As a reader for independent film festivals, I oftentimes find common mistakes that new writers make when it comes to screenwriting. So, this post is for all you writers, especially novelists, who are looking to branch into screenwriting. The biggest point I must make is that your script is not a novel, and you shouldn’t write it as such.
I believe that most writers who make this mistake are writers who have been writing novels and short stories for some time. Or they are writers who are new to writing and have formed some sort of misconception about the craft of screenwriting. So, in this post I want to explain how screenplays should look.
If you have any questions, comments, or concerns about the content of this post, you may email me anytime.
As authors, most of the rules we’re taught go out the window when writing a script. — Michael Ferris
Before “getting into” screenwriting, I highly suggest that you do a quick search for some screenplays that are available to read. Make some notes on how things are worded, how characters are described, and how scenes are set up. Read as many scripts as humanly possible. Read multiple genres from various writers. Make notes of style choices.
It’s also prudent that you take time to absorb stories in other media: comic books, transmedia stories, newspapers, etc. What’s most important, for comparison, is to read novels. While reading, also look at the stark differences between the two formulas. Great novels can be adapted into great screenplays. There’s nothing wrong with getting inspiration from a novel to write the next great screenplay.
To understand the most about writing screenplays, grab some resources from your local bookstore or online. The Screenwriter’s Bible by Dave Trottier is probably the most useful resource when it comes to screenwriting. Dave Trottier does an excellent job of explaining the purpose of your screenplay: to sell or to produce. The screenplay is meant to be a blueprint or instruction manual on how to make your movie. All the collaborators (the actors, director, art department) need to know what the vision is from the writer. Film is a visual medium and your screenplay should provide that type of context.
To get your blood pumping as you learn about how to write a screenplay (and not a novel-like screenplay), take some time to look at the Common Mistakes in Your Screenplay, a piece I wrote about the mistakes that all novice screenwriters make at some point in their journey. Use it as a resource as you learn.
Also, you can use this link to look at a sample script. Note all the different components of the script: scene headings, dialogue, action lines, parentheticals, and more. Use my sample script with the other scripts to get a sense for the style that your screenplay should look like.
The success of a film depends on the screenplay, and nothing else. —P. Vasu
De-novelizing Your Script
Action Lines Show Action
When it comes to converting your novelesque screenplay, make sure you look at the action lines, these 3–5-line paragraphs describe what the audience sees on screen, hence why the action is written in present, active voice. All scripts are written in this way. Also note that the there isn’t room for much flowery language. Since film and TV are visual mediums, you must show emotion through the action lines. This is where telling and showing become one thing. Not so separate.
Direct Characters, Not Actors
A lot of the time when you’re writing a novel, it’s only natural to “direct” the character by writing the way they speak and how they tilt their head to the side out of curiosity. Well, in screenplays that is a no-no. Wrylies, or parentheticals are added to provide the actor with a bit more detail about the line and how to interpret. That is, if the dialogue doesn’t speak for itself. We call that “subtext”. Overusing wrylies will get you into big trouble. Actors don’t want to be directed by the writer, but by the actual director. So don’t write in “titling his head” or “smiling” or “with gusto” as parentheticals. It’s fine for a novel because your characters need direction but your actors in your TV show or film don’t. They already have a director to help them interpret the meaning of your writing. So, less is usually more in some cases.
Actually, Less Is Definitely More
Speaking of “less is more”, that really is the point that needs to be made here. You must remember that the film and TV productions are run by teams and that the writer has his/her job and the rest of the team has theirs. In a novel, you must give the reader all the sensory details—the clothes someone is wearing, the titles of the books on the shelves (when it’s relevant), and even hairstyle when the mood strikes you. But, for a film or TV production, you have set dressers who fill in your locations, makeup and hair people who get your actors camera-ready, and also costume designers to set the mood. Basically, give the team an idea of what your vision is and have them fill in the gaps.
Everything Must Be On-screen
In a novel, you can write that a person is scared. Simple. An experienced writer will generally avoid the word altogether and show the character trembling or clenching their teeth or sweating profusely. This style of writing is what’s most important to writing a screenplay. Because you don’t have a narrator in the mind of the characters like in a book, you’ll have to show the emotions on the screen.
An even better way to show something is screen is by giving your main character a confidant, someone they tell their feelings too. In this way, you are still “showing” how the character is feeling because he/she is telling their friend or loved one how they really feel. Plus, it gives those secondary characters a moment to shine. Just make sure that every emotion felt is expressed by showing the character’s behavior or by having the character simply tell their friends or family that “I’m scared to get married,” or something to that effect.
Your Script Has a Unique Purpose
A lot of new screenwriters want their scripts to make a script reader run into their boss’s office screaming, “This is an amazing read. You gotta check it out!” Well… that’s just not what the screenplay’s purpose is. Yes, the script reader should enjoy reading your script, but a script is, like I said earlier, a blueprint or manual on how to make your movie. When script readers are reading your script, they’re looking for your ability to give a solid blueprint for a movie.
They’re looking for your ability to show a character’s story arc on screen, that you understand how a great story is structured, that you didn’t remove liberties from the team, and that you’re doing justice to the budget. You’re not selling a novel here. You’re selling a manual for something that people will eventually watch. So, if the script reader can’t make heads or tales of a scene you wrote, he or she will toss it into the trash bin. Your goal is to sell the manual for an eventual production.
But of course, you want that reaction if you’re selling a book. Books are meant to be read. Scripts are meant to be produced and (a lot of the time) sold. So, keep that in mind.
To be a screenwriter first you have to write. And then you have to finish what you write. It seems obvious, but it’s not. —Javier Gullon
Hopefully by the time you’ve reached the end of this post, you’ll have gained knowledge most pertinent to your endeavors. I always tell writers of TV and Film that they’re writing for a visual medium and that it’s highly collaborative. In a nutshell, those are the two most important points to make in this post. Write your scripts with those two key points in mind.
Remember that everything happens as it happens in the world of TV and Film, so don’t fret too much about things ahead of production. Just write the best story that you can. Trust the crew to help you make story come alive. It’s a team sport. Don’t forget that.
How to Develop a Movie Script — Characters, Structure & Goals - Kyle Deguzman – An outline of how to turn your idea into a screenplay
Formatting a Screenplay: How to Put Your Story Into Screenplay Format – Studiobinder - An overview of how to take that brilliant story and format it into a screenplay
How to Write a Movie Script: Screenplay Format and Examples - SC Lannom – Lannom gives real world examples of what a screenplay should look like
Writing a Screenplay vs. Writing a Novel: Learn the 4 Key Differences – MasterClass staff - Highlighting four key differences between a screenplay and a novel.
Five Major Differences Between Writing Novels and Screenplays - ScreenCraft – Reveals five differences between screenplay and novels