You have what you believe to be a winning premise, one that’s fresh enough to captivate an audience and the legs to sustain a feature runtime. The problem is, you don’t want to miswrite it. You don’t want to waste your big idea on an attempt that lacks good characterization, proper pace, interesting dialogue and a logical structure. After all, the more stabs you take at a good premise, the harder it becomes.
Screenwriting is a complex and, ultimately, personal experience, and sharing “universal advice” about the process can often be folly. But there are tenets of screenwriting that every writer, regardless of age or experience, should keep in mind, tenets that shape a successful script. The following tips, along with a robust mentorship and scrupulous editing should help you get a start in Hollywood’s business of writing for the silver screen. Here’s how to strike gold!
Build Out From Your Characters
Characterization is the single most important element of a screenplay – it’s what gives the picture its driving force, its stakes, its audience surrogate and its central conflicts. Ground your characters in real, 3-dimensional traits, taking care not to paint caricatures. For instance, say you have an auto mechanic – it would be uninteresting to make them just a Long Island-type jock; it would be more interesting to make them a hopeless romantic, a game show fanatic, a budding poet… you get the idea. Go for unexpected characterizations, and build the story out from there.
Don’t Fear Formula, But Don’t Rely on It Either
Some new writers want to start writing on page one, and try their way through to the very end, with no structure or formula in place. 99.99 times out of 100, that results in a messy script. Pick up one of the seminal screenwriting formula books, like Save the Cat; read about the hero’s journey; read about how act structure translates to page numbers in Hollywood screenplays; and, while not being entirely beholden to a cookie cutter structure, follow those cues.
Don’t Force the Action
Action in a story should spin naturally out of a character’s actions, which in turn should arise naturally from a character’s motivations and proclivities. If your hopeless romantic mechanic (to use the prior example) all of a sudden blows off his date to see a baseball game, just to serve a plot point, that’s what most writers would call “forced action”. It’s not in character, and therefore only services the plot.
Listen to the Way People Really Talk (Show, Don’t Tell)
You’ve plotted out the beats and it’s time to tackle dialogue. Novice writers tend to falter here by being too forthcoming with exposition. Take the example of a police agent, who is forced to scope out a mob moss’ headquarters in her first week on the job – you could have her say on transceiver to another officer, “I’m heading into the headquarters now, but I’m nervous because I’m inexperienced”, but that would be lazy writing.
Show her nervousness, but also understand that someone who is nervous won’t always say as much – they might even say the opposite. “Stand by, I’ve got him where I want him”, she might say, although her hand, shaking as it holds the transceiver, betrays her nervousness. In writing, showing is more powerful than telling.
Give your great idea the screenplay it deserves. Use the above tips to lay the groundwork, and look into mentorship for ongoing guidance as you write your movie.