Our Favorite Free (or Almost Free) Resources For A Stronger Screenplay
by Mandi Harrison
The secret to writing the "perfect" screenplay: it's the Holy Grail for most writers. There are dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people claiming to have the answer and even more willing to listen (and pay) for a quick, easy fix.
But that's the problem. There is no magical fix. Writing is challenging at best. Even writing a blog can leave me lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling. Everything that you write contains a piece of you, so it is going to be difficult extracting it, especially when you are first starting to write. Once you have developed your voice and your own writing style, it becomes easier.
There are many resources and tools available to you as you strengthen your writing. There are classes, workshops, blogs, books, you name it. And you don't have to spend a lot of money. Here are the things that work for us, and they cost little to nothing.
Research. That's the first step. If you want to be a great writer- learn what makes a great story. Forget about the screenplay; if you don't have a story that draws people in, you are done. Learn about story structure. There are plenty of articles and blogs online; Dov Simens is no-nonsense, and Film Independent has great articles. I also highly recommend getting a book about story structure (we recommend these), and memorize it. Once you've learned structure, you won't have to follow it, but it will always be in your head. You can find these at a bookstore, or online, but most used bookstores or libraries have a film/writing section. Utilize it. We pretty much cleared out our local Zia's selection. Learn from other people's work, so you can develop your own.
STUDY OTHER MOVIES
This seems super easy, but it is homework: watch movies. Read scripts. Once you've studied structure, read scripts and watch movies to see how other writers use structure. This will completely change the way you look at movies. If you can, watch the movie and then find the script to read- it helps you put the puzzle together. Soon you will get to where you can think of a movie and take it apart. We still do this. There are certain movies that we always go to when we are stuck. When you are first starting, keep a pad of paper nearby and pause the movie every 10 minutes to determine the plot points. Writing it down helps you connect the dots quicker.
Our usual perusals: Silver Linings Playbook; When Harry Met Sally; Annie Hall; Legally Blonde; Pretty Woman; Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name
Plot It Out
Speaking of writing things down, grab yourself a pack or two of index cards. They are less than a buck for a pack. If you have different colored pens, that would be a great. Those books that you read earlier have some writing exercises in them and you're going to do them. The character development is especially helpful with the cards. Get to know who you are writing about. Even if your audience doesn't get to see all the details, you do and you have better knowledge as to what they will do. Write it all down. Then outline or plot out your story. Seeing your story all spread out helps you see the bigger picture.
Write. Edit. Repeat.
Once you have your blue print, just start writing. Don't worry about it being bad; it probably will be. But you have to start writing in order to finish your script. Dov Simens says "you can't make a third movie until you make a second movie. And you can't make a second until you make a first." I'm sure he'd say you can't make a first movie until you write a first draft.
There are stories of people that wrote their first screenplay in three drafts and some where it took twenty. It's going to take as long as it takes. (Don't do too many drafts though- you can get too close to the material and will never be satisfied) If you need to go back to the cards, you know where they are. If you need to watch another movie, grab the popcorn. If you need a refresher on story, visit Mr. McKee. If you are really stuck, go for a walk. Clear your head and the solution will come to you.
Our secret for writing a strong screenplay: DO THE WORK. Whenever we try to take a shortcut, we ALWAYS get stuck. The more you really get to know your characters and your voice, the easier it will be to actually write.