Many filmmakers will have been turning their hand to pen and paper (or keyboards more likely) in recent months. Time to kill and time away from the usual grind of filmmaking will likely have led to many to think about writing.
That screenplay you’ve always wanted to write but never found the time for. That screenplay left on your desktop half-finished. Those sketches of ideas that you never found the time to fully flesh out.
You may well have found yourself with the time to complete such ventures. But this obviously doesn’t always automatically solve the problem.
You can find yourself with ample time but still find yourself staring at the blank page in front of you, banging your head against the wall, desperately trying to get your ideas from your head on to the page.
On top of that, you might be more inspired than ever, soaking in amazing content that fires up your imagination and your desire to make work.
It’s no easy feat and it’s something that all writers and creatives can struggle with, from an aspiring screenwriter writing their first screenplay to a well established and seasoned professional. The painful void of the blank page can be overwhelming.
But if this is, or is close to, your first time trying to write a screenplay, then we’ve compiled some key pointers to help get you started.
Staring at Netflix for hours on end or baking a sourdough loaf might have helped get your creative juices flowing. But how can you turn these creative juices to practical, concrete work?
If you’re struggling, you are not alone. And don’t despair when the ideas don’t manifest into something concrete automatically.
It’s a process and a practical one at that. Much like baking that sourdough loaf, there is a method, essential ingredients and a careful process to consider. We will help outline what that writing process can look like.
1. Make You Sure You Plan and Have Structure
Everything that is well-built has a well thought out plan and structure behind it. From a house to a chair, you don’t just put the parts together and see what happens, you build. And this is the same for a screenplay too.
There are numerous different ways in which you can plan out your screenplay and story in detail. From a beat sheet to outlining.
These techniques follow well-tread paths of essential story structure, not only harking back to the genesis of screenwriting but of storytelling in general.
There are varying different degrees of detail with which you can conduct this planning section. A beat sheet is more likely to be exhaustive, often 12 or more steps included. Whereas outlining is more likely to be broader.
A helpful way is to start broad and get more detailed as you go along, discovering more and more about your story the more you plan.
For example, there are six typically cited essential steps of story structure:
- The Setup
- The Inciting Incident
- The Growing Journey
- The Midpoint
By condensing your story into these beats you will already have a key guide for how your story will play out. You will have how it starts, how it develops and how it ends. These are pretty basic steps in your story but they are essential.
Once you have this broad structure you can delve more into the details. For example, we like to use the following beat sheet as a guide, including 15 beats:
- Opening Shot
- World Introduction
- Meeting the Characters
- Inciting Incident
- The Big Debate
- Why Go Forward?
- The Big Decision
- Promise of the Premise
- Triumph of Evil
- All is Lost
- The Final Image.
Gradually you are building an overview of your story. You are turning your idea into a story that translates to other people. From here you have a base from which to jump and get into the weeds.
2. But What is Your Idea?
Perhaps, however, you haven’t even reached the stage of knowing what you want your story to be. You can’t write key story structure steps because you don’t know what your story is about.
Here is where you need to do some core delving into your mind. What story do you want to tell? Why? Who leads this story and why? What’s the setting? And why!?
Perhaps you love a particular genre. Perhaps you love a particular setting or time period. These kinds of choices will help in kick-starting your story.
A time, a place, a tone. Maybe there is a character you want to tell the story of, a well-known figure or someone from your own life.
This step is crucial in not only finding the story you want to tell but your voice as a writer. Now you might not know this until you actually write. But having a keen sense of your interests and sensibilities can be crucial to stepping off in the right direction.
For example, think of the films you love and the stories you’re interested in to give an idea of potential genre or tone.
Think of your own experiences to give a potential purpose and definition for the story. Or think of a particular fantasy you might have had that you could explore.
Do you imagine your life in 18th Century London? Well then, use this as a leaping off point to spark your imagination.
You might have lots of different potential ideas for your screenplay. But often finding the right one can mean tapping into your self. What is the film you want to see? This can be the best way into writing a story that resonates.
3. Be a Kind but Strict Boss
Planning takes discipline just as much as any other practice. You can’t let yourself slack. You need to be a good boss to yourself.
It might be tempting to abandon the planning process halfway through upon realizing what your script is going to look like. It can be exciting when you have your ideas bubbling away and you want to realize them.
You want to just get writing. But ignoring the closure of the planning process will only make things harder for you later on.
You need to be the kind of boss to yourself that will be generous but unflinching when it comes to getting things done.
If you’re not in work mode, if the ideas aren’t flowing, then fine, take a break. Breaks are essential in freeing up the mind to be creative. But don’t let that break become unfinished work.
Make yourself finish that outline so it’s as complete as possible. You wouldn’t construct a building with a half-finished blueprint.
And it’s the same for writing a screenplay, gaps in planning can easily become gaps in the overall completed structure. Your screenplay will buckle like a poorly planned building (albeit with less catastrophic results).
So make sure you treat every step of your writing process with precision. The planning is just as crucial as the actual screenwriting. Don’t throw yourself in unprepared, especially if it’s your first go at this.
You will find the journey bumpy and you will discover things you never knew about screenwriting. But brief yourself fully on being prepared and you will have a structure to fall back on when the going gets tough.
Fail and Fail Again
If this is your first time writing a screenplay, don’t despair over it not feeling perfect. Sometimes the vision of what you want something to be doesn’t always match up with the end result. This can be incredibly frustrating.
But screenwriting is the same as any discipline, creative or otherwise – practice makes perfect. The process is just as important as the end result and often the process is what is worth honing.
A good sense of where your ideas come from, a careful and precise planning process, discipline and focus – these things are essential to writing a good screenplay.
They are elements that need work in and of themselves and finding your best form as a writer is in many ways finding how you can best continually and consistently execute these elements.
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