Think you can do better than most of the writing you see coming out of Hollywood (who doesn’t, at least sometimes)? Have a stellar idea that would make a fantastic movie? If you answered yes to either of those, screenwriting might be an ideal path for you. Here are a list of things you need to fully understand before writing down that blockbuster.
1. A completed screenplay is the only viable way to market a movie idea for an outsider. While you may think having a tremendous premise for a movie is enough for a production studio to get interested, it simply is not. Very few ideas are worth anything by themselves, and the best screenwriters come up with new ideas all the time. Before you even make a phone call or an e-mail, you need to have a completed first draft, preferably registered with the Writers Guild, Copyright Office, or a similar organization. Registration is key because it gives you proof or authorship with a neutral legal source and helps you in case one of the shadier producers out there decides to rip you off.
2. Read, read, read (and watch)! When I say “read,” I do NOT mean to go to the store and buy an “Idiot’s Guide to Screenwriting.” I mean find actual screenplays of a variety of great movies and read the screenplay. Study movies more closely. If one wants to write a great novel, they do not purchase a book called “writing novels,” they read a bunch of other novels and learn from the successes and failures. If you think you can write a great screenplay merely by having a great premise and reading a how-to book – like far too many amateur writers – you had better enjoy swimming in rejection letters.
3. Know the proper format. There are no set numbers for margins (different books and agencies will tell you different things), but there IS a very established general format that is always followed. You should be able to pick up the grand idea from reading shooting scripts and other speculative scripts, but if not, there are numerous guide sheets out there. The nuances are too great to go into here, but it is imperative that the standard form be used. For example, a key component of the standard form is that all scripts are written in 12 pt. Courier font on white paper, somewhere between 90-130 pages, and any variation from this will see your script thrown in numerous Hollywood trashcans without being read.
4. Have an outline and an act structure. Before you start writing your blockbuster, make some semblance of an outline, even if it is only in your head. Knowing about basic three-act or five-act structure cannot hurt either, as most great movies follow an act path, and most producers will look for it in your script. Furthermore, it gives you a schedule for writing.
5. Have a genre. For people not already with a connection to Hollywood, writing in a specific genre is a necessity for a quicker sale. Various production studios are always looking for horror, comedy, thriller, sci-fi, etc. If you really want to sell something quick, write for the lowest budget possible. Selling a high-budget action film or a western romantic comedy thriller is darned near impossible for an established writer, nonetheless an amateur.
6. Show, don’t tell. When actually writing the script, remember the hackneyed golden rule of screenwriting and filmmaking. If you have a way of showing a behavioral trait, use it instead of having a character merely say it. Have a woman throw a vase at her husband instead of saying “I’m so angry with you.” It brings life to your script and remains the first commandment of film writing.
7. Long scenes and dialogue are not your friend. In a corrolary to rule six, having lengthy scenes and long-winded dialogue are an almost sure way to write a boring script. Keep your scenes short and to the point, and trim all dialogue to only what is necessary in a realistic sense. It is much better when writing a spec script to say too little than to say too much.
8. Write a movie you would want to watch. To me, rule 1a of screenwriting is to write a movie that you would want to see yourself. Avoid the mistakes and clichés that you hate seeing in other movies. Do not write to a genre – even a successful one – if you hate that genre. This is not an endorsement for you to copy your favorite films, but merely a suggestion as to how to help you write a better film, avoid procrastination, and have fun doing it.
9. Your first draft will suck. Regardless of how great you believe your first draft to be when you finish it, it is not that good. Put it aside and try writing another screenplay. When you come back to your first one, you will see a whole new set of flaws and short-comings. You will probably find the dialogue stale and the action lacking. It’s okay if your first draft is awful because everyone’s first draft is awful. But you have to start writing something sooner than later, and the sooner you get over the first draft hump the better. Legendary scripts are made on the subsequent drafts. For example, George Lucas first penning of Star Wars did not even have Luke as a character, and what he already written was pretty groundbreaking (even if the dialogue was horrendous).
10. Don’t expect a big payday. Lots of new screenwriters start because they heard about someone making a lot of money, be it the bartender who made half a million for Se7en or the multimillion dollar deals brought in by Joe Esterhaus or M. Night Shyamalan. Let me say this right now: those people are the extreme exceptions. Be realistic. Most screenplays never even sniff an option or production. Most independent companies will offer you significantly less for your work. Only write speculative screenplays if you are comfortable with the idea of working many hours at first for no pay. Only do it if you love writing movies, because if you don’t, you’ll never make it. Given the massive number of screenplays and screenwriters out there, your chances of winning the lottery are better than your chances of having a script optioned for thousands of dollars by, say, Miramax – even if your writing is good. Understand that it’s just like any other art and you may have to make sacrifices at first to get experience and get your name out there.
In fact, selling a screenplay is harder than writing one. Next time, I’ll go through the options of how to market your scripts and yourself as a screenwriter.