Screenwriting 101: 14 Tips For Writing a Great Screenplay

In a previous post, I explained how striving toward a goal against obstacles is the heart of drama. Here’s more tips for writing a great screenplay.

1. Trust Your Inspiration.

Something got you excited about your story. Was it a single image? A character that grew in your imagination and fascination? A scene you can’t stop thinking about? A theme that you want to explore?

Trust that inspiration. If it got you excited – and you do the hard turn it into a great screenplay – it will get others excited to.

2. Don’t Rush.

Give your ideas time to gel, to grow into living, vivid stories. Let your unconscious do it’s work. Let the ideas mull inside you, turn them around in your mind. You’ll know when it’s time to write.

This doesn’t mean procrastinating. If you find you’re never finishing anything, you have different problems than rushing.

3. Make Your Film About Something.

Why is this story important to you? Why would it be important to anyone else? What are you trying to explore about life?

A great film is more than just a good plot, interesting characters, and witty dialogue. What do you have to say that is unique? I’m not talking about a message film. Art should explore questions rather than give definitive answers. But a good film is about something important, something meaningful.

Even comedies can be about something. Look at Groundhog’s Day. It’s not just about someone stuck in an absurd situation. It’s asking “What does it mean (and what does it take) for a selfish, jaded man to become a better person?” And it doesn’t go for an easy, pat answer. The film shows that it’s hard work.

But don’t settle on your on your approach too quickly. Discover it in the writing process. Write with compassion and empathy for other people.

4. Don’t Settle For Easy Solutions

Writing a great script is the most difficult part of the filmmaking process. Any writer who says otherwise is not doing the hard work and is settling for the clichéd and the obvious instead of new and surprising.

A few years ago a meme was going around the internet called Pixar’s 22 Rules of Good Storytelling. This was the most important of them: “Discount the first thing that comes to mind, and the second, third, fourth, fifth. Get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.”

5. Be Truthful.

Be truthful about the way you see the world. If, for example, you think violence is never a good solution to problems, are you going to present a world in which heroes commit violent actions without consequences?

Be truthful about human behavior. Rigorously. Far too often in bad scripts characters don’t behave like real people, but only act for the convenience of the plot. Ask, would someone really do that? Then, would your character really do that?

This needs to be a constant effort. It’s so easy to fall into clichés and formulaic ideas about situations and people without even realizing it. It’s so easy just to push a character where you want the plot to go. If something doesn’t feel right, recognize it, identify why, and fix it.

6. Think About How Scenes Will Be Shot.

You’re not just writing a story, you’re making the blueprint for a film that will need to be shot. Is what you’re writing shootable? Will it be as clear onscreen as it is on the page? Are the things you are putting down in words able to be shown visually?

Learn a little about film production, so you will know what it takes to shoot a scene. Learn a little about editing, so you’ll know what it takes to tell a clear story.

7. Don’t Overwrite Dialogue.

A look, a line inflection, can convey what you may be tempted to go on for paragraphs about on the page. Think about how a line will be performed. One parenthetical can sometimes replace many lines of dialogue.

A simple action description like “He pauses for a moment, then gives her one last, aching look” can replace too on-the-spot dialogue like “I don’t really want to do this, but it’s important to you, so, yes, I’ll do it. because I love you.”

People don’t always say what they really mean. People aren’t always able to express themselves articulately. Honor that in your script.

8. Read Your Dialogue Out Loud.

Make sure your dialogue is actable. Sometimes things sound good in your head, but not on your tongue

9. Give Supporting Characters Their Own Needs And Desires.

One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen in poorly written screenplays is having every single word, thought, and action of every supporting character revolve around the protagonist’s story.

In real life, every person is the star of his or her own movie, and you need to have some sense of this in your script or the supporting characters become ciphers, plot devices that have no agency, and ultimately are boring to watch. What are your supporting characters doing when they’re not in the film? What’s going on in their lives right now? What are their goals and obstacles?

10. Develop Subplots.

Subplots are a crucial tool in writing a great screenplay. They expand the world and make it seem more real. They make the film seem less self-indulgent. They allow you to explore themes more deeply and can serve as a counter-point to the arc of the main protagonist. They make the world seem rich, nuanced and alive.

11. Think In Terms Of Sequences, Not Scenes.

In my previous post on screenwriting, I talked about the importance of having goals and obstacles for your protagonists. But as I pointed out then, you shouldn’t just think about overarching, movie-long goals. You can also think about smaller goals that cross over scenes to create little sequences inside your movie. This helps give your screenplay structure. It also helps punctuate your film with focal points that create rhythm, dynamics and tension.

12. Don’t Over-Rationalize Everything

Life is messy. Art is messy. There’s a fine line between a great work of art where every aspect is necessary and important, and an overly-determined story where everything fits together like a jigsaw puzzle.

People act irrationally. They mess up and don’t always do what’s best for themselves. Life isn’t always fair and a random accident can change someone’s life forever. Respect life’s chaos.

13. Re-write!

Good writing is re-writing. I’m not the first one to say this, but it’s absolutely true. Don’t settle for just okay. Anything that isn’t great, that you don’t love, revise it or get rid of it.

14. Know the History of Film.

What’s in vogue now is just what’s in vogue now, and it will be passé next year. The more you know, the more tools you’ll have when you need them.



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