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How To Write A Screenplay – Let’s Get Started

My backstory

Over the years, I’ve written fourteen professional-standard feature screenplays (and counting).

By the way, that picture below? Those aren’t my scripts. But there’s a time when they could have been. Of course, these days, people rarely print stuff out. Instead, everything’s passed around electronically, typically as PDF files, which is a lot more convenient – and far better for the trees!

Writing Screenplays

Back to me. I’ve written scripts that created heat throughout the film industry and others that landed with a deathly and demoralizing thud. More often than not, it was timing or some obscure ‘political’ factor that defined the result.

Along the way, I’ve worked with directors, producers, studio executives, agents, and literary managers, all of whom have different priorities and therefore approach script development from very different angles. Managers, at least the good ones, want the best script possible. Agents wants something they can sell. Producers want something they can set up at a studio, while the studio wants something it can attach an actor or a director to.

As for the directors themselves, the screenplay represents the foundation on which they’re going to build the movie – and if the script doesn’t work, then the whole movie will come tumbling down. I mean, you can have dodgy special effects, a miscast actor, uninspired directing, bland visuals, but the film can still work (more or less). But if the script stinks, then there’s no hope. Of course, the film can still be a monster hit, but that’s usually down to good marketing and brand recognition.

Again, back to me… None of my projects has ever made it into production. For most writers, getting a script produced is no different to playing a game of roulette. Selling Screenplays

Still, I have had my work optioned and I’ve also been hired for plenty of assignments, from big studio jobs to tiny indie gigs. Some of these assignments needed first drafts, while others involved jumping aboard an existing project that required anything from a ground-up rewrite to a minor polish.

The key point is that I’ve been paid for doing something that I’m pretty good at and feel truly passionate about. When it comes to living life, that’s a good place to be, right?

Learn to write screenplays

There are countless in-depth books and guides out there with titles such as, “How To Write Screenplays For Beginners”. For now, that sort of focus is beyond my scope. I’ve simply got too much of my own writing to be getting on with (and long may it last!). Nonetheless, I would like to share some of my experiences with you and offer up some (hopefully) juicy tidbits on writing screenplays.

Most of my posts will be aimed at new writers still trying to find their feet. More seasoned writers are very welcome to come along for the ride – and if they want to offer up their own opinions and advice, that’s even better. After all, my word isn’t final and I’m still learning, just like everyone else.

I’ll be covering a wide range of screenwriting topics. Sometimes I’ll be operating on the very high-level and on other occasions I’ll be homing in on specific points. Hopefully, I can offer up something that proves useful to you. In addition, if anyone has specific questions, I’ll do my best to answer them honestly and accurately.

Until next time…

Best, al

11 Comments

  1. My son just finished an online theater class, and part of it involved learning about and how to write screen plays. It was very interesting and seemed like something that would actually be a lot of fun, even though I do not like to write. But this somehow seems like a different type of writing, a more fun writing. So, I will bookmark this site and look for more to come from you!

    • Hi Matt’s Mom! 

      Yes, it is absolutely fun. This is particularly true when you’re writing a spec screenplay, where you get to choose the subject matter and work at your own pace. 

      Assignments, by comparison, where someone pays you up front to write the script, tend to be a lot more high pressure. It’s just human instinct – as soon as money enters the equation, some producers grow very impatient, which can be counterproductive. I’ve worked on projects where a little more leeway would have resulted in a far better final script. Still, despite the pressures, you’re ultimately being paid to do something that you enjoy, no matter the pressures – and how good is that!?

      Anyway, really glad that you’re bookmarking – there will be plenty of new content coming along over the next few weeks.

  2. Very interesting bio, Al. I’ve bookmarked this so I can forward your information and training to a friend of mine who has written screenplays with no success. From experience, I think it’s crucial to have an agent, don’t you agree? You need someone who can get you in the door or your screenplay will never get read…unless you’re already a success or have a famous name.

    • Many thanks, Karen.

      Unfortunately there are many writers – including some extremely talented ones – who haven’t sold a screenplay or been hired for a writing job, let alone got something produced. Over the years, I’ve worked in many different industries – finance, IT, healthcare, telemarketing, PR. However, when it comes to the challenges of earning a living, none compares to writing. It’s pretty much the embodiment of feast or famine.

      Yes, having an agent is extremely important. The right agent can really turn a career around. Still, agents tend to be very picky about taking on new clients. They usually want to see some success first. Once you have that success, then they will then come to you. 

      In the first instance, your friend may be better off focusing on literary managers and perhaps smaller producers. Good literary managers, in particular, are worth their weight in gold. They’re the ones most likely to invest the time in an unknown writer and help him or her grow, both in terms of ability and as a brand.

      Speaking of brands, you’re 100% correct about famous names. Once you are truly successful (and by that I mean you’ve got a hit movie to your name), things become a whole lot easier. In the past, I’ve pitched projects that failed. But I’m under no illusions – had I been a big name writer or director, those pitches wouldn’t have failed. Still, that’s just the nature of the beast. 

  3. Hey Al,

    You have definitely had some highs in your writing career although you haven’t had one of your works fully produced yet. Over the years I have written a large number of screenplays and novel manuscripts that have all had various levels of failure associated with them although a few of them got the coveted “This is great but not right for me right now” response. I feel almost like the entire writing industry is like throwing darts randomly at the wall hoping one hits a hidden dartboard. Do you fell the same?

    Chris

    • Hey Chris, thanks for dropping by. 

      Yeah, I totally get where you’re coming from. In the ’90s up until the mid-noughties, there was a period when the studios were buying up scripts like there was no tomorrow.

      But those days are long gone. They now buy far fewer specs and when it comes to hiring, they seem to be choosing from a very small clique of favored writers. Previously, if there were five writing assignments, five different writers would get hired. Nowadays, maybe two writers get hired to write all five of those scripts.

      Talent and perseverance definitely have their place, but unfortunately things like luck and connections strike me as the key factors right now. Hopefully this is cyclical and the situation will improve for writers trying to break into the industry… But I wouldn’t count on it any time soon!

      In the meantime, all we can do is remain focused and keep doing what we do. Keep the faith, I say.

  4. I love to write, and I have often wanted to write a screen play. My problem is switching from traditional fiction to playwrighting. How do you make the switch? I am a description oriented person, and a lot of my writing is self reflective. How would you recommend I get started?

    • Hi ECJ! This is an interesting question, and one that I should probably cover in a future How To Write A Screenplay post. 

      In my opinion, prose fiction is a more forgiving medium because you have a far greater range of tools to work with, including the ‘inner voice’ of the characters and the author that you mention. 

      With screenplays, you are limited to those things that you can see and hear. There are ways to bring out a character’s thoughts through voice-overs, flashbacks, dream sequences, etc. – but it’s often considered poor form to rely on these sorts of thing too much.

      In the first instance, I would suggest immersing yourself in the world of screenwriting. Try reading the screenplays to movies that you have already watched. There are plenty of websites that offer downloadable scripts. Just Google “screenplay download site” and there should be plenty of hits. 

      When you download something, just make sure it is a proper screenplay rather than a transcript of the finished movie. An easy way to tell the difference is that a real script will have the formatting and be in Courier font, while transcripts don’t have the formatting and come in all sorts of different fonts.

      Reading the script is particularly educational if you have watched the movie beforehand (or immediately after). 

      If you want ideas for what sort of films to watch, check out my Favorite Films page in the menu at the top of the page. This contains what I consider to be some of the best-written movies of this century. It contains everything from art-house to the big studio movies, so you should find something to your tastes.

      If you want to read a book on the subject, I would suggest Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat, which in my opinion remains one of the most authoritative but accessible screenwriting guides out there.

      Hope that helps.

      Best, al

  5. I love to write, and I have often wanted to write a screen play. My problem is switching from traditional fiction to playwrighting. How do you make the switch? I am a description oriented person, and a lot of my writing is self reflective. How would you recommend I get started?

  6. Hi, Al. This is an interesting read. And I agree it is definitely a good place to be when you’re paid to do something you’re good at and passionate about. Your post has gotten me interested in learning to write screenplays now. But I reckon I still need to improve on just writing content first. I’ll be checking your site from time to time. Thank you for sharing.

    • Hi Cindy, many thanks for dropping by. I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. If screenwriting is something that interests you, then it’s definitely worth pursuing at some point, even if it’s just for the fun of it.

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