Good screenwriters copy; great screenwriters steal…advice, that is!
Screenwriters are the unsung heroes of Hollywood movie magic. Without them, there would be no "You're gonna need a bigger boat," "Show me the money!" or "Life moves pretty fast. You don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." Film as we know it would be stuck in the silent-era dark ages with Charlie Chaplin continually tripping over his feet—but this, too, required screenwriters.
Fortunately for us, major screenwriters believe in the karma of the business and have passed on their screenwriting advice to us, just as mentors early in their career had given them advice.
So, what are some top tips to glean from the screenwriting experts?
"It's an enormous wall that's built between you and your dreams. And if every day, you just chip away...It may take ten years, but eventually you just might see some light."
1. Don't give up—be persistent
Persistence is key in everything you do. Keep honing your craft, keep entering contests, and don't get discouraged by naysayers. Keep a bullet-point list of small things you want to accomplish and work your way up to big things. Set goals and deadlines, and try your best to meet them.
2. Everyone gets better—with hard work
For every 10 wadded-up paper balls you throw in the trash bin, you keep one. If you hadn't written the bad ones, you wouldn't have been able to recognize the good one. Every great screenwriter started where you are now. Pick up some freelance jobs to practice writing outside of your comfort zone, to collaborate with another screenwriter, or to develop your portfolio. There are lots of ways to get started with screenwriting even if you don't live in Hollywood.
"To whom is your story addressed and why? Audience is always a creative act of the imagination. You can't tell your story effectively and leave it out. It must be alive in you, vividly alive. It is in conflict with everything that is false in what you have written. If it is an audience worthy of your talent and potential, it won't let you slide by the lies, the laziness, the shortcuts. If you don't take audience seriously, you can be sure it will return the favor."
―Billy Marshall Stoneking
3. Know your characters and your audience
It doesn't hurt to know as much as you can about your characters. How do they dress? What do they do for fun? What do they eat? Try to get out of the house and observe as many of these behaviors as possible in real life. Do some people-watching. How do people talk in your chosen setting? What people are you drawn to while you're watching? What will an audience respond to?
"I tend to jot down moments, lines, interactions that don't really make any sense. I try and explain these scattered notes to my close friends, and they become more and more logical. I see screenwriting as a bit like a math equation which I have to solve."
4. Do your research
Find out as much as you can about the setting and occupation of your character so that you (and your character) can speak intelligently about it. It is much easier to write what you know, especially in screenwriting.
It helps to know about screenwriters who are well-known in your genre. Try to find their biographies if possible, or see if there are any interviews of them online. Doing your research will inspire you to keep writing, and will also give your screenplay added credibility.
A well-rounded, error-free screenplay will also lend to your credibility. If you find yourself stuck in the middle of your manuscript, or if you have finally finished it only to find it missing something, Scribendi's editors can point you in the right direction with our new script editing service.
5. Learn as you go, and never stop learning
Try something the complete opposite of what your character would do. You never know what ideas it may spark, and original ideas often come from strange juxtapositions and unexpected watermelons. (See what I did there?) Learn as you go, learn from your mistakes, and learn from reading about what other screenwriters have learned.
"The challenge of screenwriting is to say much in little and then take half of that little out and still preserve an effect of leisure and natural movement."
6. Your unique voice and style will come with practice
Don't be afraid to experiment with style. Take a chance at trying not to sound like yourself. What's missing? Can you identify each character without the speech tags? Try setting the story in a different location. A different time period. What are the core elements that remain? What changes? You're on your way to developing a style all your own.
7. Read and watch widely in your chosen genre
Study the best of the best, and then study the worst. What went wrong there? How could you fix it? Was the dialogue too stiff? Did it try to hard? Was it poorly delivered? Take a stab at rewriting it. Then try to pretend that awful movie never happened.
Screenwriting royalty—it could be you!
Who knows? One day they may even say, "That [movie/play/historical re-enactment] looks really good. I bet [insert-your-name-here] wrote it." Well, maybe not. But you'll know. And you might not even get mad when [famous actor] gets all the credit for your best lines. As Mr. Gordon says in 21 Jump Street, "You never know what you can't achieve until you don't achieve it." Scribendi.com’s script editors also have tips and tricks on screen writing to help you start working toward your goals.