Thursday, October 25, 2012

Question #3: Where do I start?

Vanessa asks: 

I've just now started seriously thinking about writing a screenplay, but I'm a bit overwhelmed from where to start. I just have notes scribbled here and there. I downloaded some scripts but want to make sure I'm learning everything. Any suggestions?

This is a hell of a question, and of course, one everybody asks when they start out. And there are tons of different directions you can take here, but they'll all get you to the same place - writing a good script.

This is a controversial viewpoint I'm about to spout, but it's one I strongly believe: This first script is for practice. You will very rarely hear about someone selling their first script, but I would ignore the exceptions. Maybe your script will turn out so great you can do something with it, and if it is, you can deal with that when the time comes. But I think you'll do much better if you accept that this first script is just an experiment, a learning experience, not the start to your career, but to your education.

If you just jump in and use this script to play and figure things out, the pressure to be perfect will be off and you'll be able to try things without fear.

At the same time, don't make it harder on yourself. Don't try to write Inception. That's seriously advanced material. Write a story you're comfortable telling. I'd suggest writing something simple with a clear protagonist with a goal and obstacles, but if you feel really jazzed about something outside the conventional storytelling frame and don't want to work on anything else, then go where the passion is. It's tough to force yourself to write something if you're not excited about it, especially the first time.

As for the actual writing? You've read scripts, maybe a few books - although I've never found a screenwriting book that blew my mind enough to recommend it - and poured over the websites. The only thing you can really do is start writing.

Let me backup about the websites. I'm a moderator at the Done Deal Pro forums, so naturally I'm going to suggest that site as a great source of information. There are some crazy, angry idiots over there sometimes, but we do our best to keep them in check. If you can shake them off, you can get some amazing advice from all the pros, on-the-cusp, and even new writers there. You can also post a few pages and get notes from the group.

There's also Wordplayer, Terry Rossio's site (supposedly Ted Elliot's too, but how often do you see Ted posting?) where you can find articles on screenwriting and a forum. I don't love the forum, but some of the articles are really great. I'd read all of them.

John  August's site is really good. He doesn't post as much new material as he used to, but there's some amazing information there from a long time industry pro.

Speaking of John August, he and Craig Mazin do a regular Scriptnotes podcast which is a great resource for updated information about the industry. They frequently answer reader submitted questions.

In the beginning, I also kept a style guide on hand for when I wasn't sure how to format something. David Trottier's Screenwriter's Bible is one people use. I used The Elements of Style for Screenwriters. That way, you don't have to go online and ask every time you don't know how to format a particularly tricky scene. You can just flip open your book and check out the rules. After a while, you won't need the guide anymore because format choices will become intuitive, but in the beginning, it can help get the format questions out of the way so you can focus on the hard stuff like character development.

So read as much as you can, especially scripts, but in the end, you have to start writing. It's the only way you'll start to figure it out. But don't try to sell your first script when you're done; at least wait a while and see how you feel about it after you start your second.

Some may disagree with me on that, but I feel like it's important to have realistic expectations.

Hopefully this helps. Good luck! When you're done, find someone to give you good notes (not me - I no longer read first-timers) and rinse, repeat until you write something you KNOW is good.


  1. Emily,

    When you work with a real life event or character like JFK or anything surrounding Lincoln for example, how much can you get away with in terms of making stuff up. If the real life figure really said an entire speech or conversation, can you put that down verbatim in your script? And do you have to option nonfiction sources that you do research on. Say a lot of those facts are in the historical record in dozens of books, on the internet, youtube and even common knowledge, can you just put it down. I don't know why some producers option certain magazine articles when those articles regurgitate facts already known or from other news sources.

    I notice that some movies completely fabricate real life events as I have read the real life behind it, while others are faithful to it. Stephen King once said "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." So, just trying to figure out how to navigate the waters of being accurate yet telling a good story.

    Btw, I was tempted to write "how do I finish? :) It seems like whipping something into shape is quite a challenge.

  2. I AM NOT A LAWYER. If you want a real, reliable answer, consult a lawyer.

    That said, they just released Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter this year. So that should answer your question about making stuff up.

    If someone is along dead public figure, you can kind of make up whatever you want.

    If the information you've researched is from several sources, you're good. If you got all of your information from one book, you owe that guy money and/or credit.

  3. Perfect. I'm glad there's that much leeway to make stuff up.

    Even movies that aren't obvious mashups like Vampire Hunter, with movies that are supposed to be straight depictions of actual events, I noticed that writers have completely fabricated some real life news stories since I've read all the real news sources. Not just inventing dialogue from whole cloth, but also scenarios that never happened, combining characters, transplanting stuff from other news stories or moving around timelines, or putting in fictional leads onto a real life story. As I'm writing this, I just realized that Titanic was completely made up. :)

  4. Anonymous5:38 AM

    I also recommend Pilar Alessandra's "On the Page" screenwriting podcast. It's been invaluable to me as a writer. Not just the episodes on craft, but also the convos she has with working writers, producers, editors. Great stuff.

  5. Thanks so much! Don't worry I didn't plan on sending you anything. Just getting the basics down having fun with it. Thanks to the others for their advice as well.

  6. For a quick guide to format google "format_sheetv2.pdf"

  7. John August's is a great site for formatting related questions.

    Also, if you're looking for notes I manage a blog where you can submit your 1st 10 pages for free notes/feedback. We also have a quasi private writers' lab for more discreet feedback.


Please leave a name, even if it's a fake name. And try not to be an asshole.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.