Whether you’re new to screenwriting or a budding pro, screenwriting tips are essential. After all, the writing process can be a minefield. When you spend so much time working on an idea, it gets harder and harder to see the forest through the trees.
So, how do you know if the script has legs? Is your protagonist doing enough? Is your message landing, is the drama compelling?
These questions and many more can creep up at any stage in the process, so it’s always good to remind yourself of a few fundamentals along the journey. No matter your level of experience, every screenwriter worth their salt will follow the 7 tips below to ensure the strongest script possible.
1. Create an Outline
Creating an outline can be the bane of a writer’s life. It can feel like a grueling chore to work out all of your story beats ahead of time and exhaust you creative. However, it is also an absolutely critical exercise to fully define your story before you ever begin writing.
Your outline could be as short as a few paragraphs or as many pages as you want. This step is all about figuring out what works best for you and what best suits your story.
If writing short bullet-points to keep you on track is all you need, then do that. If you need to explicitly detail what will happen in every scene, that’s fine too!
Remember, the outline is your cheat sheet to the story. It’s a great tool if you find yourself running out of story, going off on tangents, or losing momentum. It’s there to keep you honest and guide you back to the road if you’re veering away.
For example, let’s say you reach the beginning of act two, and you’re into uncharted territory. Suddenly you have no idea where the story needs to go or how you need to get there.
If you have a solid outline, you can easily reference where you are in the larger context and work on reorienting yourself within the larger picture.
There are also times when your script might change direction and you might prefer it to your original idea. If that happens, no problem . . . re-write the outline as you go.
Check you have the beats you need to tell the story, then work on both script and outline together. There isn’t a one size fits all solution to outlining. Only you can decide what works best, but take heed: having a plan is always better than no plan at all.
2. Know Your Characters
‘It’s the story of a guy or girl who goes on an adventure to defeat the evil villain.’
What guy? What girl? Who is your protagonist?
So many writers fall into the trap of writing a plot rather than a story. The difference is that plot is what happens whereas story explains how your protagonist deals with it.
Your character can be anyone or anything. They can be brave, they can be silly, they can flawed but they have to be themselves… always.
It all comes down to knowing your characters. How is Christian Bale’s Batman different to Adam West’s Batman? Are they the same? Or are they worlds apart?
There are a few ways to get there. For example, there are numerous character profile sheets you can download online. Write your character bio with fun facts about their past, who they dated in high school, and what they wanted to be when they grow up.
These questions are designed to get you thinking and understanding your characters point of view in the world. So, dig deep, understand their wants and dreams, and you’ll soon find your characters begin to more organically inhabit the story in a whole new way.
3. Re-Write Your Script
No doubt you’ve heard this truth nugget before: writing is re-writing. It doesn’t matter if you’re Aaron Sorkin: your work will always need to be re-written and there’s no getting around it!
This can always feel like a pain point in the process because you’ve finally written ‘Fade Out’ after months of hard work. The last thing you want to do is go through the whole process again and again, but there are some helpful ways to tackle a good ol’ fashioned first draft re-write.
The best way is to take some time away from the script. Not a few hours but at least a few days or, ideally, a few weeks. This will give your brain the chance to cool off from the writing process and create some separation between you and your work.
Looking at your script a few weeks after it’s written will be an eye-opening experience, trust me! This is when you tackle the first re-draft.
Once you’ve gotten your script to a good place, you might be feeling pretty good about it. This is when you send it to a trusted friend for feedback. They don’t have to be in the industry, just someone who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth.
Use this opportunity to get their thoughts on the story and see what questions they might have about the characters. Get all the information you can and re-write again.
Repeat this process as necessary before sending to competitions, agents, producers, etc. and you will be amazed how much more responsive people will be to your work. It’s hard work but this is the only path to screenwriting excellence!
4. Raise the Stakes
Your story needs to have stakes. A compelling story is a journey whereby there are consequences for your protagonist if they don’t get what they want.
For example, if we take Jurassic Park, the stakes are to survive and escape from an island covered in ferocious dinosaurs. These are high stakes because it is literally about life and death. If they don’t escape, they will be eaten. The stakes couldn’t get much higher.
Whereas if we look at the film Little Miss Sunshine, it’s about Olive’s journey to a beauty pageant. On paper the stakes are much smaller, but the internal journey of the characters is where the stakes are.
A character faces both internal and external obstacles on their quest to their goal. It’s important to utilise both to create a dynamic narrative.
If your story is lacking in pace, drama, or is just generally feeling a bit flat – raise the stakes.
What is the worst thing that could possibly happen to your protagonist at this point in the story? Make that happen and then make it even worse! The more they have to fight for their goal, the more engaged the audience will be, and ultimately the greater the payoff.
5. Avoid Common Cliches
Your character walks into a bar and suddenly bumps into their dream date and spills a drink over them. Or your moody vampire character only listens to gothic rock metal. Your downtrodden divorcee character turns to booze. We’re all guilty of it – clichés are everywhere.
All of these are examples of a few typical filmic clichés.
One thing that will set your script apart is avoiding these stereotypical tropes. If you can write an original and authentic ‘meet cute’ that doesn’t involve one character literally falling for another, you’re doing something right!
Check your script for any classic movie tropes and ask yourself ‘What can I do better?’ Whether that’s switching the location to somewhere surprising, giving a character a new and untapped depth, or just making the dialogue more unique.
If you can master the art of avoiding the cliché, your writing will be all the stronger for it.
6. Read Other Screenplays
Arguably one of the best ways to improve your writing, is to read the work of other writers.
There are tons of amazing resources online that provide free screenplays. Try and incorporate this ritual into your writing routine and see how other writers influence your own style of writing.
This is a great way to develop your skills and understanding about story. It’s also a great way to pick up on the rhythm of dialogue and see the blueprint of what your favorite film looked like before it hit the big screen.
7. Finish Your Script
You’ve hit act two and you’ve lost momentum. You’re not sure if the outline isn’t working or if you just can’t get the story to work. So, you take a break, a few hours, a few days. Then before you know it… you’ve completely abandoned your script.
Don’t do this!
See it through, and get to the end. Even if some of the story isn’t working, persevere and get as much down into your first draft as possible.
Even a bad first draft is better than no first draft.
Once you have the whole thing in front of you, you can look at how to fix story problems and develop it in the next re-write. You just need the tenacity and drive to see it through.
Enjoy the process!
Remember why you started writing in the first place and keep it fun. Take breaks when you feel tired, go for walks and remember that writing doesn’t always involve being glued to a computer screen.
Read books, watch films and most importantly don’t forget to live your life. Ideas can come from anywhere at any time but mostly they come from moments we experience. Take a new class, meet up with friends, and make the most of every moment.