Each stage of the filmmaking process brings its challenges to endure and resolve yet the writing process usually begins with a surge of excitement.
Your morale is high and your creative juices are undisturbed by the gruelling production labour needed to turn that story into a reality.
It’s at this time that you can explore possibilities and try new things without it doubling the production budget.
Even so, the best screenwriters are still highly practical and maintain awareness of the filmmaking prowess needed to pull off the hour long epic battle sequence (or lack thereof) and write with that in mind.
The balance between originality, creativity, practicality and discipline are the things I believe make an incredible screenwriter. Filmmaking is business yet it’s a medium that can be much more than a time killing money machine.
Powerful storytelling can inspire change, challenge beliefs and spur epiphany. What makes a great screenplay special is that it creates a blueprint for something amazing to come together but it’s seldom hard rules the director and crew must stick to.
A screenplay is not a precise indication of what the finished product will be like but, get it wrong and you essentially shoot the rest of the production in the foot.
In some cases, a newcomer has the drive to write scripts before they have any ideas that grab them.
In many cases though, a great idea emerges from the abyss and pulls the newcomer into the story making ringer.
In the former case, the question ‘what do I write about?’ can be an obstacle.
I’ve found that there is no push-button method that creates inspiration; it’s something that arises on its own. Listening to music has been effective for myself in generating that drive but in many cases, it’s something that comes with the path of least resistance.
Meaning, don’t force yourself to have a great idea but allow yourself to be challenged by the world and see what happens.
This is why I’ve always found writing from the heart to be infinitely more powerful than writing about something because somebody said I have to, I must or I should. I think the best work arises from both intrinsic motivation and life experience.
If you’ve experienced something in your life that got you thinking deeply about reality and now you want to turn that into a film, you might be onto something.
Here are some ways you can help evoke passion and inspiration in yourself:
Giving yourself time in nature, in healthy relationships and hobbies; you’ll be able to create a space for inspiration to easily foster.
Don’t believe me? I wouldn’t have either a while ago.
Unless you’re the type of writer that only enjoys writing their way out of a bad breakup or crippling depression (which can work), this self-care principal will be one of the biggest factors in the quality of any work you do in your life.
Whether you’ve let go of past challenges or traumas or not, the benefit of these difficult experiences is they can be used to fuel authentic and powerful stories. Additionally they are a means of turning your pain in on itself and using it constructively.
Of course, you can also reflect on positive experiences, funny, strange and interesting things that have happened to you, not to use it in your next script, but simply reflection for its own sake.
Perhaps nothing will arise and you’ll realise reflection is not the best method for you, which is fine too.
Isn’t turning inwards just another word for reflection? In one sense it is, but turning inwards is not just about looking back at past events. it’s about understanding what you care about, why certain types of things inspire you and others leave you unamused.
If you write regularly, you’ll likely have friends, co-workers, family or even someone you’ve just met for the first time mention how you have to write a story on a particular thing because it’s just so fascinating and amazing.
Yet these moments only left me feeling uncomfortable when I realised that this person’s idea doesn’t excite me. It’s in these times you can start to think you should be writing about certain things and should not be writing about other things, a.k.a, what you truly care about.
I eventually realised that writing about a topic because I should does nothing for me. That’s because great stories often don’t come from shoulds, they come from the things you care deeply about.
It’s often that initial period of turning inwards that motivates the post break up script, rather than the need to vent onto a page.
This could be because expressing the problem from our point of view is a way to get some relief. It doesn’t guarantee that the work will be amazing but at least it’s grounded in something real and principal to the writer.
Having A Vision
Having an intention beyond simply selling your screenplay or making an entertaining film can elevate you and your work to a higher level. A vision could be creating positive change, or opening the world to a new perspective.
If you’ve found something important to you that hasn’t been explored elsewhere, why not make your next story about that?
Intention is key
The artist’s intention is everything in filmmaking. The more your intention is meticulously realised, the more likely it will be appreciated and impactful.
Conversely, the degree to which it is miscommunicated and poorly executed is the degree to which it will be hailed a disaster. You want the story to have an overall macro-intention and then each scene to have a micro-intention which contributes to the whole.
Abstract filmmaking sees the screen as a blank canvas that you paint on using your imagination, thoughts and intuition.
Sometimes dogmatic screenwriting guides might feel like they’re trying to turn you away from abstract filmmaking and surrealism. These films are truly their own thing and if that’s the story you want to make, all power to you.
I enjoy the work of David Lynch and have experimented with surrealism in my work often. Exploring surrealism can help you be a more creative filmmaker and is more likely to produce something less familiar.
It is its own thing and you can decide whether you want the entire story to be abstract or simply have moments of absurdity – which can be integrated with your overall intention.
Watch this video and think about how the filmmaker has integrated surrealism into the film and how it’s serving the story – or isn’t.
While some of the most bizarre films don’t feel that relatable, they also attract a different type of moviegoer. An audience that’s looking for something that will shock them or illuminate them in a nonconventional way.
Rather than constructing a linear narrative that takes the audience from A to B, your aim can be to simply express your mind freely with whatever images and sounds you like.
Suspension Of Disbelief
This is a very tricky part of storytelling, it can be a form of surrealism but it can also just be some very unlikely circumstances, to the point it feels impossible and unbelievable.
If you’re writing sci-fi and action films, naturally the audience will be going in wanting to see something impossible but there’s usually a few of those “no way that would ever happen” moments. Feedback can help outline those limits for you.
Watch these scenes and ask yourself do they elevate the story or do they subtract from it?
Now watch this scene if you want to test your limits:
One of the commenters on Youtube mentions that “This scene is utterly stupid and brilliantly genius and manages to be both at the same time.” I couldn’t agree more.
Many great films are successful at emulating real situations to the point you believe them and are ultimately affected.
Even if it’s a fantastical world you’re creating, you can likely still integrate things from your own experience into it.
That’s why one of the goals of this article is teaching you to simulate reality more effectively to pull off your intention.
Implicit vs explicit
Observation is a key part of training your creative mind so that it can produce the best work possible. Observe people, society, your reactions to things, biases that you have, biases that other people have and see the interconnectedness between all of it.
Have you noticed that while in conversation with others, there’s a vibe, a feeling coming from the other person, something implicit?
You don’t need to tell the other person that you feel this vibe because they feel your vibe as well. Intuition works in the same way because that feeling something is right, or not quite right is also an implicit thing.
An explicit example is telling the waiter at the restaurant what you want to order and telling someone what kind of car you drive. This is information that is needing to be explicitly said as it would be pretty strange to have the waiter come around to the table and expect them to already know what you want right?
One of the biggest mistakes screenwriters make is having to explicate something that can be communicated implicitly. Imagine a scene where one friend is in love with the other yet they haven’t confessed their feelings yet.
One option is to have that character explicate their emotions to the other by interrupting the conversation with “I love you, Mary, I always have!” Seems like the kind of b-movie moment that we all know and love doesn’t it?
The other option is to communicate the same thing but in a much more subtle way such as with a facial expression or a short sentence that maybe escapes you at first but later you realise how it was riddled with meaning and clues.
The best films use implicit communication and you might not even pick up on how much they are communicating to you without the need for explication.
You might find that your best screenplay ideas come from implicit things that you’ve observed but struggle to explain to others. Leaning into this will help you be more original.
I advise you to start to read between the lines when watching films, listening to music, admiring a painting or a sculpture and of course when socialising.
Notice how implicit details escape other people and if you can, look back at your interactions and see if there was something implicit there that you missed.
But don’t go getting paranoid, the reason you’re doing this is to train those implicit muscles up to the point that you can then use them to avoid over-explicating in your work.
A deeply illuminating point I’ll expand on in the next few paragraphs is becoming a more nuanced thinker. This is a person who looks at each situation in life not as being good or bad or for how it might serve them.
Instead through a lens that can zoom in and back out again to form the most accurate understanding possible. A nuanced thinker sees all the grey area in life and that’s an important skill to create engaging stories.
One of the best ways to develop this ability is to observe, don’t turn off your mind when interacting with others. Consider all perspectives deeply, try to understand where they arise from, even if they are incredibly radical, and even offensive to you.
There may be truths other people have latched onto that you have easily missed. That could be enough to inspire your next screenplay!
By training yourself to look upon the world from an expanded vantage point, you might start to see how your subject matter is already playing out in your everyday life just in a much more complex, nuanced way.
Reverse Engineering: What makes a bad film?
Although what you and I think is a bad film will probably differ, how much time have you spent comparing the worst to the best?
How is a universally beloved bad film like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room different to a hailed masterpiece like Nolan’s The Dark Knight? Some of the key features you’ll find in your classic so bad it’s good films are:
The execution of the script is as vital as a good screenplay but watch the video above and consider this. To what extent was the script responsible for these bad movie moments?
Let’s take the infamous roof scene from The Room and compare it to a modern reimagining that maintains the original dialogue as much as possible. I think it’s slightly better but the filmmakers and actors are largely held back by the source material.
You can read through the original Room script here.
Logic where logic is due, is important for the story to be effective. While surreal cinema does not rely on logic to work it’s magic, many genres of film do rely heavily on creating a sense of coherence in the story. This is to avoid major holes that leave you lost by the plot, rather than lost in the plot.
Remember, coherency is not about being logical for the sake of it, it’s creating logic that serves the story.
Ridiculous and unfitting dialogue
When the writer is trying to convey seriousness and tension but you feel the exact opposite, it’s an indicator something isn’t working. Here are the key symptoms of bad dialogue:
- It’s inadvertently random and leaves a confusing, jarring effect on the audience.
- The characters speak in long monologues without anything key, entertaining or thought-provoking to say.
- It tries to be clever but comes off as silly.
- The choice of words are odd, uncommonly used and don’t fit together well.
- Excessive explication – it hurls information at you without letting you discover it through hints and clues.
Great dialogue fits the characters, sounds natural and reveals information to the audience organically. It doesn’t unintentionally leave you cringing and laughing hysterically.
It’s entertaining yet intelligent, realistic when it needs to be and marvellously clever when it doesn’t, such as the work of acclaimed writer Aaron Sorkin.
Black and white scenarios
Cliches and stereotypes contribute to that unintentional silliness that makes you withdraw from the story. Real people and situations are not black and white, they are full of complexity.
Have you considered that it’s easier to believe a lie about someone being a billionaire if they talk about the decades of failure and struggle they endured before their wealth?
Isn’t it even more believable if they pretend to hide their extraordinary earnings from you and let you become naturally curious? This situation sounds believable because the best liars know the world better than you do and that’s how they easily deceive you.
Going back to my point about intention, consider the following scene from the film Birdemic. Not only is it a great way to entertain yourself but try to think deeper about how it affects you as an audience member.
My takeaway is that although the special effects certainly remove the audience from any sense of drama or tension, the use of the coat hangers as weapons is baffling because it seems they were incorporated to serve the director’s dramatic intention.
This outlines the difference between intention and outcome. What is trying to be communicated and what is communicated.
If the intention was to make the audience feel concerned for the characters’ safety and fearful of the birds, is that conveyed?
Not at all. It’s because the performances, the effects and the overall silliness of this scene come together to form an unintended red herring, that distracts you with laughter and amusement to the point that you can’t look beyond it and see what the director wants you to see.
Now examine the following scene from War Of The Worlds. I feel Spielberg’s intention is to convey the martians power to the extent that Ray’s (Tom Cruise) mad dash to save himself makes perfect sense and therefore, the situation feels relatable.
While, of course, the special effects are fantastic even by modern standards, the storyteller also builds up tension throughout the scene.
At first, it’s not clear if the alien force is a threat or not, then we learn it can easily obliterate humans, then cars and eventually entire homes. Birdemic’s threat appears randomly and without any sense of suspense or mystery.
The trick is to learn what degree these mistakes are present in your work, often in very subtle ways and then fix them. Be careful not to delude yourself, we can all miss things even as we become better and better storytellers.
It helps to know what goes into filmmaking, not only the financial cost but also the man-hours involved in achieving quality production value.
This helps you when writing because you can consider what it would take you or someone else to make your script.
When you’re producing scripts for yourself, you probably know what your limitations are. If you’re incorporating things into the story and then pondering how you’ll ever get it to fly on set then I advise you to think things through first.
If you’ve established you want to write a script for a $10,000 action short, that gives you constraints of what you can pull off and means you won’t have to go back later on and rework the story to fit reality.
If you’re hellbound on writing a large scale production, one that will take millions of dollars to execute, it helps to be aware that expensive filmmaking = big money = big risk. If you can scale down some of those huge set-pieces to something more doable, you increase the reality of that story coming together.
Celtx is fantastic as it offers a free version and also operates in a web browser but you can also look at a paid option like Highland 2 (Mac only)
As long as you find a screenwriting program that gets completely out of your way and lets you focus, you’re good to go.
Leaving Out The Details (For Now)
Details are everything but I like to get the basics down first. Jumping straight in can be effective but it’ll make your brain work harder than it has to.
I often plan out my screenplays by creating a scene by scene description of the narrative that only includes key plot details but excludes dialogue. I’ll normally write something like
“The next day at the carnival, Ken confronts Lou about his lost car keys. Lou plays aloof and changes the subject yet he can’t divert Ken away from the problem and starts to arouse suspicion.”
I work this way because it fills in the who, what, when, where and why first without wasting any time massaging a scene that turns out to be incompatible with the final mix.
This helps you as the screenwriter understand why the conversation is happening and how it contributes to the story without needing to think through the unique words and slang the characters would use to portray that situation.
You can plan your film with a simple word processor or even on paper.
I remember reading screenwriting books and articles that stressed that every scene must advance the story or else it has no place in your script.
I challenged this idea when I considered those scenes that while perhaps not imperative to the plot, were so amusing or interesting in their way that they made that film memorable.
Yet the minimalist storytelling approach is something I favour and I feel the trick is to imagine building the story as akin to building a bridge, you want to move people over to the other side as quickly as possible without needing to complicate the process.
Similarly, you want to move your idea from just an idea to a polished screenplay without making it harder for yourself.
The planning process can help you cut fat ahead of time by analysing every component of your bridge and figuring out the parts that you can take away without making the whole structure collapse. in my books, that is essential to great filmmaking
So if trusted feedback tells you that one or two scenes do nothing for the story, seriously reconsider their inclusion.
The screenwriting process is unique to each. There is no step by step guide I can give you that ensures you’ll get your script done by the time and to the quality you want but you usually need to write consistently, especially when working on a feature script or TV series.
From my own experience, relying only on impulsive spurs of creativity seem to lead to unfinished projects and deadends. Writing at the same time every day for at least a few hours is enough to make big progress.
I don’t recommend you spend an entire day on your script if it doesn’t feel natural to you. The best ideas generally don’t arise from tiredness and burn out but from passion and excitement.
Having worked with a good writing partner, I’ve found it can make a world of difference having someone else that can see around your blind spots, which are ideas that you pour into your script while completely missing why they won’t work or that there’s a better way to do it.
An effective writing team elevates the work and if they don’t, it’s best-done solo.
Of course, you can have a mentor or another writer point out your blindspots after you’ve completed the project but having a partner can help you develop your ability to see your ideas from another perspective – which can grow you massively.
I recommend finding a collaborator that has somewhat similar creative and storytelling sensibilities to your own otherwise the process of working together can become extraordinarily challenging and unproductive.
Read about the experience of two writing partners who completed a feature in 2 days.
Structure & Order Of Events
The order of events goes beyond well-established story models like the 3 and 5 act structure.
As these base structure has been heavily detailed elsewhere, please see here for the three-act and here for the five-act structure. Additionally, check out this article on the relevancy of the three act structure here.
Films frequently fall into common structure formats like the ones mentioned but if you’re already looking analytically at the films you’re watching, you’ll identify that (hopefully) the story fits together in an even more particular way that’s been mulled over, tweaked and refined.
This is exactly what you need for your project unless you’re wanting to be experimental.
Structure often feels invisible when it’s successful because it’s as if all the scenes are dominoes naturally falling into one another and it’s without those moments that leave you scratching your head wondering what on earth the writers were thinking.
I noticed this in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi as the key elements are brought in and taken out in a very skilful way even despite the film having flaws and shortcomings.
After you’ve plotted out your film beat by beat, visualise your film playing on the big screen and consider some of these questions
Does this feel natural and organic?
Does it seem like the characters would end up where they do based on how they think and behave? It doesn’t have to be realistic but a lack of consistency in your character’s choices can quickly take your audience out of the zone.
Is this sequence of events balanced?
Have you noticed how horror films will often begin with a murder scene and then cut to something cheerier like a group of teenagers baffoning around?
I’m not saying you have to hold the audience’s hand in any way, I’m saying it’s worth considering whether you’d have something better by fitting the heavier scenes closer together or further apart.
Is this flow of events satisfying? When I look at the timeline of my story, do I find it messy, incoherent and confusing or does it feel the perfect mix of all the right ingredients?
What could I remove that would hurt the story?
If you chopped the final scene out of some of your favourite Hollywood films, what kind of ending would you get? You can do this with your project and see if removing the ending or beginning will hinder or improve what you have.
Personality, behaviour and motivation can be a very complex thing, whether your characters are human or non-human, they are interconnected to other aspects of your film.
Do you often hear the term “fleshed out” characters? You might hear it in the context of “the characters in this film are never really fleshed out” as to say they are missing the sort of complexity and detail that would make them more appealing or interesting.
If you want to design characters that are true to life then it’s important to understand why people behave the way they do and why. Without this understanding, your characters are more likely to feel cartoonish and two dimensional.
Establishing what each character values will normally lead you to understand why they behave as they do but also what their needs and wants might be. Consider the examples below:
- Wealth, material acquisition.
- Simple Pleasures.
- Risque / Radical Humour.
- Thrill / Adventure.
- Human connection.
- Supporting Others.
- Ethical causes.
- Doing the right thing.
- Standing Up For Yourself / Others.
- Think before you do / Doing things properly.
- Responsible decision making.
- Constructive criticism.
- Listening carefully.
- Learning / education.
- Good Job / Career.
What kind of desires would these characters have based on these values? You might say that Sam will pursue materialism while Jane would go after fulfilling relationships and creating a family.
These pursuits pertain to different obstacles and challenges that arise in the process and that forms the basis of a story.
Values are simply the matters your character cares about. They can be material or non-material. Values are first order and desires and pursuits are second order meaning they depend on values.
Story ideas arise in different ways but commonly we think of the central problem first before taking the time to understand what the characters value.
It’s fine to start with the problem but if you backtrack and take time to understand what the character values, you can begin to understand their thinking and behaviour, predict their actions in the future and understand what they’ve done in the past.
Rather than take me on my word, spend some time thinking about the people you know and ask these questions:
- What do they value?
- How do they carry through on those values each day?
- Are they assured or uncertain about these values? Could some new values be developing that I’ve missed?
- What problems do they face in the process?
- What do I think they will do over the next few years based on these values?
Then use these questions to flesh out your characters.
There are a few different approaches to dialogue in a film, you have
- Focused natural dialogue.
- Highly Realistic dialogue (mumblecore).
- Stylized dialogue.
Many Hollywood films like to go more in the stylized direction which is clear in films like Harry Potter, Star Wars & Lord Of The Rings as these films are not intended to portray how people communicate in the modern era.
This style comes with the bigger challenge of maintaining authenticity and realness in the characters even though they may speak through riddles and about things like middle earth, the force and magic.
This is why I tend to favour realistic dialogue as it’s naturally more relatable and when done beautifully makes the characters akin to people I’ve met first hand with similar traits, mannerisms and problems.
If you’re set on challenging yourself by going in a highly stylized direction like an old cowboy western, the best thing you can do is to study how it’s been done in other films and by looking back at history.
The overall goal is to work the nature of that time into your story while having it make sense to modern audiences.
Be careful when you receive challenging feedback because it’s easy to get defensive of your work, even if you think you’re unbiased towards yourself.
Do you remember how I spoke about blindspots earlier on? There’s going to be previously invisible problems that will surface when you receive feedback.
Also, things that you weren’t fully sold on before might turn out to be pretty terrible ideas.
There might be several unexpected positive reactions to one scene which can be an indicator you’re onto something and conversely you might get a whole lot of negative reactions to your favourite scene in the script – which is one of the hardest obstacles you’ll face as a filmmaker.
This is where your ability to remove yourself from your work matters. Actively listening to real feedback is one of the most humbling things you can do and it will almost certainly help you to grow.
Storytelling is beautiful, cathartic and can release you from past struggles and hardships. The best stories often come from direct experience and passion.
Develop yourself, study and observe the world and other films, write, get feedback and if you have some natural talent within you, you will see yourself grow to extraordinary levels.
We hope you’ve found this article on mastering the writing process helpful. What are your tips for being a better storyteller and improving your writing process? Let us know in the comments below.
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