5 General Tips for Writing Your First Screenplay
It doesn’t have to be great, it just has to get done!
Let’s be clear: writing a screenplay is hard. Even the most seasoned of screenwriters generally don’t start their writing journey in that format. After all, it’s not exactly the standard way people are taught to write.
So, how do you get started? If you’re coming from the world of prose, it might seem strange to make the leap from a Word doc to a Final Draft page. I can unashamedly admit that was the case for me. Even after getting into film school, there were a plethora of screenwriting rules that were difficult for me to adapt to.
Luckily for you, I’ve compiled a quick tip sheet to help you get over some of those hurdles and get your pen to paper. You’ve got a story to tell, after all!
1. Write visually
Film is a visual medium. When you are writing your story, really take advantage of that and lean into it. We aren’t going to be able to get inside your character’s thoughts the way you might in a novel. So, let’s say your protagonist is anxiously awaiting test results in a doctor’s office. You can’t simply spell that out for the audience the same way you would while writing a book. Instead, how can you show the audience that he is anxious? Does he pace back and forth? Bite his cuticles? Tap his feet? Toy with a cigarette? You need the audience to feel his anxiety. Instead of writing: “He is anxious,” try something like: “He paces back and forth, twiddling his fingers. He pulls out a cigarette and puts it between his teeth, chewing on the paper before putting it back in his pocket.” You get the idea.
2. Listen to real-life conversations
This is a great tip for any writer, but especially screenwriters. The ability to be verbose in novels is what makes them great — but it’s much harder to get away with that in film. Sit back and listen to the conversations around you the next time you’re at a party. Or in a coffee shop. Or on the train. People normally talk in short bursts — one to two sentences at most in a casual conversation. No long Shakespearean monologues should be making their way into a contemporary screenplay, unless that’s what you’re going for. It will generally come off as unrealistic and pretentious. Oh, and pay close attention to how often your characters say each other’s names in conversation. You wouldn’t repeat your best friend’s name over and over again casually, so why would your character?
3. Read other screenplays
This one seems logical, but it can be easily overlooked. It makes sense though, right? You want to know how the best of the best have done it, and you need to familiarize yourself with things like format and structure. Of course, I recommend starting by reading the screenplays for your favorite movies. But also read screenplays in the genre you want to write for. Read the screenplays in the genres you are unfamiliar with. Once you start to read enough screenplays, it will feel more natural to write your own. And you can easily find a wealth of them online! My go-to is IMSDB. Bonus: a feature-length screenplay can easily be read from start to finish in one afternoon, so dig in!
4. Consume other art
Sometimes I do my best writing away from my keyboard. What I mean by that is that it can be difficult sometimes to sit down, laser focus in, and write what you want. Not that it’s not impossible, but writer’s block is real and it is a beast. To strike inspiration and get your creativity spinning, go out to the theater and watch a movie. Take a walk around a greenhouse or garden. Go visit an art museum in your area. Let your mind wander without the pressure of the blinking computer cursor in front of you. The beautiful thing about art (and life), is that we all experience it differently. You can consume a movie or a play and walk out of it bubbling with thoughts and ideas and inspiration differently than anyone else. So take that and use it as your muse!
5. Just get it done
Nothing you ever write is going to be perfect on the first try. And if it is, you probably don’t need this list of tips to get started, you genius, you. Your first draft is going to look wildly different than your final draft. So just write it. Don’t worry about editing it. Don’t get hung up on whether your character should say this or that. Don’t worry yet if the emotional pay-off is great enough in your third act. That will all come in due time. The sooner you get the words on paper and out of your brain, the easier it becomes to mold and shape them into what you want. You are the sculptor, and the words are your clay. And until you allow yourself the words to work with, you’re going to be stuck with a blank canvas for a long time. Don’t let perfectionism intimidate you. Getting out of your own head and getting that first draft out of the way is an uphill battle. But it’s one you’ll be glad you conquered.