So you want to write a screenplay.
Let’s back up a couple of steps first.
You have story that you want to write, but you don’t know how to being. More importantly, you don’t know how you want to deliver your story.
Do you want to write a:
- Novel or Short Story
- Screenplay (Short or Feature)
- TV Pilot
- Graphic Novel
The reason why you might want to know which medium you will use is because each one has a different format.
I will walk you through the different mediums while using myself as an example. I have been trying to get this particular story out for about four years now.
I originally started out writing this story as a novel. Only got through about four chapters of it before I got distracted by schoolwork.
I was in a scriptwriting class, so I decided to take the story and write it as a full length screenplay. I finished that and submitted it to Austin Film Festival, but it didn’t advance.
I love this story so much that I am going to rewrite and try to get it out there. I got away from the idea for a couple of moths (after spending a solid year on it), and came back with a fresh set of eyes.
So why am I going through my journey? Because I was having issues with the method of delivery.
The reason my script didn’t really work the first time is because there was too much story. I was trying to pack a whole lot into a limited number of pages.
Full-length scripts range from 80-100 pages. One page of script roughly equals one minute of film. When you are a first time writer, you want to hit 90 pages. That’s the sweet spot. You do not want to go over 120 pages, and here’s why. For a first timer a producer won’t take kindly to a script over 120 pages. They don’t have the time. Of course, this is even if you can get passed their assistant (because that’s who reads it first, and they’re usually always an aspiring screenwriter so they’re even harder on your work).
So when I changed my side to fit a script, I had to keep condensing the story and pulling out extraneous plots, characters, etc. I managed to finish a script that was 108 pages.
When I took time away, I thought about how I could really do the story I wanted to tell justice. For that I fell on splitting it into a trilogy. That was the only way to give me enough space.
Tip #1 – Scripts are very concise. There is simply no space for anything that doesn’t advance the story. In a novel, you can take as long as you want and have an endless number of subplots. If your story is vast and complicated, really think hard about if you can manage to convey everything in 90 pages.
I then thought to myself, maybe I could go the graphic novel route. That would be awesome. I would then be able to really get into not just the main story, but the stories of the supporting cast.
Now, I don’t quite know the proper formatting for graphic novels, but it is something that I am going to be looking into in the future. So I’ll have to get back to you on that one, but from what I have seen, they are similar to writing a script.
My next thought was doing a TV show. There’s not really anything on TV right now that is like my story. I looked into doing that, but realized that the format of TV may not be the best fit for my story.
Television typically follows a five act structure, while a film follows a 3 act structure. An hour-long drama is usually about 50-60 pages, a half-hour sitcom between 25-30.
Though TV offered a way to be able to tell my story, I did not want to force my idea into that structure. I felt that it just wouldn’t work.
Tip #2 – Screenplays follow a 3 act structure. That makes for a pretty clear beginning, middle, and end. Television hour-longs follow a 5 act structure. You are aware of this because each act is broken up by a commercial break. So in TV the acts are short, while in film each act is about 30 pages.
That is a quick overview of the mediums.
But you may still be unclear as where you want to take story. So here are a couple of differences between screen and novel.
1. A novel can get into the head of your characters so you as a reader know their thoughts and exactly how they feel. In film/TV, you can’t do that. If a producer sees internal thoughts or feelings in your script, they will probably throw it out. Also, having your character’s inner thoughts spoken as voice over is frowned upon.
2. You can be really descriptive and detailed in a novel, describing everything about your characters appearance or this one tree in the woods. In scripts, you do not have time. You have to describe things in a very concise manner to where the filmmaker can interpret your idea correctly. This is where screenplay writing really comes down to skill. If you do not write something in your script, it will not be shown or performed by your actors. It is an art to be concise and descriptive at the same time. Which leads to….
3. Show, don’t tell. In scripts, you can’t tell your audience what is going on like in a novel. You therefore have to be descriptive to get the point across, then get out. For example, “John was nervous.” Okay. That’s fine, but how does the audience know John is nervous. Your actor might interpret the nervousness differently than you had intended. Instead, say, “John fidgeted in his seat, lightly tapping his forefinger on the table.” You see that he is nervous. Show, don’t tell.
4. In books. your characters can have a page of description each. In film/TV, you have one linnet capture the essence of your character. Why is that? Because a casting director is going to take the line where the character is introduced and use that to cast. That’s it. They don’t read the full script and get an idea of your character. They take the one line and run with it. Here’s two examples.
NOTE: the first time a character is introduced, their name is in all caps so it is easier to find when
quickly skimming a script.
JOHN, 30s, has graying hair and is wearing a suit with the jacket unbuttoned.
That doesn’t really tell us anything. That could be any actor.
JOHN, 34, is too young to already have graying hair and a tiredness behind his blue eyes.
From that, you get the idea that John is overworked. He is stressed and is younger than he looks as a result. This gives your casting director a better idea of who to look for. Sometimes, you can get two lines pulled by your casting director, but the concept is still the same. You need to nail your description.
5. When you’re writing a script, you want to start your scene as late as you can. What do I mean by that? Well, you want to start right before the main point of your script. You are writing a scene with a couple who are about to get into a fight. Maybe one just caught the other in a lie. You start the scene with both actors walking in separately and then the conversation begins. Cut out their entrance and start right at the argument. Changes the feel of the scene doesn’t it? The other thing you want to do when you’re writing a scene is get out as quickly as you came. Think of the same couple. They finish their argument and then you have them leave the room. Again, this slows down the pacing at the end of an intense moment. Instead, end the scene right at the height of the argument, and then cut to the next scene, whatever it may be. In this situation, you could still keep one of them leaving if they slam the door or there’s a slap. But only leave something in if it drives the action/story forward. So remember, get into the scene as late as you can to still make sense, and get out as soon as you reach the peak.
There are a couple more differences between novels and scripts, but these are some of the main ones that will help you determine which to choose.
It is challenging to write a script because it is structured, but this structure helps you get to the meat of your story.
Ultimately, the most important thing is to get your story out. Just start writing if you are hit with the bolt of creativity because you don’t want to lose that drive. You can always go back and change the format to whatever you want. But don’t try and force your story into a format because that will only lead to some problems.
Don’t let that deter you though. Keep at it and everything will work out the way it is supposed to.
Now get to writing.