Weekly Journal

Writing Tips: 12 things to remember when composing a screenplay

29th June 2017

Writing a screenplay for a full-length feature film is as labour intensive as writing a full-length novel. There are no shortcuts to this process. The good news is, it is just as satisfying upon completion!

Unlike a novel, however, a screenplay is not meant to be read by its audience. It is the blueprint from which countless other artists will be inspired to bring your story to life on the big screen. Dozens, if not hundreds, of jobs are created in direct proportion to your storytelling ability. It is an awesome responsibility… and a remarkable privilege.

To get you going then, here are some writing tips to remember when composing your screenplay…

The elements that go into a universal and timeless story!

Write from what you know

Always write from what you know. Otherwise, it takes research, research, research, and more research to write anything else. In fact, the only thing that guarantees authenticity in your writing—and therefore heightens the audience’s ability to identify and connect with your story and characters—is RESEARCH. Learn everything you can about the world of your story before you begin; then keep adding to it as you write. Be sure of one thing: you can never do too much research!

Create memorable characters and setting

Story is built on two pillars: CHARACTERS and SETTING. Your protagonist must have a strong external desire, which will form the spine of the story and propel it forward. Get very clear on what your hero wants and make sure it doesn’t change in the middle of the story. Also, remember that setting is just as important as the characters in your story, and can expand the telling of story exponentially, so explore this fully!

Design (in detail) your primary and secondary characters

Define your cast of characters. Who are the primary and secondary characters and what are their functions? Remember every character in your story is there to serve a purpose. Also, make sure they are polarised (opposites of one another). This creates the greatest opportunity for conflict—just like in real life!

Develop your logline

Before starting to write your script, spend a great deal of time defining the LOGLINE. Get it right. All great films can be summarised into one concise, enticing sentence that should spark the desire to see this film in the mind of the audience. This is critical for two reasons: (1) to keep your story on track when you start writing, and (2) to pitch your story to producers when it’s done.

Genre is so important

Know the conventions and expectations of your GENRE, and always write to serve these. If you’re writing a political thriller watch as many films, and read as many scripts, in the same genre as possible. Learn the rules of the genre and stick to them—they work!

Know your theme

For your story to be universal and timeless, clearly identify the THEME of your story before you set out to write. One that you believe in. If it does not resonate with your truth, and you are not passionate about the theme, you will not be able to persevere through the writing to completion.

“Dozens, if not hundreds, of jobs are created in direct proportion to your storytelling ability. It is an awesome responsibility… and a remarkable privilege.”

Understand the urges of human nature

For a film to reach the widest possible audience, ask yourself if the story is PRIMAL. Is it rooted in, and does it pit your protagonist against, the primal instincts we all share as human beings? These are: survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, and revenge. As humans, these are the only true urges that motivate us into action. This is vital to commercial success.

Layout the larger aspects

Now you’re ready to outline your film… Sketch it out in 14 – 16 major movements, or sequences, which will later be broken down into 40 – 50 scenes. Always start from the top down, so you can adjust the story easily, before getting bogged down in the details.

Ensure your scenes flow

Make sure your Act Breaks (Plot Points) are clear as the sun. Create unexpected turns at these points that push your protagonist past the point of no return and requires from him or her greater and greater heights of courage and strength to achieve his or her goal, or set things right again. Also, make sure each scene changes steeply in its polarity, from positive to negative or negative to positive. Then, butt them up next to each other to create an undulating wave (+/-, -/+, +/-, -/+, +/-, -/+ and so on). This creates the perfect rhythm of emotional ups and downs for your audience.

Keep the script to yourself

Now, you’ve completed your first draft—well done! This is a big achievement. Go out and celebrate. But, whatever you do… do not show it to anyone! Tomorrow, when you’ve sobered up, you will begin your real work—REWRITING. This is where great writing emerges from, not the thoughts we first set down into words. Get comfortable with the fact that this process takes longer than writing the first draft of the script.

Seek feedback

When you feel your script is ready for others to see, send it out for feedback and notes, and preferably not to your friends. You will learn the most from constructive criticism, not compliments. Other writers, colleagues and peers from within the industry will have valuable feedback. The greatest investment you can make in yourself is to consult a script consultant or story editor for professional feedback. You will learn a great deal from this process. Take their advice and make the changes.

Invest in computer programs

To maintain flow while writing, use screenwriting software. They are remarkably easy to use and will take care of the headache of proper formatting. There are many products on the market today, but the best still remain Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter. All screenwriting software produce professional, industry standard scripts. Learn how to use this if you want to be regarded as a professional.

Remember to learn

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, continue to study the structure and principles of screenwriting. An artist must first learn how to master her craft before she can start breaking the rules.

Discussing story with Shina!

It takes about 15 years to become a great screenwriter, or the equivalent of writing 10 feature-length screenplays. So pace yourself. Have realistic expectations, release the pressure, and start enjoying the process.

Contact us here if you have any questions on our writing tips for how to compose a screenplay!

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