In the first installment of our new Film School For Dummies series, Gabriel reflects on his experience penning a screenplay and provides some key insights for fellow aspiring filmmakers.
To be perfectly clear: I am by no means an expert in screenwriting, I am a beginner. However I have learned a lot about the writing process and gained some useful skills that I hope can be helpful for who are interested in screenwriting.
The first truly useful thing I discovered is that screenwriting is a craft. You will get better at it, and at least for me, a sense of progress and keeping sight of my improvement really helped my motivation. So, if you want to write something but you’re worried that your first draft will be terrible, know that it will be. But that’s not a reason to stop; instead you have to push through and believe that your hard work will pay off.
If you’re interested in screenwriting but you don’t know where to start, I would highly recommend reading the scripts for some of your favorite movies. Screenwriting has its own form of prose, its own structure and rules. If your end goal is to make a professional looking script that you can send to agents or submit to competitions, you should first try and get a feel for the medium you’re working in. The scripts for Hereditary(2018), Arrival(2016), and Blade Runner 2049(2017) are some of my favorites.
If you look up screenwriting advice online you will be bombarded by articles, books, and videos all claiming to know the secret behind writing a good screenplay. Some are useful, most have pretty standard writing advice, but I found a few to be incredibly helpful—particularly the book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. I absolutely would not have been able to write my screenplay without that book. There are also some excellent Masterclass series on directing and screenwriting that I found very useful.
One misconception that I think a lot of people might have about screenwriting is that the actual writing process is the hard part. Personally, I did not find this to be the case. I spent much more time and energy mapping out the story with index cards, doing research, and generally thinking about how I was going to write the script. That took me about 3 months. Because of that preparation, it only took me about a week to write my final draft.
You will also write many, many drafts. And every time you write them, you think it will be the last. I noticed a trend in my writing. The first draft I wrote, I got about 20 pages in before realizing my characters were flat and that the story was boring. So, I started over completely. The next time, I got about 30 pages in before deciding to scrap that iteration. Then, I wrote a 40 page draft, which I discarded, followed by a 60 page draft that I thought would be the one—but that one got trashed also. After that last draft I felt a little anxious. My goal was to finish a screenplay over the summer, and by August, I had nothing to show for it but a series of unfinished projects and a ton of preparation. The next time I started writing, I didn’t stop, and after a week I had completed a 91 page draft.
So what tools will you need? Lot’s of index cards, or sticky notes, to help plan out scenes and jot down story ideas, etc. I also found the website Milanote incredibly helpful for doing research and preparation. When you’re finally ready to write a draft, you’ll also need script writing software. I used Studio Binder’s online script writing software at first, but moved on to Final Draft—which offers a free 60 day trial—and found it to be much better. If you’re thinking about writing a script, it also helps to have people to discuss your work with. Getting feedback is instrumental to the writing process, but it can also make you feel vulnerable. I talked with my girlfriend throughout the writing process, and absolutely would not have been able to finish without her support.
Although the process is definitely time consuming, all in all I found screenwriting to be incredibly rewarding. It can be scary to start at first, especially if you are new to writing like I was, but if you stay the course it can be a truly amazing experience—not to mention an important step towards creating a career in the film industry.