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ServiceScape Incorporated

5 Hollywood Secrets to Writing a Great Screenplay


Have you ever written a novel or a story and, upon finishing or getting feedback from other readers, thought, Wow, this would make an amazing film! Or, have you always wanted to write the next blockbuster movie or moving, Academy Award-nominated movie because you have an idea that just won't quit?

Then it might be time for you to write a screenplay!

At a first glance, you may think writing a screenplay is relatively straightforward, since it's usually much shorter than a novel with less description and very little narrative prose, but they can be quite challenging, because a good screenplay should pack a similar emotional punch as novel and be able to convey clear character emotion with few cues.

Here, in no particular order, we present you with 5 Hollywood secrets and tips to writing a great screenplay.

#1 Learn the Technique of Writing a Screenplay

It's always best to begin at the beginning, and writing a screenplay requires a certain understanding of how to do it. If you're already familiar with this, it might be a good idea to seek out more advanced instruction and tips. By taking the time to learn the "how" part first, you're arming yourself with a strong starting place as you set out to craft an incredible story.

If you've never written a screenplay before, consider taking a course or reading some books to ensure you understand the mechanics of how to write an effective screenplay. Another excellent way to learn how to write a screenplay? Read them! Often, screenplays for popular films are available to read online or can be purchased. Learn from the best by reading and studying the best examples of what you're trying to accomplish.

Even if you're a seasoned writer and adapting a screenplay from your own novel, taking the time to study the structure of a screenplay is important to making sure all the important parts of your novel are translated adequately. You might also discover a need to tweak dialogue in the novel to be a bit shorter or more natural, or even a little bit longer.

#2 Define Your Screenplay's Purpose

Next, continuing with the theme of "begin at the beginning," consider what your story will be about. In this case, the beginning is the foundation of your screenplay. Who are the characters, and what do they want? Why do they want what they want? What stands in their way? How can they overcome these obstacles to get the thing they want? What are the stakes?

A good screenplay should make all of these things abundantly clear, but not be overly simplified. Your reader—and hopefully one day, viewer—should be swept up into the story with a clear understanding of what the end goal is. The stakes should be established from the beginning, and they should mount as the story progresses. Timing should be urgent. Most movies range from an hour and change to two hours, so the urgency of the story should be captured in a way that makes this time feel like it moves quickly for the audience.

Aaron Sorkin describes this as setting the intention and obstacles and recommends that these be established as early as possible.

#3 Write, Rewrite, and Do It All Over Again

This may seem fundamental, but you won't produce a screenplay unless you make time to sit down and write it! Carve out time each day to put words on the page.

Have you finished the first draft? Congratulations! Coming to the end is a major accomplishment that should be celebrated, but also keep in mind the work is not done yet.

A first draft is almost never a draft ready for consumption, but it can serve as a great foundation on which to develop your true story. As Danny Rubin says, getting to the end is not the same as finishing, so be prepared to revisit your screenplay again, walk through it, and determine what needs to be fixed. Then do it again. Then do it again.

Another important thing to consider is enlisting some beta readers or experienced screenplay writers to take a look at your screenplay. Feedback from both your target audience and also those who are knowledgeable about the craft is important to improving your screenplay, bringing it that much closer to a finished product.

And connected to getting feedback is to check your ego at the door and grow a thick skin. Criticism and rejection are part of writing, and though it can often sting, most of the time it's meant to help you grow. It's tough, but when you receive criticism, mine what's helpful, apply it if you can, and keep writing.

#4 Show, Don't Tell

You've probably heard this one once or a thousand times. It's one of the oldest rules of writing, and since screenplays are intended to create a piece of visual storytelling whether it's on the big screen, TV screen, or a theater stage, it's important to build these cues into your work.

This is somewhat trickier to do based on the shorter length of screenplays and the minimal amount of narrative prose, but that's where things like character dialogue, scene building and creation, and even scene ordering can make all the difference. Dialogue is extremely important, because that's one of the main vessels a story is told through. However, showing through other scene elements is just as important. That way, the dialogue won't have to work as hard or potentially feel as unnatural. Consider how we converse with one another on a daily basis—that ease and naturalness of speech should be reflected in your writing. Let the world you build fill in the gaps!

Another note on dialogue: often, what makes it to the page might not sound or feel as natural or realistic as we intend. Therefore, it's an incredibly good idea to read the dialogue aloud and even enlist a friend to read lines with you to ensure what you've written flows well and feels natural. Remember, if all goes well, actual actors will one day be reading the words you've put on the page for them!

#5 Make It Believable

Whether you're writing a crime drama, an epic fantasy, a sci-fi action flick, or a romance, believability is incredibly important. Ultimately, this has more to do with character decisions, actions, reactions, and dialogue than it does the setting. An audience can suspend its disbelief for a particular setting—Middle Earth, anyone?—because the believability factor comes into play with the characters.

As you're writing your screenplay, consider the plot you have. It might be set in an intergalactic world thousands of light years into the future, but people are people. And how do people interact with one another, speak to one another? Be strategic about the logic you apply to a character's decisions. If a character in the Middle Ages has just discovered she's the long-lost princess of a war-torn country, and that there's a huge bounty on her back, will she go charging forth to claim her rightful seat on the throne? If so, why? Will she turn her back and flee? What would be her reasons for doing so? Will she enlist the help of other characters? If so, who are they? If not, why not?

Also consider how your characters respond when certain things happen and be prepared to cushion your story development with plenty of reasons why they've reacted in such a way. The highly contentious final season of Game of Thrones is an example of this. Many viewers felt the downfall of Daenerys Targaryen was wholly unbelievable, because for seven seasons, she had been portrayed as a hero to the smallfolk and the champion of the underdogs. In a matter of a couple of episodes in the final season, the writers wanted viewers to believe Daenerys went stark-raving mad as the reason for decimating King's Landing. Many viewers felt there hadn't been enough evidence to support her descent into madness, thus making her actions in the penultimate episode seem unbelievable to those viewers.

Whether you're embarking on your first screenplay or you're a seasoned screenplay writer, we hope these tips have some value for you. They're great reminders of good habits we should all strive to build, and if they can help you craft a screenplay that's got excellent pacing, believable characters and dialogue, and packs an emotional punch, all the better. It can be challenging to bring your idea for a film, show, or play to the page, but keep at it and never give up. You have something to share with the world that the world needs.

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