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Screenwriting tips for the novice

video courtesy of YouTube/BigThink

Aspiring screenwriters searching endlessly for tips on how to write a screenplay all know that the business of screenwriting is an arduous one at best. That perilous journey from the initial concept to the dream of seeing it on the big screen is very daunting to say the least. So how to get started? Arming yourself with some of these helpful tips will hopefully get you one step closer on your way to becoming a working screenwriter.

Know your story

This is paramount to the success or failure of your script. Many writers coming off bursts of creativity immediately know how their story starts. When they get into the hurdles of the second act however, their story lags. It loses focus and soon writer's block sets in. In order to combat this issue, it's always helpful to design what's known as a paradigm. A paradigm serves as the structure of your story, identifying the following crucial elements:

Opening: Establishing shot of the film, whether it be a sunset coming over the horizon, a person in the middle of an interview, a baby being born, etc. The possibilities are endless. It serves as an introduction to the story, setting the overall tone while building some sense of what the story will be about.

Catalyst: A general rule of thumb for writing a screenplay is that you have to hook the reader/audience within the first ten pages. The attention span of the average movie going audience is relatively short, so you have to grab their attention by setting up the story quickly.

Plot Point I: At about 20-25 minutes into the film, something needs to happen. While the average novice will hear suggestions about gunfights or car crashes, this isn't necessary. It can be something as simple as a letter arriving in the mail which will have shattering effects on the family who receives it. Sometimes less is more, but whatever the device is, it has to take the main character out of their normal world and shake things up.

Subplot A: In all of drama, someone wants something, while someone else stands in their way. What the subplot does is answer the question of why the main character wants it. For example, 'Rocky' wants to go the distance with champion Apollo Creed. Why does he wants this? To prove he's not a bum.

Midpoint: This is the part of the story where the main character resolves to work his way to winning the fight/game, solving the murder, etc.

Plot Point II: Nearing the climax of the film, the main character goes through a second reversal, similar to plot point one. He wins the fight/solves the murder, etc.

Subplot B: Here is where the main character learns something about him/herself through persevering that wasn't known before. Once again, this answers the question of why.

Ending: Closing shot of your film; stark contrast to your opening shot.

Avoid the 'Deus ex Machina' approach: Translated as the 'god from the machine', this plot device was often used in the days of Greek theatre. Whenever the protagonists got themselves into trouble, the ending was usually when the gods would literally come down and solve all their problems. That may have worked during the days of Greek theater, but in the business of screenwriting, it's paramount that the protagonist solves his/her own problems. This is a cheap form of storytelling and robs the audience of the payoff.

Write character biographies: Award-winning actor Denzel Washington once said in an interview that he likes to write at least a 10-15 page biography of his character to help himself prepare for the role. This technique is not just useful for actors, but writers as well. If the writer of the script doesn't know and hasn't taken the time to craft well fleshed out characters, then how can the actors succeed in this task? A helpful hint for screenwriters on this one is to not only create character biographies but to act out the characters themselves during the development process. A good book to reference is Konstantin Stanislavski's 'Building a Character'.

Foreshadowing: If the main character who has never displayed any hint of a martial arts or weapons background at any previous point in the film suddenly displays a mastery of both to save the day, the audience will feel cheated. A perfect example of foreshadowing is any James Bond film. In the beginning of the film, the character Q always gives Bond a brief lesson on the latest gadgets he's developed. Needless to say, these same gadgets are always used later. Whatever the methods, establishing them in the beginning always serves as a satisfying payoff later.

Movies to review

For extra added help with crafting well-written screenplays, it's always a good idea to immerse one's self into films that either won or were nominated for Academy Awards. Critical acclaim or box office appeal is always the clearest indicators that there was something about the film that resonated with critics and audiences alike. What follows is just a small sample of some great films to study:

  • Chinatown

  • The Usual Suspects

  • Citizen Kane

  • Pulp Fiction

  • Rocky

  • Quiz Show

  • The Social Network

Whatever the genre of writing, hopefully these tips will serve as helpful steps on the way to realizing that concept go from script to screen.

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