advice, is this:
There are a TON of resources for burgeoning screenwriters and thankfully, many of them are free. There is one thing I will say that is perhaps more important than anything else in this guide, and that is this: USE A SCREENWRITING SOFTWARE.
While there are many cost prohibitive software programs for screenwriters (such as Final Draft, which has become the industry standard), you really will need some kind of formatting software, as writing is difficult enough, and you should not be spending too much time worrying about if this line is indented properly, or if the slug line is in the proper place.
Thankfully, there are a few good free ones out there, and the best of them is a program I have always used to write my screenplays called Trelby. It may be a little rudimentary, but once you get use to a few of its operational quirks, I promise you, you will see that it is the best by far.
If you cannot afford or do not want to purchase a program as expensive as some of them can be, Trelby is the way to go.
Finally, I wanted to leave you with a comprehensive list of resources that I have found useful on my journey as screenwriter. This way, you won’t have to spend too much time looking for the information you want or need beyond what was covered in this piece.
And always read screenplays! Like any form of good writing, it starts with good reading. Look up your favorite movie and read along!
For further reading or viewing:
Screenplay Formatting by Rocket Jump Film School (YouTube video)
Convert Your Story Idea into a Script by Anna Akana (YouTube video)
Adventures in the Screen Trade: A personal view of Hollywood and Screenwriting by William Goldman (Book)
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