Screenwriting 101: Anyone Can Write A Script.

Why am I qualified to give this advice? I’m not. Don’t listen to me. I have no training, no education and no scruples. That being said, I can write a good  screenplay. So can you.

Now, I’m not saying your first one will be good, it’ll probably suck,  but your next one will be better. I’m going to take you through my own learning curve, as wacky as it is, and show you how simple it can be.

Buy a book. Go buy Save The Cat. It is the simplest, most concise treatise on writing a screenplay I’ve come across. Many writers swear by it. It will open your eyes to the basic structure of a script in a matter of minutes. Some accomplished writers will turn their noses up at the children’s story book simplicity of it and decry the absence of an intricate study of Greek character archetypes. We call these people assholes.

Download Celtx.  Celtx is a free scriptwriting resource used by many writers and film makers, including yours truly. They also have an online studio where you can share your scripts with collaborators. It can be a pain in the ass and there are better programs, but this one is free and adequate. It will take care of most of your formatting for you.

Get your ending first. Get your punchline set in stone. The reveal, the denouement, the Deus Ex Machina, whatever you want to call it. If you have your ending, you know where everything needs to lead and the story will write itself. Here’s an example from a local writer, and I’m paraphrasing, but this was her starting point: A man has an affair with an attractive girl. He later discovers her true identity. The punchline:

Man: “But… you’re my daughter.”

Girl: “I know.”

What could you write starting from that end point?

Write dialog last. Get your ending and structure down before you write dialog. You will find that  your story will mature and change over time, especially if you don’t have your ending nailed down. When it does this much of your dialog will be out of sync, orphaned, essentially useless. You’ll have to change it.

Write only what you can see and hear. A screenplay is not a book. We cannot be inside the heads of the characters. We must observe them. For example, we cannot listen in on the inner monologue of a character pining away for his dead wife (we can, but that would be in the form of an unwieldy voice over, but I digress), but you can show him at a funeral and looking longingly at his wedding ring. That’s a lousy example, but you get the idea.

Brevity is the soul of a script. Make your script tight, lean and free of even a single unnecessary word. If you can’t describe what is happening in a few words then you don’t know what is happening yourself, do you? Don’t try to do the job of the actors, director, art department and director of photography. They will have their own take on it and it is probably superior to your own. A script is just a blueprint, that’s all.

Write about what you love. If you are not passionate about what you write, the audience will not be either. That being said, you must make your story accessible to them and it must tug at their emotions. If your story is so abstruse and inside that no one can relate to it you will be wasting your time. There are no new stories. Love, desire, struggle, conquest, these are things all people can relate to. Make the stakes high for your characters so that their whole world depends on getting what they want.

Break the rules. I’ve lost track of the times someone has said to me, “You can’t do this in your script. That is not the way things are done.” But for every time someone has said that, I can point to two or three examples of well known films that have done precisely what the individual has pointed out as being verboten. The lesson is: No one knows anything. And people are jealous cunts. They are horrified at the thought of you producing something unique and compelling that will outshine their own accomplishments. There is no accounting for creativity and inspiration.  If you have a wild idea that is utterly preposterous, use it! See where it goes. You might be surprised how it resonates with an audience. The one exception is formatting. You should still write your script in a fashion that is understandable to the people who will produce it. Other than that, the sky’s the limit!


So stop reading this and write! You can’t be a writer without writing. Spend at least some time every day pecking away at something. Be open and receptive to the things you experience in your day to day life and always be asking yourself, “How could I turn this into a story?” Americans have amazing instincts when it comes to film. It is bred into our DNA. We instinctively know what is good and what rings false. Tap into that resource, claim your heritage and draw upon it when writing your own screenplay.

When you have a first draft, send it to me. I would like to read it. Am I qualified to give criticism? Probably not. But I will actually read it and honestly tell you what I think of it.


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