8 Quick tips for an aspiring screenwriter

In order to make a great film you need to begin with an outstanding screenplay. Here are 8 tips to help you hone your craft as a screenwriter.

Some films will elevate you to the top of the world and others will take you into the dark abyss of despair. Others will leave you feeling awe-inspired, angry, moved to tears and will make you want to do more for mankind. The feelings that you have as you walk away from the cinema, are no accident. Chances are that an insightful and skilled screenwriter worked his magic on a screenplay and brought you to this point.

Screenwriting is more than a technical process, it is an emotional journey designed to move you by a skilled and insightful screenwriter.

Screenwriting defined

Simply put, a screenplay is the desired end-result of screenwriting. A screenplay forms the foundation of a film and the framework and rubric for any filmmaker who is in charge of bringing this to life. Film and television are the most dominant forms of media that require screenwriting. You could call it the visual blueprint and DNA of a movie before it is birthed.

Telling stories

Everybody is doing it, from brands, to filmmakers, poets and writers, just about everyone has a story to tell. If your chosen medium of storytelling is to produce a film then screenwriting will help you learn how to write a script for a movie.

The Difference between Script writing and Screenwriting

Script writing, is a process that is often confused with screenwriting. A scriptwriter is usually in charge of writing the words that are actually being said, subtitles or fleshing out the dialogue that will happen between characters. Screenwriting on the other hand informs the visuals and scenarios that will be seen on screen.

Visual storytelling

No, it is not pedantic to imagine that somebody sat down at their computer and thought of all the little details that it takes to paint a scenario. Yes, they thought of the colour of the wall, the fact that it was a dark and stormy night outside. They even imagined the pained expression on the main character’s face as he went through a tortured night of the sou. Trying to decide whether he was going to leave the country or not.

What a screenplay is not!

It is not a book
It is not a play
It is not a theatre production

1. If you can’t see it- don’t use it

A good screenwriter realises the value of visual storytelling. If you cannot see it in your mind’s eye, the simple rule of thumb is- don’t use it. Resist the temptation to make superfluous additions to your screenplay. As a screenwriter, your job is to bring characters and scenery to life, if it looks obscure in your head it should probably go.

2. Write in the present tense

Always imagine that everything you need to communicate is in the present tense. Remember, even if you are taking the viewer back in time, they need to become immersed in the experience. Make them feel that nostalgia right in the gut. Paint the picture, make them feel the feelings and smell the aromas of that time.

3. Watch a lot of movies

To get a good grasp of what makes an effective screenplay, it helps to watch as many movies as possible. You can also find reputable websites online that allow you to view the screenplays of successful movies and blockbusters. Make a careful study of those documents to find out what works.

4. Understand what makes a good film and a mediocre one

For that matter, take the time to watch poorly made movies. The ones that you consider really schlocky and terrible will also give you some invaluable information on what not to do and how to hone your craft. Use the knowledge that you gain to be more detail-orientated in your script with aspects such as body language, costume, scripting cutaway shots and background scenery.

5. Study the best screenwriters of all time

More so than the screenplays that they wrote, screenwriters have actually lived through some very interesting life stories. Familiarise yourself with those stories. At the heart of it all, people like Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, Spike Lee and Christopher Nolan have had stories burning them up inside. This happened to such a degree that they had no choice but to commit pen to paper and write out their joys and angst as screenplays.

6. Show your audience things that they have never seen before

There are formulas and structures to study in the screenwriting world and you will have to follow them at some point. But, having said that, remember the authenticity of your own story. No matter what, if you are a writer you can bring your own unique perspective and viewpoint to the table. Use your life and the richness of your experiences as the perfect springboard to take your audience on emotional journeys that they’ve never been on before.

7. Build your Characters

A good screenwriter gets inside the mind and psychology of the characters that he/she creates. In some cases developing a good character is even more critical than the plot. Characters have paths to walk and journeys that they can take your audience on and YOU can make sure that it is a fantastic one. As you develop your character ask yourself;

‘What would John do?’
‘What would motivate John?’
‘How would John see, feel, touch, taste, hear?’
‘Does John like ketchup with his burger?’
‘Is John confident, sullen or mysterious?’

8. Build Suspense

“People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don't have a middle or an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.” Steven Spielberg

A screenplay format popularly follows a three act formula. This is an effective method of storytelling, but it is up to the screenwriter to make the plot a good story. The three stages of the act are the set-up, the confrontation and ultimately, the resolution. Remember any story that you tell needs to have a clear beginning, middle and end and these three acts help you to provide that.

If storytelling is in your blood, and you have the burning desire to make a movie, begin by living the lifestyle. Hone your abilities by writing consistently, observing, and believing in the power of your own stories. If you feel that it is necessary, you can always enrol in a screenwriting course to help give you a little structure. Whatever you do keep writing and keep creating in the name of good filmmaking and storytelling.

If you would like to find out more about courses related to a career in the creative arts, visit www.cityvarsityonline.co.za

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