Q: I want to write screenplays, but I don’t know where to begin. What’s the best way to get started?
A: My best advice would be to spend some time immersing yourself in studying the art, craft, and process of writing a screenplay. Read a few how-to books (yes, my book would be one excellent choice!), then read a handful of scripts that have been successfully produced. (Go to this site for a good selection.) Also, watch the movies that were made from these scripts. Then, re-read some (or all) of these scripts. But just don’t read them, study them. By this point in time, you should have absorbed enough information to give you a good push toward starting your first script. Finally, sit your rear end down in a chair—and write. No, I’m not going to tell you to write an outline (more on this later), and I’m not going to tell you to write on a computer, or with pen and pad. Some things you’re gonna have to figure out for yourself. Trial and error. Learn from your mistakes. Discover what works for you and what doesn’t.
DO THE WORK. It’s the only way you’ll truly learn.
Next, you need to slog your way through the first draft of a script. Any script. Any genre. Just get that first draft done. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. (As a famous writer once said, “Don’t get it right, just write.”)
When this draft is completed, give it to three or four trusted, intelligent friends and get some opinions. Find out what worked for them and what didn’t.
Did any scenes drag on too long?
Was the dialogue realistic?
Were any characters unrealistic or one-dimensional?
Armed with this feedback, slog your way through a rewrite. Again, how you do this is entirely up to you. Figure it out. Some writers work only on their computer. Some, as I do, always print a clean copy of their script and attack it with a red pen, then transfer the changes on the computer version. Maybe this process will work for you and maybe it won’t—but that’s for you to discover. That’s what screenwriting is all about—discovery. No two screenwriters have the exact same method. Whatever works. Don’t get it in your head that you’re writing your first script with the intent to sell it. The chances of selling any script ain’t high and the chances of selling the first script you ever write are...well, virtually nil. First scripts are for learning purposes only. It could take 2, 3, 6, 8, 10 scripts before you write one that’s saleable. Chances are pretty decent that you’ll never write a saleable screenplay. Screenwriting is both an art and a craft and not everyone is equipped to be an artist or a craftsman. I wish I could draw pictures, but I can’t. I can barely scratch out a decent stick figure. But that’s life. Problem is, screenwriting has become the new sporting event and everyone’s jumping onto the field. Everyone’s got a computer, everyone can get a scriptwriting program, and everyone has seen a movie and said, “I could write a better movie than that!” Can you?
So, give this screenwriting thing your best shot—work your rear end off and write, write, write...and see where your journey takes you.
Q: I’m brand new to scriptwriting. What are some good “how-to” books to help get me started?
A: You’re not going to learn how to write a marketable screenplay just by reading how-to books. Read two or three, get a good handle on it all, then start writing (see above). For me, those books have always been more simply a source of inspiration, than anything else. (I’m a huge fan of 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, by Karl Iglesias, and Stephen King’s On Writing.) So, other than my own highly inspirational book, Q & A: The Working Screenwriter, I’d like to suggest two that give a great nuts-and-bolts overview and will help immensely in getting your script written properly. They are David Trottier’s Screenwriter’s Bible, and Screenplay: Writing the Picture, by Robin U. Russin and William Missouri Downs. I can also suggest The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers, by Christopher Vogler, and The Screenwriter’s Workbook, by Syd Field. (May 2007 update: I also very highly recommend Real Screenwriting, by Ron Suppa.)
Q: How long should it take me to write a feature-length screenplay?
A: Somebody once said, "It takes as long as it takes—and not a moment longer." For the most part, I’d agree. But, if you're taking two years to complete just one screenplay, I think there's a problem. (However, if you've turned out something akin to Gone with the Wind, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, at the end of those two years, then it was time very well spent!) Also, if you're writing a spec that nobody is actually waiting to read, then taking your sweet time is fine. But, if you get an assignment (i.e., work-for-hire) and if a producer gives you a deadline to meet ("I need the new draft by 5PM tomorrow!"), then the leisurely pace you've established for yourself will be unacceptable. So, the upshot here is it’s good to be able to work quickly and efficiently.
Q: Should I outline my script before starting the actual screenplay?
A: I’m sure you’ve heard it a bazillion times before, but I’ll say it again here: It’s like going on a cross-country trip without a road map. You might—might—end up in the same destination, but with the map, you’ll save yourself a lot of gas (not to mention headaches).
Over the last several years, I’ve had numerous conversations with first-time writers, and many have said, “I’m stuck on page thirty and don’t know where to go.” I’ll ask them, “You didn’t outline your script, did you?” Nope, not one of them did. That’s what happens. You get this great idea, you come up with a solid start, maybe a bit of the second act, then—BLURP—it just falls apart.
As far as I’m concerned, outlining is where the real work comes in. It’s where you test-drive the story and determine if it’ll all work. It’s where you work out all the pivotal details, where you track characters, where you plot the twists and turns. It’s where you work out the subplots and get a feel for timing and flow.
So, yeah, I feel outlining is an integral part of the screenwriting process and I wouldn’t start any script without some type of semi-detailed outline.
I always hear people say, “But if I write an outline, it stifles my creativity.” I’m not sure I understand this. The outline is where you’re supposed to explore your creativity! Go crazy, try things, see what’s gonna work. Believe me, it’s far less aggravating making those inevitable storyline changes and reworking those twists and turns in a 20-page outline, than in a 110-page screenplay.
But go ahead, write your script without the outline, and see if you can get across the finish line with a coherent story. However, if you get in the general vicinity of page 30 and say, “Um, now what do I do now?” you might want to consider an outline.
Q: How long should it take me to write an outline?
A: Depending on the story, mine take anywhere from two weeks to two months to sketch out. Once a solid outline has been crafted, the actual scriptwriting process usually proceeds relatively smoothly. Based on my typical writing pace of 2 to 5 hours per day, I usually crank out a workable first draft in 2-6 weeks. Of course, subsequent drafts—which lead the way to the final submission draft—could take a few weeks, to several months longer. But there’s a lot to be said for getting that first draft done. It’s a real psychological boost to have those 100 pages of neatly bound text in your hot little hands. Once this draft is completed, the subsequent ones seem far less daunting.
Q: How long should my outline be?
A: Mine generally run anywhere from 25-35 pages. (I recently sent a producer an outline for a script she hired me to write—and that outline came in at 46 pages.) But I’d say nothing less than 15 pages (12 pt. type, single spaced). In my opinion, anything less than about 15 pages just isn’t detailed enough to do you much good.
Q: Can my script deviate from the outline?
A: Sure. Changes along the way are inevitable and welcomed. If I could put numbers on it, I’d say 85% of your script is based on the outline and 15% is wrought from discovery along the way.
Q: What is a treatment—and do I need to write one?
A: A treatment is a narrative pitch, a document that outlines your script’s story from start to finish, and is generally used to sell the story to executives who have little time to read a complete screenplay. Your goal is to write a treatment that sells your story/concept, something that’ll make the executive request the full script.
Treatments—typically between three to fifteen pages in length—are crafted in a different style than a screenplay and some writers find them difficult to write, but they can definitely be an invaluable sales tool, so you’d better learn to write ‘em. Some fledgling writers work hard to write a slam-bang treatment, hoping this will sell their idea, but neglect to write an actual screenplay. They say to themselves, “Well, it’s so much easier to just write a ten page treatment. I’ll sell the idea, and then I’ll write the script.” I’d like to dissuade you from this tactic. If a producer reads your treatment, likes it and wants to see a full screenplay, are you gonna take the next three months (if you’re lucky) to get it written? NO! You’ll be forgotten about in three months.
Producers want writers they can count on, someone who can deliver the goods, and they don’t want to hear, “I’ve almost got the second act worked out. Just give me another month.” You’ve already made the connection with these people, don’t blow it. Write the script. Write the treatment.
Here are a couple of books that will help:
Writing Treatments That Sell: How to Create and Market Your Story Ideas to the Motion Picture and TV Industry, by Kenneth Atchity & Chi-Li Wong
Writing the Killer Treatment: Selling Your Story Without a Script, by Michael Halperin
Q: I’m always getting writer’s block! How do I get rid of it?
A: As far as I’m concerned, writer’s block is nothing more than a form of total, absolute and complete laziness. Face it, you’re just not willing to sit yourself down, put on your thinking cap and plumb the depths of your creativity. Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but that’s what screenwriting is all about. So, get used to it.
Do whatever you have to do, but force yourself into your writing mode every day. Whatever it takes. And believe me, once you get rolling and ideas are flowing, you’ll wonder what all your apprehension was about. However, if you still find it near-impossible to park yourself in front of that keyboard, and/or if you continually have trouble coming up with ideas, and/or you’d prefer to watch Championship Knitting on C-SPAN rather than crank out script pages, then this might be the universe telling you, “Sorry, pal, you’re not a screenwriter.”
Q: What genres sell the best?
A: I don’t think this should be the deciding factor for which scripts you write. You should probably be writing what you know, understand and have a passion for. That said, comedy, horror and thrillers always seem to be high on the wanted list. So if you’re good with any of these genres, I suggest you start there. If those genres aren’t your cup of tea, then just write a great script of whatever genre you’re comfortable with. A great script is a great script.
Now, a few words about...
Comedy: Someone once said, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Whoever he was, he sure hit the nail on the head with that one. Comedy is super difficult to get right. Sure, I know you might think you’re funny, but chances are, you’re just not. And if you are funny, can you write funny? All I can say is tread extra carefully with this genre.
The “period piece”: This is a story that takes place in a time other than the present (not to be confused with “futuristic”). A typical period piece could take place in the 1970s (Boogie Nights), or the 1930s (The Sting), or the 1860s (Dances with Wolves). Yes, these are all exceptional films, but stories like these can also be very difficult to sell, especially nowadays, when the typical age of the movie-going public is 13 to 24 and the average age of the development executive at your friendly neighborhood movie studio is right around 26. So, if you truly want to write a story about the Kwakiutl Indians of Northern Canada, or a story about president Ulysses S. Grant’s battle with alcoholism, by all means, do so...but know they won’t be an easy sell. Not easy at all.
Q: Which formatting software should I use—and do I even need it?
A: If you can afford a formatting program, I suggest you get one—it’ll make your life a whole lot easier and it’ll make you look more professional. A good majority of the studios and prodcos seem to favor either Final Draft or Movie Magic. For what it’s worth, most of the producers and directors I’ve worked with have used these two formatting programs. If you use another program (Scriptware, Script Wizard, Dr. Format, etc.) don’t worry about it. Most—if not all—scriptwriting programs allow you to convert to a rich text format, and then the prodco can convert into whichever program they are using.
Another thing to consider: It’s becoming more of a necessity to have the ability to email your script as a PDF. Recent versions of Final Draft and Movie Magic give you this option. Also, if you can’t afford a screenwriting program, you can use a simple word processing program (such as MS Word). Remember, it’s all about the words you use, not the computer program.
Q: Where can I find a guide to proper formatting?
A: David Trottier's Screenwriter’s Bible will tell you everything you need to know. You can also go here.
UPDATED INFORMATION (JULY 2012): Other than The Screenwriter’s Bible, I can’t think of a better resource for proper screenplay format than ScriptToolBox.com. Need to know how to format a POV shot? Need to know how to format a split screen shot or a scene containing dual dialogue? Need to know the correct way to format a dream sequence or flashback or a series of shots? If it has to do with correct screenplay format, you’ll find it at ScriptToolBox!
A: What’s the point of using a slug such as LATE MORNING, EARLY AFTERNOON or MIDDAY? How can you tell the difference? It’s either DAY or NIGHT—and if you have to be a bit more specific, DAWN/SUNRISE or SUNSET are fine. If you want to let the reader know it’s high noon or late afternoon, then write that into your scene description: “The sun burns bright directly overhead” or “Late-day shadows stretch across the mass of charred corpses.”
Q: Should I cap the sound effects in my script?
A: Years ago it was the norm to cap all sound effects in a spec screenplay. That sort of formatting seems to be out of fashion these days. If you cap an occasional EXPLOSION or GUNSHOT, it won’t kill ya. Just don’t plaster ‘em on every page. The only things you need to cap are characters when they make their first appearance in the script. Also, if you show a sign in one of your scenes, cap that too (e.g., GRAND AVENUE – NEXT EXIT).
Q: I want to make sure my script is protected. Which should I do, WGA registration or register my copyright with the Library of Congress?
A: People get so worked up over this. I personally don’t think script theft is that much of a problem. I certainly wouldn’t get paranoid about it—and I wouldn’t let it prevent me from sending my scripts out to production companies and studios. WGA registration and registration with the LOC are both relatively inexpensive. I suggest you go to the following websites and do some reading. Writers Guild of America Script Registration and U.S. Copyright Office.
But definitely do one or the other, or do both, and forget about it.
Also, there’s no need to rush out and register your copyright on the first draft of your script. Only register your copyright/work when you decide to send the script out to consultants, contests, agents and/or prodcos. If you do substantial rewrites thereafter, go ahead and re-register your copyright/work. Other than WGA and/or LOC registration, the best way to protect yourself is to keep a paper trail. Keep all correspondence (emails, etc.) and a written log of all individuals and prodcos you contact. Also keep all your notes, outlines, and drafts. Should it become necessary, this material can go a long way to proving your case in a courtroom.
The “Poor Man’s Copyright”: For those of you thinking about putting your script into a sealed envelope and mailing it to yourself: DO NOT DO IT! IT DOES NOT WORK. IT WILL NOT HOLD UP IN COURT. One more time for those who didn’t quite get it: DO NOT DO IT. IT DOES NOT WORK. IT WILL NOT HOLD UP IN COURT.
Q: Should I put the WGA registration number on the title page of my script?
A: There always seems to be a big debate about this one. If you really want to put the registration number on the cover page, then do it. As for myself, I don’t. Why? Because to me it screams, THIS SCRIPT IS REGISTERED SO DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT STEALING IT! Actually, what it really screams is, I AM A NOVICE SCREENWRITER AND I DON’T TRUST ANYONE! Whatever. Do it, don’t do it. Again, if the script is really top-notch, nobody cares about this trivial stuff.