Tuesday, September 18, 2007

13 Tips on How To Write A Screenplay

Even though I've stopped trying to write the Perfect Zombie Movie Screenplay (or any screenplay whatsoever), I'm pretty confident that there are many people out there who harbor the screenwriting dream. The cliche in Hollywood is that everyone drives around with a script in their back pocket. I tend to think that's close to the way it is across the country, if not around the world. For you Hinterland Screenwriters, like myself, the script isn't in your back pocket, it's up there in your head.

But getting it out fraught with dangers, procrastination being one of them. However, the sooner you start committing words to your laptop, the sooner you will feel dumb, foolish, immature, unstable, lonely, jittery, ridiculous, and bipolar. Like every other writer who's ever lived. Onward, then, to the 13 Tips:

1. Get clear on what stage your at.
Are you a total neophyte beginner - the words haven't left your brain yet. Or are you further along - you complain so much to friends after you've seen a movie that they no longer invite you to drinks or dinner afterwards.

2. Realize right up front that you are doing Actual Work and you are Not Getting Paid.

3. Come up with a sellable idea. This is where the term "High Concept" comes in. How can you tell what's High Concept and what's not? Anything these days with Zombies is High Concept. Your coworkers foibles and the boredom of your job are not.

4. Create an awesome villain. And go for an extreme. Villains are either pure and simply people (think Hannibal Lector) or require makeup, costuming and special effects (think HAL, Darth and Sauron.) Even better: if the villain is on the same side as your hero!

5. Remove this thought from your brain and never let it escape your lips: "Somebody in Hollywood will be interested in this because it's in the news." Nothing could be further from the truth. And if Hollywood is interested, chances are they've got scripts already written. By the time you send your's in, the world has changed.

6. Study 3-Act Screenwriting Structure. After you've written your first draft. Nothing keeps a writer from completing a script or other piece of work like the "having to make it perfect the first time through" mindset.

7. Allow yourself to write crap for your first draft. Absolute crap. "So bad your five year old could do light-years better" crap. It's the only way. Sorry, but it is.

8. Resign yourself to actually writing. There is no market for ideas. Ideas attached to incredibly-well-executed scripts, however...

9. Make a list of all the movies you know that don't start with a bang. Then ignore this list, and start your screenplay with a bang.

10. Google "Screenwriting Mistakes"
and Don't Make Them.

11. Write great dialogue. Stuff that sounds real, dilineates character, advances story, engages viewers, inspires actors, and is economical yet not at all terse. If you find you can't write dialogue, then listen to everyone who's around you. 24/7/365. Write down what they're saying. If you're not getting stares, angry looks, or outright threats to stop, you aren't doing it enough. If you still can't write great dialogue, find someone who can.

12. Fully believe that you can come up with a script that is better than most movies you've ever seen. Just about anyone can. The prevailing view among scriptreaders in Hollywood is that most scripts in their "To Be Read On Saturday Night" pile are awful. And they are, because they're trying to be like all the other scripts in Hollywood that actually go into production. So while anyone can write a better script, Hollywood is set up to always say "No." Which leaves the Hinterland Screenwriter between the horns, dilemma-wise.

13. Consider writing a play. You'll improve your dialogue craft immensely. Chances are you'll get a play produced easier, or you'll find actors who will do readings for you so you can hear how your writing plays out loud. And if you're really lucky, you'll see your work onstage, that will be enough, and you won't have to begin writing a screenplay because your dreams have been fulfilled.
Why 13 Tips? Because writing a screenplay that actually gets optioned, sold or produced is 99% luck and 1% hard work, dedication, talent, craft, and passion. So I concede to bad luck right up front. You might think it's the other way around, 1% luck and all, but that's because you're seeing things from the hinterlands, where it can seem pretty roomy. It took me awhile to fully realize how the percentages shake out, so I don't fault anyone for their world view. There was no way I could understand it without some experience myself. The good thing is that it takes very little experience to facilitate dawn on your awareness. And yes, that picture's from Adaptation, a great movie to watch if you're wondering what writing is like.

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