5 Tips To Starting a Screenplay
January 22, 2023
You’re a fan of movies, TV shows, or mini series and have thought: ‘I’d like to be a screenwriter.’ It’s only natural to want to take part in something you enjoy and the prospect of getting paid to do so would no doubt be a dream job. Maybe you even have an idea that you think would make a great movie or TV pilot.
But how do you start writing a screenplay?
Below are 5 tips…
WATCH MOVIES and/or TV SERIES
Most likely you’ve already been doing this, hence why you want to write a feature or TV pilot. However, now that you’ve committed to the idea of writing a screenplay, you should specifically watch films and TV shows that are similar to your idea and start watching them with an analytical mindset. What are some common characteristics of your chosen genre? Are there any reoccurring tropes? Are there certain kinds of characters who often appear? Whether you’re watching a classic film from the past or modern-day content: what are the broader elements that connect them? These would probably be essential elements to the genre (e.g., someone close to the protagonist being killed in a revenge thriller). But also how are they different? What are some trends you see popping up again and again? How are certain kinds of characters introduced? How are others dispatched? After awhile you’ll see numerous patterns emerging; some are time-tested formulas; others are newer ones. This doesn’t mean you should simply be copying these formulas, but you do need to be aware of them. A popular screenwriting adage is “Be the same but different.” Figure out how to be fresh and subvert expectations while working within a proven framework.
READ PRODUCED SCRIPTS
Thanks to the internet an aspiring writer has numerous produced scripts at their disposal. If you’re looking for a specific feature screenplay or television pilot, simply type in the name of the film or show into a search engine with the words “screenplay,” “script,” or “pilot” and it might very well come up. Obviously not every script for a film or television pilot is available online, but many of the most popular ones are. Read a few produced scripts in your selected genre and take note of the formatting, technique and style. An aspiring screenwriter should also invest in screenwriting software, which will automatically format your script to industry standards.
WRITE AN OUTLINE or TREATMENT
An aspiring screenwriter shouldn’t immediately jump into writing without having a general idea of what they plan to write. You wouldn’t go on a road trip without knowing your destination first, right? Well, likewise a writer needs to know where they’re going with their screenplay or pilot. This doesn’t mean that every little detail needs to be worked out, but you should know the main characters, the main story, the overall arc, etc. Learning about three-act structure is useful beforehand and this is information that can also be easily found on the internet. Your script needs to have a beginning, middle and end, and you should have this worked out before writing. A treatment shouldn’t be set in stone, however, and feel free to deviate from it when writing if you think of something better (for example, endings are quite often changed in professional screenplays, sometimes even post principal photography). A treatment is a tool to help you get started and to give you some needed direction, but it’s not a binding document.
MENTALLY PREPARE YOURSELF
Half of writing is thinking about what you’re going to write and playing mental tricks on yourself. Essentially you have to psyche yourself into the act of writing. There are many ways to do this; first you have to make a commitment to yourself to start writing. You should create a personal work routine and put aside a certain amount of time each day to work on your script. It can just be an hour or two everyday (ideally enough to write five pages), but it should be worked into your schedule. We all have different jobs and lifestyles: whatever works best within your regular routine. Putting aside the time actually helps to psyche yourself into writing; your mind will start working, your thoughts will start turning. Take a long shower or walk and think about what you’re going to write the next day. Watch a film or TV show that’s been especially inspirational for you. Keep thinking, ‘Tomorrow I’m going to start writing!’
THINK ROUGH DRAFT
Even if you’ve done the above prep work and have a detailed treatment, you still might struggle with the blank page the next day; your dilemma won’t be what to write but how to write. A writer shouldn’t worry so much about this when writing their first draft. If you’ve done your research and have the proper screenwriting software, you’ll have the basic formatting down. Resign yourself to the fact that your first draft is a rough draft, and it’s not going to be great or maybe even good. The important thing is just to start writing. Essentially you’re turning your treatment into a screenplay; filling in the gaps and writing dialogue for your characters. Drink some coffee or tea. Play music while you write if this helps you to be inspired. Be creative. Have fun. The more you enjoy writing, the more others will enjoy reading your script. Don’t worry about how good it is until after you finish your rough draft.
If you get through your first writing session and have a few pages to show for it, congratulations! You’ve taken your first step to becoming a screenwriter. But if you didn’t get much or any work done after your first session, don’t be discouraged. The most difficult part of writing is starting to write, and you might have a few false starts before the words finally start flowing. If you follow these tips and keep with the routine, you’ll eventually start writing…!!
Written by: Edwin CannistraciEdwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.