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Script Writing Tips for Screenplays and Screenwriters

A reader asked for script writing tips on The Adventurous Writer, so I’ve pulled together some helpful advice for screenwriters. By the way, these tips for screenplays also work well for effective for writing articles, novels, and poems….

Before the script writing tips, a quip:

“Scriptwriting is the toughest part of the whole racket… the least understood and the least noticed,” says Frank Capra.

It’s true, isn’t it? The movie stars, directors, producers, and even the key grips seem to get more credit than the screenwriters. If this doesn’t dampen your enthusiasm to write scripts, then you’ll want to learn as much as you can! Click on Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. It’s a tome of script analyses, suggestions, and storytelling tips. And, read on for several script writing tips for screenplays and screen writers… 

Script Writing Tips for Screenplays and Screenwriters

Know your weaknesses as a writer. In Rewriting Secrets for Screenwriters, Tom Lazarus cautions potential screenwriters to be aware of their most common writing mistakes. Accepting your weaknesses – which could range from lack of self-discipline to sloppy grammar – will increase your chances of writing a screenplay that sells.

Learn the lingo. An essential tip for writing screenplays is to know the jargon. Story events, beats, sequences, archplots, nonlinear time, inconsistent realities are just a few terms that potential screenwriters have to be familiar with. If you don’t know what an antiplot is, can you write a great screenplay? Probably…but it wouldn’t hurt to learn the lingo!

Slot your screenplay into one (or two) film genres. Is your screenplay a Maturation Plot, Social Drama, Comedy, Punitive Plot, Testing Plot, Sports Genre, or Mockumentary? The list of possibilities is almost endless; to figure out where your screenplay fits, and to stay in that genre. Some films cross a genre or two, but most blockbusters seem to fit a particular type of screenplay.

Learn the elements of story. “A beautifully told story is a symphonic unity in which structure, setting, character, genre, and idea meld seamlessly,” writes McKee in Story. “To find their harmony, the writer must study the elements of story as if they were instruments of an orchestra – first separately, then in concert.” There are no quick and easy script writing tips, fellow scribes! It’s hard work – necessary work – to learn the elements of story.

Make sure your scenes aren’t what they seem. Here’s an old Hollywood expression: ‘If the scene is about what the scene is about, you’re in deep s**t.’ McKee explains that scenes in screenplays aren’t about what they seem to be about. A scriptwriting tip to remember is that there’s always an inner life behind or within each scene, which often contrasts with or even contradicts what the scene seems to be about.

Create a scene list. A script writing tip from Rewriting Secrets for Screenwriters by Tom Lazarus is to separate what you planned to write from what you actually wrote. To do this, create a chronological list of scenes (a scene list). Delete irrelevant scenes; make sure your relevant scenes are in a logical order.

Identify your story arc. “The scenes should start good and evolve to great,” writes Lazarus. “They should start small and get bigger and better.” He describes this as rising action (which most novels, poems, and even articles have). This evolving arc is vital to keeping your readers – or film viewers – hooked!

Track your transitions. This isn’t just a script writing tip for screenplays; writers in all genres must make sure their transitions are smooth. The better the transitions, the better the read…and the better the screenplay. For more transition tips, read 5 Tips for Making Your Sentences Flow.

Take a tip from Advice to Writers. Here’s some script writing advice from Tony Bill (an American actor, producer, and director): “Get a hold of three or four terrific original scripts. You decide which ones. Read them; analyze them if you want, or just let them wash over you. Notice their format: it’s standard in the industry, no exceptions. Then throw away or erase from memory all the books, articles, and lessons that reference or espouse three-act structures, five- and seven-act structures, “inciting events,” “character arcs,” “redemption,” Joseph Campbell’s name, plot graphs and charts, or supposed “tricks of the trade.” Forget the mumbo jumbo and just write the damn script and finish it in 120 pages or less. If you’re sufficiently talented, original, and inspired, nothing else is necessary. If you’re not, nothing else will help. If it turns out that you lack one or all of those elements, write another script. Maybe another. Give up when you can’t take it anymore. The time saved by not reading all those how-to books should be enough to carry you through the first several scripts at least, with time to spare. Sound cruel? Ask any screenwriter.”

Should you take Bill’s advice and throw out the “how to write a screenplay” and script writing tips – and just write the damn thing? I welcome your comments below…

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2 thoughts on “Script Writing Tips for Screenplays and Screenwriters”

  1. I agree — Bill’s advice is stellar (and yes, it would be fun to write a screenplay!).

    But I do think potential screenwriters need to know the techniques behind the craft of script writing…just writing is fine, but following structure and guidelines is important, too.

    Else, isn’t it like building a house without a blueprint?
    .-= Laurie PK´s last blog post ..6 Tips for Long-Term Success as a Freelance Writer =-.

  2. Laurie,

    Wow. That advice from Bill is nothing short of stellar.

    I’ve always thought writing a screenplay could be fun. It is on my list of things to do for sure.

    .-= Tumblemoose´s last blog post ..It’s the Writers Proximidade Show =-.