Avoiding 10 Setbacks in Screenwriting

I grew up having a swimming pool in the backyard of every home my parents ever purchased. I knew how to swim at a young age, and was raised with a healthy respect for the pool and never to pee in it. I knew how to swim before I knew how to walk, which is why it was so scary when I first decided to jump off the diving board. I slowly walked toward the end of the board, testing the white scratchy surface beneath my toes. I watched, as the blue watery abyss grew larger in front of me. I could hear my mom below telling me to jump, but I couldn’t see her. I looked behind me to the safety of land.

“Come on you big baby, just jump,” my mom called encouragingly. I adjusted the bright orange floatation devices on my arms, and I wondered what was going to happen. Why should I jump? What am I trying to prove? This isn’t a good idea.

The first time I decided to tackle screenwriting, I got the same butterflies in my stomach. Would I make it back to the surface if I gave this a try? Will there be anyone there to help me? Where are my floaties? Why should I even try this?

I was approached to write a screenplay for an acquaintance that wanted to make a movie. Initially, I was overtaken by the excitement of writing a movie, watching it filmed, and eventually seeing it on the big screen. I’d become instantly rich and famous, so I immediately said “Of course, I’d love too! No sweat. I do this type of thing every day.” As I walked away, I realized I had no clue what I was doing. I had never written a screenplay before. What had I just done? After crying alone in a corner for 9.67 hours, I began researching a way out of this hole my ego had put me in.

If you find yourself in a similar corner, or maybe you’re just curious about screenwriting, here are a few tips that might help you avoid some of the setbacks I faced.

  1. Get screenwriting software.The first screenplay I ever wrote was in Word. It was the worst two months of writing I’d ever experienced. It took two months, because I spent the whole time hitting TAB and ENTER and throwing small objects at the wall in frustration. If you have money to spend, the best software out there is Final Draft. This software is approved and accepted by Hollywood—if that’s where you’re planning to send your script. If you’re looking to save some cash until you know that you are meant to be the next Orson Welles, I suggest downloading the free software called Celtx. It’ll do the trick until you’re ready to take the financial plunge. Scriptwriting software is the best “floaty” a screenwriter can have.
  2. Follow the rule.A general rule of thumb for screenplays is that one page of a script is equal to one minute of film. This is helpful to know in advance so you can judge the length of your movie or TV show. No need to write 230 pages for a two-hour film, because no one will attempt reading it.
  3. Only write what you can see and hear. I started out writing novels—where I could share a character’s thought process to keep the story moving. Not being able to write what was on my characters’ minds was a bit of a pitfall for me when I first started writing scripts. Ways to bend this rule: use a character voice-over, a flashback, a dream, or instigate the use of text bubbles above their heads like in the show Sherlock Holmes (well done, BBC). Try to find ways to show, not tell.
  4. Read other scripts. Some writers post their scripts online. Review them to help you determine acceptable format. How much action vs. dialogue should you write? Do you need to say anything about camera angles? What does V.O., O.S., and CONT’D stand for? Reading other scripts will equip you with the script lingo. You’ll need to know the language of script writing if you are planning to write with it. Separate yourself from the amateurs!
  5. Outline your work before getting started.Some people like to wing it. Those people also think skydiving without a backup parachute is perfectly safe. Outlining your work is helpful in two ways. First: it helps you determine the pacing of your story, one line at a time. You can see a broader picture of your script as a whole project before you even start. This allows you to make adjustments beforehand, instead of moving large groups of dialogue around after the fact. Second: when you are in the middle of a scene, it can be easy to forget what scene you had planned next. Having the outline is a great way to focus on each scene individually, without worrying about what is coming up. This is helpful for writing novels, but really helpful in screenwriting, because you are working in a fast-paced style of storytelling.
  6. Take advantage of the fact that half your writing is dialogue.Grammatical rules cannot only be broken in scriptwriting; they can be tossed into the trash. Why? Because you are writing dialogue. Last time I checked, “We don’t speaketh as though we are the human incarnate of The Chicago Manual of Style (and Grace) blah blah blah. (Sorry editors, yee haw writers!) Write the way your characters would speak, and forget the proper grammar. Still use spellcheck, just because it’s the right thing to do.
  7. Have people you trust read the screenplay and ask them for feedback. Having someone review your work will save you the embarrassment of hearing: “You’ll never work in this town again, ya filthy animal.” I’d rather hear my shortcomings from a friend who is trying to help. If you hear it from the producer that you’re trying to impress, than you just peed in the pool, my friend.
  8. Copyright your work before sending it to anyone. Most people won’t want to get into a lawsuit over your script, but its just plain smart to protect your hard work. You can submit work online to the U.S. Copyright Office and it can take up to three months to get it back. If you don’t have that kind of time, you can pay for a rushed copyright. Other options are copyrighting it through the WGA (Writers Guild of America), or mail yourself a certified copy, and don’t open it. The latter options may not stand up in court, but if you’re trying to beat a deadline, you may just have to use one of those options while you wait for the official copyright to come in the mail.
  9. Submit a query letter/email when presenting your script to a producer. Research the producer online, and look for their email on their personal blog or website. You may even find direct comments from them on their submission standards. I sent a script to a producer who I discovered didn’t like “Taglines.” Normally, a tagline is standard in a query letter, but I removed them on his letter, because he had expressed that he had no need for them. There are a lot of websites out there that give advice on query letters—do your research. Be sure to have an editor or someone with amazing grammar skills read your letter before submitting. You just spent months writing a script, and you want the producer to read it. If your letter has spelling errors, or is outside industry format, he won’t even look at the script. Do you watch movies when the trailer stinks? Neither do producers. The query letter is your script’s trailer. Make it great.
  10. Look into submissions legalities. It’s a standard rule in Hollywood that when you are submitting a show script, the writers and producers of that show will not look at any writing or scripts directly related to the show they are producing. They are opening themselves up to a lawsuit by reading your work. How do you become a writer for a TV show if they won’t read your script? You send them something unrelated but similar. If you are hoping to write an episode for Continuum, which is a science-fiction cop show, then send them a script from Almost Human, which is also a science-fiction cop show. What they are looking for is your ability to write and your ability to tell a story in that genre. Don’t waste your time sending in an episode of the same show you want to write for, as it will be ignored to avoid a lawsuit. This may not apply to movies as they are usually on their own, but if the movie is a series like the new Mission Impossiblemovies, you’ll want to follow the same rule just to be safe. Write your episode anyway, it can’t hurt, because they may eventually reach out to you with a contract offer. It would be good to have your script ready to go.

Jumping into screenwriting can be just like jumping off the diving board for the first time, but the truth is you’ll never know if you can do something, until you try it. Give it your best shot. I did jump off the diving board that day. It might have taken 20 minutes to convince me. It might have taken a floatation device check and re-check. There may have been a bribe of candy involved. But…I jumped. Not because my mom called me a baby or bribed me with a packet of Sixlets. I wanted to prove to myself I could. I wanted to show that I was able to take this step on my own. So, I jumped. 

I’d like to encourage you with the words of my mom, “Come on you big baby, just jump.” Now you have a few tips to help you get started, tips I didn’t have as I sat down to write my first script. Having multiple scripts under my belt, I’m here to tell you it can be done. You are ready to swim in the pool of screenwriting, and it is a ton of fun.

Have any feedback not mentioned above? Feel free to share it in the comments below, so that others can avoid spending excessive time in the screenwriter’s learning curve.

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