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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Screenwriting 101

So recently (within the past 10 months or so) I've been doing a lot of screenwriting in my free time. Screenwriting? What's that? Screenwriting is the process of brainstorming an idea for a film or television show and then turning that idea into a workable script. What's a script? A script is a set of directions basically. It's the outline telling what your actors will say, how they'll say it (sometimes), where they'll say it, what time of day or night it is, how many scenes there are, what props you'll need -- pretty much everything about the story you want to tell. I'm going to attempt to tell you how I do this in the simplest way I can. I'm not trained to do this but I figure since I've written three or four decent length "short" screenplays (30 to 50 minutes... I don't consider that short but it is for a movie) I could share some of what I've learned. Let's start with brainstorming... OH!

P.S. This article was designed so that you could read it one section at a time and come back later. Don't feel like you absolutely have to read all of it at once, In fact it's probably better to go section by section, reading, then doing, then reading, then doing.


What inspires you. I want you to think about this long and hard. I mean it... do it... right now. Take 5 to ten minutes and do some soul searching. Think about the things that move you and that you think likely move others too. After all you have to have an audience (although you should never sacrifice vision for warm bodies... that's what hollywood does. Sometimes they manage to combine vision and popularity and get a box office hit, AKA Avatar. Sometimes they EPIC fail and make movies that get high attendance but that genuinely suck, like Transformers 2. Always go for quality. I guarantee you James Cameron didn't spend more than ten percent of his time thinking "Hey I wonder what the audience would like me to write." The other ninety percent were spent thinking "What do I want to write about."). Pull out your favorite movie soundtracks or pieces of classical music (those are what do it for me). If you like Def Leppard, GO FOR IT! If nature inspires you and makes your mind wander when you're surrounded by it, then go outside! If watching movies themselves is what inspires you, then go rent a few, then spend hours thinking about them while you're at work or at home. If talking to other people and hearing their stories inspires you, find some interesting people. If you want tell your OWN story, then spend some time really figuring out you. You get the gist. Use any combination of things that you can to inspire you and figure out your new idea. Whether it be music, socializing, hiking, camping, moviegoing, drawing, or skydiving (although I wouldn't recommend that... it's expensive, and there's a chance you'll never get to try out that new idea... catch my drift? ha.. yeah.) go for those things and relish them. Dive in. Immerse yourself. And most of all think. I often sit alone at my computer which seems to help. Call me a weirdo (aren't all artists?).


So now you've been listening to James Newton Howard's soundtrack for Signs and you've got this really great idea. It's not fully formed yet but you see scenes playing through your head or have phrases and ideas floating around in there. The next step is to press pause if you haven't done this already, and grab some paper and a pen; a voice recorder, a camera -- anything to capture your ideas. Begin to flesh them out in whatever way you know how. Some people use free writing and just write down whatever comes to them, even if that be random words or phrases all over the paper. It doesn't matter if it's organized. You just need to get it all down. Some people draw what they see. I remember photographing something in order to keep a visual record of my idea once. Some people build models. If you're writing (which is what most people tend to do most of the time), like I said just get it down on paper. If it comes out in an organized fashion, fine, great, and congratulations. If not, that's fine, it's great, and you still deserve a congratulations for even being able to capture your idea. Many give up before they get this far.


I figure that since writing is the main mode of collecting ideas, I should devote a section to it. I'm going to cover two main forms here. The outline, and free writing/word association.
THE OUTLINE: Outlines can take many forms and you'll eventually have to do something called a step outline before you move from brainstorming to actual scriptwriting, but we're not going to cover that here. To write an outline you need to have a skeleton of your idea. Take the scenes that you see in your head and write them down in what seems to be the right order (You'll probably figure out that you need to change a few things later after re-reading). Or sketch them in what seems to be the right order, then describe them in captions. Whatever works. After that's down you need to re read and think about how well what you've written/sketched conveys what you're seeing upstairs. If it's not even close, make some revisions. This is where it's really important to get it right. If you don't get the branding of you idea right here, it can be hard to go back and remember the exact feel you wanted to give your story originally.
FREE WRITING/WORD ASSOCIATION: Free writing/word association is when you either start writing and don't stop until you think you've got the entire idea down on paper, or where you write down specific feelings, phrases, words, and ideas that come to mind when you analyze the story going on inside your head. In free writing you need to go back after the first time through and pick out the parts that make sense/reivse or throw out the parts that don't. Then make an outline (See "THE OUTLINE" above). If you're using word association you should circle the words and ideas that you want to keep, on a new sheet of paper write those down, keep whittling until you've gotten a good web of words and ideas to express what you're feeling and seeing inside. Then try to make an outline based off of those words and ideas (See "THE OUTLINE" above).


After you've finished "brainstorming" your grand idea, the next step is to turn those outlines, sketches and random words into a more solidified format called a step outline. A step outline is a detailed outline of each scene in your film. I construct mine as follows:

Scene 1
[In this space write whatever occurs in the scene. Include any characters needed to drive the action]
Scene 2
Descriptions can be as short as one or two sentences or as long as several paragraphs, just as long as you capture the action of that scene well. Try not to micro manage here though.


Before I go any further I'd like to emphasize that you need to start with short stories. They help you perfect the craft. Short means anywhere from two to around eighty pages. Most screenwriting competitions draw the lines for a feature film to be from eighty to 120 pages. Short are usually from thirty to sixty pages in bigger competitions. but some minor ones like those held monthly and for free at limit you to five pages or sometimes even less. So start where you feel comfortable, whether that be two pages or sixty. But make it short by definition.

After having written your step outline you're ready to start your screenplay. Since this part gets a bit technical I won't re-invent the wheel by trying to tell you what has already been compiled somewhere else. For specifics on writing the actual screenplay itself visit the following sites:

To find screenplay competitions visit:

For more tips on how to specifically write short screenplays visit:

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