Article Submitted by Jason D. Gregory, Writer/Producer
So you want to be a screenwriter? Before you begin, ask yourself a few questions. Is it because you love what you see in films? What is it about the films? The camera angles or the directing? And what are the last scripts that you’ve read?
It’s important to understand that there are two types of screenwriters; those who write to sell scripts and those who write to direct. If you are writing to sell, then you should never include camera directions and limit parentheticals. These are reserved for the director. Once you sell the script, it becomes their world to create. Now whether you write to sell or to direct, the following should get you started in your journey.
I encounter new writers all the time that attempt to break the rules before they understand the rules. If you want screenwriting to become your career, you must respect the craft. That includes taking classes, reading books, watching videos, finding mentors in the industry and of course writing every single day! Become disciplined in your writing and commit to it every day. The difference between screenwriting becoming either a hobby or a career change lies within your attitude. If you can commit yourself to writing every day, you begin to create a habit and will learn to protect your writing time. If it is a hobby, then you will write whenever the moment hits. You should create the moment and not let the moment create you.
Maybe you are in the beginning stages of writing, have a burning idea and want quick information on how to get started. Cool. Let’s start out talking about the Four C’s.
This is WORLD CREATION. Determine what the world looks like and what the rules are. Think of the opening of Lion King. We see the safari, the animals and finally, the royal family with Simba being presented. We immediately understand the dynamics of the world and the roles of the characters. Speaking of characters…
Who are the CHARACTERS and what are their roles? Who is the protagonist? What is their backstory? Who is the antagonist and what is their backstory? The lines between good and bad are now somewhat blurred so give both redeeming qualities. Look at Walter White in Breaking Bad. When the series started, he was a good man, doing a bad thing for a good reason. By the end of the series, he became a bad man, doing a bad thing for bad reasons.
It’s also important to identify your supporting characters or mentors. Each character must have a purpose. If they don’t or they are two similar to another character, get rid of them or merge the characters into one. Each character MUST have a unique voice and purpose. In Star Wars, Obi Wan was the first mentor for Luke. Once he died, Han Solo became Luke’s next mentor. In the Matrix, Morpheus becomes Neo’s mentor and leads him down the rabbit hole. Your protagonist must always go down the rabbit hole, unfamiliar territory. A choice is made that leads your protagonist into the new world.
Once in the unfamiliar territory, the protagonist encounters internal and external conflicts. The internal conflicts come from who they were before and who they are destined to become. The eternal conflicts are from the training that they must undergo to become the new person. In the Lion King, Simba had to learn the “hakuna matata” way of life. He wasn’t used to it but eventually settles into the “no worries” life. When Nala arrives and tells him about Pride Rock, his new life is in immediate conflict with his old life and now another choice must be made.
Now that your protagonist has made their decision, the new world rules challenge the old ones. They’ve learned a lesson and training that allows them to challenge the old world. Maybe they are back for revenge or to right a wrong. Either way, your character must have shown a full character arc. They must be completely different from how they were in the beginning. Simba started off as an entitles lion cub prince and by the end he is prideful King, prepared to step out of his father’s shadow. Neo went from a hacker to “The One”, destined to lead humanity to freedom.
Once you have the Four C’s worked out, create a logline: a quick 1-2 sentence summary of the TV program or film. It identifies the protagonist, their need, and their conflict. It’s also used as a quick elevator pitch. If you have the opportunity to pitch a producer on your idea, please have your logline worked out. Don’t give them a full summary of your story unless they ask for more information. Most writers miss out on their opportunity because they have not perfected their logline and almost “throw up” all the information about the story. If the producer is interested, THEY WILL ask for additional information.
Once you have the logline, begin working on a treatment or outline. I like to create scene headings in my outlines so that when it is time to write the script, I just cut and paste them into my screenwriting software program. If you are a novelist or fiction writer, this is your chance to write some prose but understand that writing screenplays is very different than writing fiction. You show more than you tell, and you don’t have as much description.
After your treatment, let a fellow writer review it. Those unfamiliar with the process will just be impressed with the fact that you put an idea on paper and may not understand what feedback to give you. A fellow writer will tear it to pieces and give you honest feedback. Try to find writer’s groups to join so that you can have some sort of support system.
Now, it’s time to write the script. I mentioned screenwriting software above. Personally, I use Final Draft but for those starting out, I recommend Celtx.com. It’s a free program and is very user friendly. YOU MUST COMMIT TO LEARNING STRUCTURE AND FORMATTING. It is critical that you understand this. No producer will read your work if it is not correctly formatted no matter how good you believe it is. Our eyes are trained to catch mistakes and poorly formatted scripts prevent us from enjoying the story. Screenwriting is a very technical form of writing and you show respect for the craft by formatting the script correctly.
Finally, send it to your fellow writer once again for them to review and rip apart. It’s better that they find the holes before a potential producer does. Yes, we are artists and we’re sensitive about our sh$% but it’s time to build that tough skin and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
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