In the beginning, there is always the idea… and then there is a wall, a great white wall. Your own personal Moby Dick, an impossible climb that you must make if your idea is ever to see the light of day. And that wall is the blank page. Whether you write on paper or on a screen, that empty space in need of words is a daunting and intimidating task, even for the most seasoned of professionals.
When it comes to filmmaking, the screenplay is the absolute first step which must be taken. Composing a complete script that works is the foundation upon which your project will be built. You have to get it right or it all falls down. Now that blank screen has a whole film riding on it. No pressure, right?
Here’s the good news: you can totally do this. It’s hard work, and you have to follow formats, structure and plenty of rules, but it’s not as impossible as it might look in the beginning. Below I offer a mix of philosophical, mechanical, and logistical approaches to getting a screenplay done. This isn’t just about physically producing the document. It’s about pulling the best work out of yourself that you can. And more importantly – it’s about reaching readers and audience.
Readers are the people you need to believe in your vision. They are the investors and production people you must convert into patrons and partners. You must hook them with a read that flows easily while striking deep into their imaginations. Convert them and your film gets made.
But film audiences don’t read screenplays – they watch movies. Your concoction must also be able to materialize onto the screen. It’s quite a bit of magic you have to pull off: the written word transforming into the audiovisual execution. So put on your wizard hat and learn as many tricks as you can.
This doesn’t just apply to screenplays, but to any kind of writing. A completed work is an elusive animal living within yourself which does not want to be captured. It comes from the place inside of yourself that dislikes the light of day. Consider this a no-kill hunt: to track down your quarry, you cannot lose its trail. Give it some sweat without fail at least one hour for every 24. Accept this reality before you learn the first thing about screenplays.
Now that you’ve committed to the writing routine, it’s time to get to your awesome idea. Before writing a word of the script, capture the essence of the screenplay – story, plot and characters – with these three essential tools:
This should be short, no more than a couple of pages. Here you describe in broad strokes what happens in your tale. It’s a big picture map of the journey ahead, serving as a compass to keep you on track with the course of the script. Set up the circumstances. Describe the challenges to be faced. Explain the resolution to it all. Short, sweet, simple.
Create a series of notes – digital or index cards – and write down what happens in each scene of your film on each note. Individual scene notes represent 3-4 minutes of screen time. Put 30 of these notes together, you reach standard feature film lengths (90-120 minutes). Adjust this formula for shorter works (commercials, YouTube, etc.). Be detailed, use bullet points, lists, and other tricks to cram information in. From here will issue your screenplay.
Write up a list of your characters. Main characters should have a few paragraphs about who they are, where they’ve been, and what motivates them. Secondary characters don’t need as much info. Even characters who have just one line should be named. This not only keeps tabs on the population of your screenplay’s world, it makes them real. Don’t be afraid to add or alter characters on the way – they tend to surprise writers with lives of their own.
This is the part that will feel like school and there’s no way around it. If you want your work to be read, it MUST be written in the standardized form. That means following margins, using film terms, the 3-act structure, and even spelling (for real). The good news is that several excellent screenwriting programs do a lot of this automatically for you. Nevertheless, the writer needs to understand these mechanics if she is to construct a script. The industry standard on the subject is Syd Field’s The Foundations of Screenwriting. Seek it out, read it. And remember: one page in the format equals one minute of film time. Feature scripts need to be 90-120 pages long.
Here you are, at the start of your script, ready to roll. Remember how I said earlier you have to hook the reader? Well that needs to happen fast. In the real world, people who read scripts professionally are sick of reading scripts. If they aren’t interested in literally the first five pages, they will throw your work in the trash and move on to the next. I know – that’s harsh. But it’s the way it is. Even friends and family will lose interest quickly. So make sure everything that’s awesome about your script makes a big splash right off the bat.
One of the biggest mistakes screenwriters make is over-explaining things. The fear is that unless every thought, every action, every moment is described in great detail, the reader won’t “get it.” But that’s all wrong. The art of filmmaking is in the final execution. A screenplay should only explain what NEEDS to be seen and heard on the screen. For example, you can’t “see” a character’s thoughts, so you shouldn’t be explaining them on the page. And when you describe a scene, don’t go crazy. A prose book is forced to use words to show us a place, film is not. Give the production some room to find its own look and spare the poor reader’s eyes. That doesn’t mean you skip the important stuff, though. Spell those things our clearly and concisely. Remember – just because you wrote this doesn’t mean you’re directing it. Always write as if someone else will have only your script to know how to make the film. It really is a set of instructions as much as its own work of art.
Dialogue can be the most fun to write in a screenplay. Then writers get carried away, giving every character Hamlet speeches. But nobody in real life explains their motivations all day long. Film is a visual medium first. Save dialogue for what matters – moving the story forward and revealing the characters’ inner selves. Avoid expository speeches. Keep things punchy and short. A close up on an actor can say much more than three pages of soliloquy. Let the camera do some of the talking, or the weather, or even a simple gesture. Hold on to those killer lines for the right moment, and don’t let them get lost in a sea of babble.
There’s an old screenwriting trick known as “white spacing.” This means not having lots of words on lots of pages and being sure to leave a lot of empty space. Anytime a script has large clumps of description or dialogue, it usually means trouble. We already know readers have short attention spans. And the writer needs to trust cast and crew to add to her initial vision. So, don’t clog up your script. Economize your words. Say more with less. It not only makes for an easier read, it opens up room for things to happen cinematically.
At some point, after learning all the rules, after outlining the story and plot, after meeting your characters – forget everything. Let your fingers do the talking. Trust in your tale and let your characters speak for themselves. Yes, there are goals you must direct the action towards, things people must say. But the stories and the people in them have more to tell you than you might know. Let your creation use you as a host. Unleash the subconscious with surrender. I know it sounds corny, but let me tell you, being possessed by a story is a powerful feeling.
Don’t forget that your writer’s mind is attached to a writer’s body: fingers, spines, and of course, butts. Don’t fool yourself – just because you’re sitting around writing all day doesn’t mean it’s not physical. Carpal tunnel syndrome, cramps, back pain, and much more plagues writers. Keep them muscles strong. Do some light weights or pushups. Take walks to get leg blood flowing. Stretch out. Maintain proper posture. All this will strengthen your insides to endure the long hours you will need to abuse your hands. Not only that, but it will feed your brain and soul with endorphins and psychological release. Take care of your tools.
You’re done with your first draft of your screenplay? Awesome! You’ve probably got two or three more to go. Read your work slowly, patiently. Check grammar and spelling like a hawk. Challenge yourself with questions. Does the story make sense? Are these jokes funny? Will people buy this plot twist? And get other people to read it. Ask them to be merciless and provide lots and lots of notes. Consider all suggestions seriously. The truth might hurt, but friends and peers can often see things you don’t see. Be strong – not everyone will get what you are doing. But comparing notes from several parties can reveal patterns you didn’t know were there. Finally, if you’re at your fifth draft or so, stop where you are. You should know if it’s pitchable or not by then. Some scripts may not work – but that’s part of the process. Keep going on the next one. You’ll get better. I promise.
At the end of the day, whether you wrote the best damn thing ever or end up unsatisfied with your final product – congratulations! You finished a screenplay! Do you have any idea how few people actually do that? Take pride in the accomplishment, no matter what the outcome. It’s a great skill you have taken on and one which will always teach you about film, about writing and about yourself.
There’s lot of other “rules,” trick, and devices to get that screenplay out of you. The ones I offer here are just the ones I think are the most important. They should at least get you off to a good start. Use them as markings on your own path to writing your script. And please try to enjoy the adventure. It can take you anywhere you can imagine… literally.
Argentinean-born New Yorker Miguel Cima is a veteran of the film, television, and music industries. An accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comic book creator, Miguel's movie, Dig Comics, won Best Documentary at the San Diego Comic Con and was selected for Cannes. He has worked for Warner Bros. Records, Dreamworks, MTV, and more. Currently, Miguel creates content for multiple platforms and media. His formal education came from New York University, where he earned a BFA in film. World traveler, culture junkie and major foodie, he is happily unmarried to the same gal since the mid 2000s, devoted to his family & friends, and slavishly serves his true masters - two dogs and a cat.