These things may seem simple until you do them. I am staying away from the truly awful advice that litters the internet like “don’t be boring”. These are practical tips that once you do them you will improve your screenwriting.
1. Watch films forensically.
I have written an entire article about how to do this (here is the link). What I mean is watch the film over and over. Break it down into scenes and sequences. Look at how scene interact with each other. Look at how the filmmaker controls pacing, drama, tension. Don’t think of it as an experience. Think of it as an example of how to craft and experience. For your own sake don’t use a stop watch and try and force things into patterns. The formula crowd does that stuff and they are wrong. Nothing good and original can come from being like everybody else.
2. Read screenplays.
When it comes to screenwriting this is common advice that a lot of people give because it is great advice. Again take a forensic look at the screenplay and see how the writer controls the experience. How do they use white space to control the speed of the read. See how little dialogue is needed
3. Write scenes not a screenplay.
When you are focusing on writing an entire screenplay you are not focusing on craft. You will be focusing on getting to the end and not stopping to learn.
I knew someone that said he had 30 years experience. I suggested he had 1 years experience 30 times. Why? Because he didn’t stop to learn he just kept repeating his process.
4. Write an audition piece for actor.
This is a great way of learning how words sound outside your head. Having an actor interpret your writing is an amazing feeling. Plus you see that things are much hard to say than they are to write. If you are lucky you may develop a relationship with some actors that would be willing to appear in a short film. It is not hard to find actors who may be willing to take up your offer. Your local amateur theatre group or film school or even host a meetup group for actors in your area. This is the networking part of your career and it involves you leaving your keyboard.
5. Make a short film.
This is the big one. When I have talked to other writers that say they are struggling to develop their craft, they are always put off by this suggestion. There is no better training for a soldier than battle and there is no better training for a screenwriting that film production.
You will see scenes that drag. You will see that you made a point in a few seconds then boringly beat it to death. You will see that it is impossible to stage a conversation the way you have written it. You will see that you really do have to consider where your actors are standing in your script. You will see that what seems like a few lines feels like a speech. You will learn more than 100 YouTube videos and writing classes.
6. Write your story in prose.
This is a way of proving that your story works as a story. Think of the story as a separate entity to the medium that it is being told through. This removes the need to hit acts. You will not feel the pressure of getting into Act2 if you are in the middle of some interesting set up. Building your ability to tell story is a keystone to becoming to great screenwriter.
7. Avoid screenplay formatting.
I start in Word or Pages on my iPad. There is no formatting. I put caps for a character. This is followed on the next line by dialogue. Action is a separate paragraph. This way I can just pound out the screenplay as fast as I can. Once I am done, I copy and paste it into WriterDuet. WriterDuet formats it beautifully in a few seconds.
Doing this stops me from focusing on unimportant things like the use of white space. Or does that block of dialogue look a bit long. It is pure story telling and format is imposed later, when it is needed. It isn’t part of the story creation.
Screenwriting Bonus Point.
Help someone else.
You will never know how much you know until you start explaining it to someone. You will realise two wonderful things.
- you are more competent than you realise and;
- there are huge holes in your understanding of story.
Knowing what you know and more importantly know that you don’t know is a huge step forward.
This is my hand on heart promise. If you do these 7 or 8 things your screenwriting improve. Screenwriting is hard, perhaps the hardest of all writing.