How to Write a Fantastic Script That Sells
Script writing. It’s probably one of my favorite past times: thinking about stories, imagining what they would look like on the big screen, solving plot holes, keeping the audience from guessing where the story is going, inspiring the audience to have new thoughts and feelings. It’s addicting, being on the ground floor of the creative process; being the first one to imagine a story and bring it to life. What a blessing it is to be in a position of inspiring the world through stories! But we have all seen those films that flop. The plot is messy, at best. The dialog is embarrassing and painful to watch, or the story goes nowhere. So how do we avoid these all-too-common pitfalls? Below, I have put together a definitive guide to script writing that gives practical steps toward your goal of becoming a professional screenwriter.
Start with an Outline
The first screenwriting tip is to begin with a basic screenplay outline. Where are you starting? What are the (three) main events of your film? How will you end it? Once you have the basic plot figured out, add in the details. Having an outline will keep you on track and focused. Keep in mind that your script format will be vastly different for feature films, short films and television. It’s tempting to write wherever the wind blows you, but that’s how you lose your audience and your plot. Having that framework in place challenges you to think through everything that you are writing: “Will this help the story or throw in an unnecessary curveball that could derail the plot?” “Is this love interest necessary or will it distract from the point?” A strong outline is essential for a solid script. And don’t be afraid to talk with other script writers (that you trust) about your outline. They might be able to help you think through things that you haven’t considered. A critical eye at this stage can save you a major headache later on.
Your outline helped you with big picture ideas and who the characters are and their general roles. Now, let’s iron out the details. As many details as you can. Your character names, age, ethnicity, height, likes and dislikes. You are creating a person or several people that need depth. They need quirks. They need history. You might only be seeing an aspect of their life on screen, but how did they get to this point? How did they develop the character that they have? Why are they so selfish? Or why are they so generous? These aren’t necessarily questions you need to answer in the film, but when you, the creator, know the answers, you’ll write a much more relatable and believable character. Also, when you are developing your characters, especially your main characters, consider making them transformational. Your audience will connect with characters that improve over the course of your script or their hearts will break over the decline of your character’s… character. The development of your characters can be the difference between a successful film and a failure. When you create character profiles, outline who they are at the beginning and who they become by the end. This will keep you focused on your story and eliminate a lot of your questions during the writing process.
As a generality, writers don’t consider the cost of each additive. That isn’t our job. Money? Boooo…. CREATIVITY! FREEDOM! Let’s film at the Taj Mahal! Merp. Not practical. Especially as an aspiring writer. A seasoned writer with a track record of multimillion dollar film successes… well, that’s different. Pro tip: if you’re just starting out, focus on building your screenwriting resume, get a few low budget films under your belt. (Check out our low budget film blog). Figure out your budget range and write a great movie script or television script that fits in those parameters. It can be challenging, but you will feel so accomplished at the end of it.
Create a Tight Deadline
Why? Uhm, because you need to finish. Writer's block is the Achilles heel of all writers. Without a deadline you can stew on an idea for months. Adding time to your process isn’t helping you. The only way to beat writer's block is to kick it in the face and get something on your page. It’s okay if the idea that gets you past your blockage isn’t your favorite solution, but you have several edits ahead of you anyway, so just blurt it out and move on to the next scene that you have a clear vision for. Aim to have your first draft done in 30 days. It’s totally do-able! For a 90 page script, that’s only writing 3 pages a day. You can do it! I know you can!
Put Away Distractions
Put down your phone, turn off the TV, and turn off all notifications for your designated writing time. Force your brain to focus on the task at hand. Every time you choose to distract your focus from your script to whatever your friend tagged you in on Instagram, it takes that much more time for you to get your mind back on track. The University of California Irvine found that, on average, it takes you 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back on track after an unintended distraction. Sometimes we yearn for that momentary distraction because it’s hard to work past the problem. We think, “I’ll take a brain break and let my subconscious work on it.” Yeah, no. That’s not how it works. Push through. Focus for an hour or two, then take a break. You’ll be glad you did. This is also why we outline: if we solve the major problems in the outline, it is just following the clearest most interesting path to the next scene. Even if it’s not your favorite way to solve the problem, write it down, you’ll have several edits to do anyway. You can address it later on. Guys, I wrote a 90 page, low budget script in three days that I showed to producers (who loved it, by the way), using these methods. And I have 5 kids at home with me all day. It CAN be done. You might develop an eye twitch that lasts 2 weeks, but that’s okay, it goes away.
This one hurts to even think about. It’s my least favorite part of script writing, the critiques. Ouch. It’s easy to get offended by every ounce of criticism that is aimed at your brain baby. You worked hard. You had the best ideas anyone has ever had in the history of writing things down. You’re the most hilarious and sentimental and action-y person that exists… in your own mind, unfortunately. Not everybody was in your head when you told yourself that joke that you put on paper. Share with your friends and be open to input. Talk with your mentors in the industry and take their advice seriously. I can guarantee that the people you choose to share your script with aren’t interested in attacking you, they want to see you succeed. Accept help. We all do it, it’s okay.
Along with your script, have some notes written down for your reader/mentor so they know where you are headed with your story and what “feel” you have in mind. This will help them understand the tone of your script, so they don’t misinterpret what you are writing. They will also be able to give more accurate notes on what you should edit and how.
Script Edit Tips
Your first edit is usually your biggest and hardest edit where you take a machete to your project. This is where it comes in really handy to have help from professional screenwriters or seasoned filmmakers. Remember that script I wrote in 3 days? Yeah, my brother in-law came over and helped me reorganize sequences to move the story forward, add and take away ideas. We did this using post it notes and my big, empty dining room walls. I wrote down the gist of each scene and hung them, in order, on my walls. We, then, spent the next several hours re-working the plan. Having the visual guide of how the story fits together really helps you wrap your mind around the story and makes edits so much easier to follow, because your whole story is in one place.
Once you follow your sticky note roadmap through your first major edit, it’s time for the second edit. This edit smooths transitions from scene to scene and “beefs” things up a bit. If it’s a comedy, this is also where you add and polish the jokes. If it’s a thriller, this is where you make the stakes higher. The second edit is where you start to really take a magnifying glass to each and every sequence, looking at your film from the audience’s point of view. Does everything make sense? Will they follow along with the ideas? Are all of the plot holes filled? How is your character development? Do your characters have enough personality that people can connect with? Fantasy writing is fun and science fiction is a blast, but is it to “out there”? When you’re creating a sci-fi world, you don’t necessarily have to make all your answers plausible in our real world scenarios, but you do need to have grounded and well communicated ideas according to the reality you are creating so your audience doesn’t get lost or frustrated. A good script has clear communication with the audience.
From there, you head into your third and final draft (before you show it to the producers, at least. Learn how to pitch your script. There may be more edits beyond this point once it gets picked up).This edit is largely for fine-tuning your script dialogue. Dialogue is seriously challenging (unless your film is robots). When one person is writing a conversation for 2 or more people, it’s easy to get lost. It’s easy to over dramatize a character’s responses or to have one character monologue most of a conversation (which isn’t a real world scenario). I don’t know about you, but in my life, interruptions are constant. So, my advice to you is to watch people...in a non creepy way. Watch documentaries where lines aren’t scripted so you can study how natural conversation flows. Study your family members, watch how they interact with one another. If an argument arises, stay out of it, and watch the progression and probably only take mental notes on that one. Also, consider reading articles or watching films/documentaries/interviews on profiling people. Having a solid grasp on human psychology and the “why” behind certain character traits will help you develop real, relatable characters and dialogue.
Final Thoughts and Encouragements
With everything that you write, even if it doesn’t get picked up, you learn something. If, at the end of the day, all you do is prove to yourself that you can do it: that you can finish the script you have been thinking about for the last 8 months. Then that’s great! It’s a win! It’s a stepping stone into your future as a script writer. One of the best pieces of advice that I received when I first started out was to watch every episode of my favorite series and write a TV script of a“lost episode”. I chose the television show “Scrubs”. I watched every episode, took notes on the characters and the way they spoke. I read a few of the scripts that I could find online so I could understand how things were written. Then I chose to write an episode that would fit into the middle of the series somewhere. I actually found the episode I wrote stored on an old computer. I need to reformat it because it didn’t transfer well (I wrote it on Adobe before they got rid of their screenwriting app), but once I do that, I think I’ll attach it to this post so you can all get a good feel for what I mean. But you all have to understand, it was my first (practice) script EVER, so it’s not great. But it was so helpful. If you choose to do this, your goal is to: pick up on the quirks of each character, get a feel for the pattern, get used to your screenwriting software (I currently use Celtx, but I’ve heard good things about Movie Magic Screenwriter and I’m interested in checking that out in the future.) Practice makes perfect. You’ll never live your dream if you don’t get started. So do it. Start with a TV script or a short film. It won’t be perfect your first time or your hundredth time, writing is fluid and it’s largely opinion based. There are a million different variables, but that’s what makes it so fun. You can sculpt a brand new idea every time you sit down to your computer. Don’t lose your joy and don’t forget to have fun.