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What Is a Screenplay?
A screenplay is an artistic work designed to create films, television programs, and video games. It can come from an original idea or an adaptation of a fictional book, a historical event, or even a biography. It narrates the actions, expressions, and dialogues of each character in the story. Those in the industry use it to guide producers, directors, actors, and the rest of the crew through every single scene to make sure the story plays out as the screenwriter had initially envisioned. The screenplay goes a long way in helping the production company decide whether to pull the greenlight on the proposed project plan. These studios often look for screenplays that are bankable based on how they are exhibited on paper.
Though a lot of other factors affect a financier’s decision to invest in the film, a well-written screenplay does make a huge impact on one’s perspective.
The Elements of a Screenplay
Back in the day, typewriters were one of the only advanced mediums that allowed screenwriters to record their ideas immediately on print. While times have since paved the way to modernized methods of film writing, their formats remain the same. So if you ever think about shooting your shot in the world of screenplay writing, you might want to consider the following elements to complete your script.
How to Write a Screenplay
Many aspiring writers have the potential to make it big in the industry but often fail as soon as they start limiting their imagination to only a few aspects of what they are writing. Not many people seem to realize the amount of work it takes to put together a screenplay. The very nature of screenwriting is your ability to tell a story through the visual elements portrayed on-screen. But nothing about the craft is easy, so you need to make sure you do every step right.
Step 1: Commit Yourself to a Goal
You won’t get very far along in your journey if you don’t take it seriously. Prepare yourself for the long, sleepless nights you’ll spend trying to rehash every scene until you’re satisfied with what you have. The best screenwriters in the business even find themselves in a slump ever so often, despite their years of experience in screenplay writing. Setting a goal for yourself is one way to stay motivated. You’ll have days when you’ll feel like you’ve hit a dead-end street, leading you to question whether you’re on the right path. On days like this, you have to remind yourself of the goals you’ve had from the very beginning. Committing yourself to the craft will be an exhausting experience to go through, but the results will definitely be worth the sacrifice.
Step 2: Develop Your Characters
Screenplays with relatable characters are a significant plus. Everyone loves a story with proper character development. It doesn’t matter if you turn the bad into good or turn the bad into really bad, as long as you make it easy for people to determine who they should root for and who they should despise in the story. Backstories often help justify the attitudes and behaviors of your characters for your audience to identify with them quickly. It also helps the casting director choose the right actors who can live up to your expectations as a writer. The key is to be descriptive and imaginative enough to build a character that complements the theme of your story.
Step 3: Prepare a Quick Outline
It’s often challenging to translate your thoughts directly on paper. Your mind could be filled with bits and pieces of a whole idea that you’re struggling to work out. The best way to handle this matter is to write an outline of your script. Consider using an outline template to get this done, as it does help keep a simple storyboard organized until you complete this step. It doesn’t matter how messy your outline becomes, as this is only meant to provide a brief overview of the entire plot. Feel free to add a few changes as you go along to make sure every great idea makes it to the final cut.
Step 4: Create a Draft of the Story
While you might have already used a few papers to sort out the previous actions, this one acts as your first real draft of the screenplay that you can show your co-writers or colleagues for review. The basic format still applies, but try not to think too hard about achieving a perfect output. Instead, focus on the original flow of your story, but this time, with more detail compared to your outline. Allow your imagination to roam as freely and creatively as possible. You can leave the mistakes and missing points of the story for the final stage of editing.
The Dos and Don’ts of a Screenplay
A lot of time and effort goes into writing a screenplay. It’s one thing to pitch in a story idea with an exciting plot, but how can you make a screenplay that can execute these ideas in a way that will impress your audience? While mastering the craft of screenwriting is not something you could do overnight, we’ve put together a list of tips to help you avoid the pitfalls of screenwriting for a better chance of success.
1. Do follow proper formatting.
It’s essential to conform to the standard screenwriting format when plotting your script. Proper indentions, spacing, and organization must be observed to ensure consistency in writing. The elements of a screenplay must also be present to complete each scenario. It might take some time to get used to, but there are many programs and systems available that may hasten the process for a more efficient writing experience. Learning the basics of effective screenwriting is often a slow, grueling process that demands patience and commitment.
2. Do create compelling characters.
You’ll want to create characters that your audience can relate to. These characters must possess a personality, attitude, or behavior that accurately reflects certain types of human beings. This will allow you to evoke a specific emotion from your audience that will build a lasting connection even after the film rolls out.
Let’s take 2019’s version of DC Comics’ Joker, as an example. While we all recognize the Joker as the sadistic psychopath who stirs chaos across Gotham City in the Batman series, the film adaptation of the Joker’s origin was said to have shaken audiences so much that some viewers reportedly had to leave the theater before the movie ended. Here, the screenwriter’s and the actor’s ability to portray an emotionally engaging character lead to the box office success of this critically acclaimed film.
3. Do gear the script to a specific type of audience.
Before writing your screenplay, it’s always a good idea to start by defining your market. This will help you determine how you could possibly convey a story in a way that will entrance and entertain your viewers. Screenplays for animated movies and television series, for instance, don’t always target those of a younger age group. Shows like BoJack Horseman, Family Guy, and South Park aren’t exactly suitable for children, as their scripts contain provocative language and dark humor that may offend some viewers. Even then, screenwriters of these cartoons have managed to create a screenplay that combines creative visuals and social issues that their target viewers may easily connect with.
4. Do give it a rest.
After spending countless hours perfecting your screenplay, it’s essential to take a few short breaks in between the whole writing process. Allow your mind to rest by engaging in other activities that will distract you from your work. Writer’s block is pretty standard among screenwriters as well, which can often affect the quality of your writing in the worst way possible. To get you back on that zone, seek inspiration from things and places that bring you comfort. Consider it as a recovery period that will allow you to return to your screenplay with a more lucid state of mind.
5. Do have it reviewed.
Look out for minor typos and grammatical mistakes that might have been overlooked. Your screenplay is meant to reflect who you are as a writer and the skills you are trying to enhance. Thus, you need to be meticulous about every aspect of your work that may influence how readers perceive it. As a professional, you don’t want to present a sloppily written output to your audience. The key is to produce a written piece that will encourage people to want to know more about your plot. You can ask an expert for some advice to find out how you can improve your current works.
1. Don’t make it too long.
The average length of a screenplay is somewhere between 108 and 114 pages. Unless you’re a known talent like Mel Gibson or Quentin Tarantino, you won’t get away with a script that’s over 120 pages in length. Screenplays that don’t abide by the standard format and length tend to get ignored by industry folks, primarily when written by an unpopular screenwriter. But if it means cutting out a few crucial scenes, consider breaking the story into two or three parts. The second could serve as a sequel to your first script, just make sure it doesn’t end with a cliff-hanger.
2. Don’t be overly ambitious.
Pushing your imagination to greater heights is one way to give your screenplay a touch of creativity and originality. These days, you can find a lot of scripts with nonsense stories that still make it to the small (and big) screens. Just because they managed to get a studio to fund their ideas isn’t a good enough reason to settle with mediocre work. You also need to be considerate about the resources available to play out each scene. Even well-established studios know better than to accept a screenplay for a story that requires an unreasonably high budget. If you’re looking to achieve a box-office record, quality should stand as your utmost priority.
3. Don’t write about what you don’t know.
It may sound incredibly cliché, but every screenwriter needs to understand the value of writing about something that’s close to home. It’s one of the techniques that helped launched the careers of many writers and directors in history. When you write about a subject that you can relate to, you can explore the realities of life in ways that will leave a lasting impression on audiences. Think of it as a business card that will differentiate you from the rest of the pack. Allow yourself to dig into your deepest fears and desires, and see how you could incorporate such into your screenplay.
4. Don’t create too many characters.
Imagine writing a script with more than 20 characters in it. Not only will it steer your attention away from the protagonist, but it can also make it difficult for you to introduce and develop other characters in the story. You need to give your audience someone whom they could connect and engage with on a personal level. Characters with supporting roles can make several appearances in your script, just make sure you know which characters deserve the most air time to align with your plot.
5. Don’t forget the overview.
Not everyone has the time to skim through a screenplay that’s over a hundred pages long. This is one of the reasons why it’s essential to prepare a one-page summary of the entire script. Similar to the synopsis on the back of a book cover, it should tell readers, comprised of agents and producers, what your screenplay is about without giving away too many details. The overview should only highlight what’s crucial to the plot, along with the main takeaway that will hook readers to the story. Be sure to write this after you have written the rest of your screenplay.
Don’t assume your first approach to screenplay writing to be a successful one. While ideas create the plot, the structure and format of your screenplay are crucial elements you don’t want to take for granted. You’d be surprised by how your writing skills could change the game completely.