Screenwriting: 5 Tips For New Screenwriters

Screenwriting is a tricky art. Long before I started producing my own movies, I worked for a development company. Part of my job was reading screenplays.

screenplay writing

Jason Brubaker Writes

At first, I thought reading screenplays was an AWESOME job.

I have to admit. I felt pretty cool leaving the NYC office each night with three to five screenplays in my bag. On the subway, I would pull out a screenplay and start reading.

My goal was to find material that would eventually become the next Sundance award winner. I lived to find something awesome. Something that would garner me a promotion and clout with the producer. Something great!

But what I read was terribly disheartening.

I read hundreds of screenplays. Some were from new screenwriters. Some were from veteran screenwriters. Some were from screenwriters who (I could only imagine) didn’t know English.

And without fail, what I found was a bunch of discombobulated stories with weak plots and unrefined characters.

I felt sick.

Most of submitted screenwriting was garbage.

(I really wish I was kidding here.)

I’m not trying to sound all high and mighty either.

I tried. I really did!

At first, I read EVERY screenplay, cover to cover. I wanted to give the writer the benefit. They worked hard. So I kept reading. I was convinced that the bad story I presently read would improve. I just needed to keep going. . . I just needed to keep reading.

But I was wrong…

The stories never improved.

After some weeks of reading CRAP screenplays, I just couldn’t do it anymore.

I started slacking. And worse, I really didn’t care.

If the screenplay didn’t grab me in the first 10 to 15 pages, I quickly thumbed through the rest of the script.

After that, my next task was to complete coverage reports for the producer. The goal of a coverage report is to either recommend or pass on the screenplay. Most of the screenplay coverage reports I wrote ended up being some variation on the following:

This writer shows some promise. But this screenplay lacks the necessary plot and character arc to grab interest. The characters all sound similar. Additionally, this story requires expensive sets, locations, seasonal conditions, animals and children. As a consequence, this screenplay necessitates a complete rewrite in order to proceed. My recommendation is to PASS at this time.

I don’t know if this sounds harsh or not. But it is a screenwriting reality.

Most producers will never read any unknown screenplay. Instead, most producers will have an assistant to do the horrible job of reading awful screenplays from terrible screenwriters.

The assistant protects the producer from reading crap screenplays.

And speaking as a former assistant, I can honestly say that many screenwriters should avoid submitting unrefined work in the first place.

But this rarely happens.

Screenwriting Is The Heavy Lifting

All of this being said, you know that great screenwriting is essential for a great movie.

There is no way around this. It is the law of narrative filmmaking.

Your screenplay is the blueprint for your movie.

And if you are a talented up-and-coming filmmaker, you probably noticed this.

The truth is, many produced movies are far from great.

Have you ever asked this question?

…How did THAT movie ever get made?

Good screenwriting question.

Somehow bad screenplays STILL get made.

And  I think there is a reason crappy screenplays get made into crappy movies.

There really is no ONE answer.

And not to digress too far, but here is my theory on how mediocre writing becomes successful screenwriting:

Fact: Most screenplays are complete crap.

Opportunity: If your screenplay is even marginally better, It will SEEM like it’s TONS better than it actually is.

(Reread that again if you need to.)

So based on this premise, the unknown assistant RUNS to the producer to share his great fortune.

“I found screenwriting GOLD. Let’s make a movie!!!”

But the reality is, the screenplay is not gold.

The screenplay is good, but it is not great.

But compared to crap, it seems AWESOME.

This is because years of reading crappy screenplays have knocked the standards pretty low.

And regardless, the bottom line is this… You probably think you can do better.

The good news is, you’re probably right!

During my time reading screenplays, I was able to see first-hand how much garbage is floating around. If you have ANY talent as a writer, your material may get noticed.

This should be good news for the screenwriting profession!

Here is a quick video on screenwriting. It may help you:

Big obvious lesson here?

Write or acquire a GREAT screenplay!

Screenwriting for Filmmakers

I am assuming you want to actually write or acquire a screenplay so you can make your movie. So I am NOT going to provide too much advice on how to “sell” your screenplay.

That being said, whether you plan on producing your own material or selling it, there are still a few factors applicable to your end-goal. The first thing you have to do is get your hands on a great script. If you’re the writer-director type of filmmaker, then starting with a blank screen may feel intimating.

If this is difficult for you, you might consider finding a writing partner and then sharing a story credit.

Or you will just have to sit there until the ideas fill the screen.

To help you out, here is the down and dirty screenwriting lesson for today:

Screenwriting: 5 Tips For New Screenwriters

1.   Get some screenplay software. Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter are the industry standard. Or you could do a Google search for “free screenwriting software.”

2.   Once you have the software, consider writing a feature script on the cheap. Think in terms of limited locations, with limited actors, with a short schedule that you can eventually shoot with limited equipment on HDSLR.

3.   Consider making your story edgy. Drama is hard to market. Horror and thriller and action is universal.

4.  The story should be fun with a STRONG, marketable CONCEPT. People should remember your idea.

5.   The name of the game is FUN. If you can’t have fun, you’re doing something wrong.

Putting the final polish on a screenplay is an amazing accomplishment. But just make sure you’ve created your best work. As they say, you only get one chance to make a good first impression – That same thinking applies to screenwriting.

screenwriting_guideYou only get one chance to grab the attention of a potential actor or department head who may or may not decide to help you with your project. You might get some benefit from this screenwriting resource (It’s my own) – The Indie Producer’s Guide To Writing Screenplays That Sell

 

Comments

  1. Quentin Robinson says

    I totally agree that most screenplays are crap! I pop onto Amazon Studios from time to time to get ideas and sometimes to have a good read of some of the stories there, well, if you want an example of crap, at Amazon you hit the gold mine, the motherload. It sits there waiting for you to download it, but! on the plus side there are some ripping yarns there. Even found one I’d love to turn into a movie. Come the glorious day!

  2. Nkanya Nkwai says

    I have been using Celtx for a year now, I have also read Safe The Cat but I find your tips very refreshing and indeed helpful.
    I have written four Screenplays, produced two and I’m looking forward to produce the next one in a couple months. However after reading through this write up, I’m ready to give in some time to redo this particular Screenplay before sending it out.

    Thanks Jason

  3. MJ says

    I understand that there is a lot of “crap” floating around but not to make excuses, it is very hard to write a screenplay. I am a native English speaker and I majored in English in college. To be a good writer regardless of what you want to write (be it a novel or a script) takes years of practice. The more you write the better your writing gets. I’ve been going to school since I was three and I had a difficult time with writing my first screenplay, even though my educational background was useful for me. The funny thing is the easiest part of screenwriting is adhering to the format. And I read from other screenwriters that screenplays do get rejected if it is not formatted correctly!

    To be a good screenwriter you have to STUDY screenwriting because it is a form of writing that has its own rules and necessities. And practicing screenwriting takes years too. For the most part you learn how to write essays and short stories when in school. Next you need to know the difference between plot and story. Instead of a thesis, you need to find a theme. The theme gives the writer and the screenplay focus and a sense of direction. Next, you need to think about characters. Some movies have underdeveloped characters, some have one-dimentional characters. And then there is dialogue. That’s tough! Some people have a talent for writing good dialogue, some fall flat. You don’t learn that in school at all! Essays require correct, standardized English. Screenplays require slang, colloquialism, profanity, as well as a knowledge of psychology and poetry! It takes time to study both!

    You also need some money! Yes I used a free screenwriting software to write my screenplay and yes my sister read it but when I submitted it to screenwriting competitions, my screenplay got rejected even though their readers enjoyed my screenplay! It costs money to enter into those contests and fellowships and looking back I wondered if I should have taken a screenwriting class and have a professor edit my script. But I didn’t take the class because I didn’t have the money!

    To close, I would like to recommend a book to your readers. I found this book to be very useful titled Cool Million: How to Become a Million-Dollar Screenwriter by Woodbury. Even though I didn’t win a screenwriting contest, I’m confident in the script I wrote because of the information I learned in that book. Because that is the goal: to write a screenplay filmmakers want to use to make a movie that movie fans want to see. Thanks for the article.

  4. Heidi Haaland says

    Agree re: the Viki King book. It’s deceptively simple, but really powerful. I listened to your download and you have a similar, orderly approach to an activity that often seems like herding cats.

  5. says

    I downloaded a free screenplay program called “Celtx” and finished 2 screenplays. Your (Jason) advice on your website is extremely helpful. Thanx!

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