Margie Lawson

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So You Want To Write A Screenplay

If you are reading this blog post, you are most likely a writer, or you would like to be a writer. And that you’re reading this blog post in particular, tells me you probably want to learn how to write a screenplay. Having contemplated that same thought about thirty years ago, let’s see if I can clear up some questions you may have in advance.

Now most, if not all of you, have read at least one novel… But I’d be willing to bet most of you have never read a “Spec Screenplay”. Some of you may have read a “Shooting Script” (what you usually find online.)

“What’s the difference?” you may be asking.

A “Spec Screenplay” is written in speculation of selling it to a producer who will make it into a movie.

A “Shooting Script” is developed from the “Spec” and becomes the blueprint from which we create a movie.  

A Spec Screenplay is written to be read… to catch the interest of a reader… to get somebody to buy it.

A Spec Screenplay must be: visual, fast moving, and strictly “Formatted.” Yes—I said strictly formatted. 

Unlike a novel, a screenplay takes place in a pre-set time frame: 70 to 110 pages.

The average novel is 250 to 350 pages. Novels range from 75,000 to 95,000 words long, rarely over 150,000 words. The average Spec script is 7,500 and 20,000 words long and formatted in such a way to make each full page equal 1 (one) minute of running time. (I won’t go into the actual formatting rules, the “page layout” and “margins”. We cover that in the class: “Intro to Screenwriting”).

Poster from Three Days of the Condor - fair use

In 1975 the movie, “Three Days of the Condor” was released. It was a political thriller film directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, and Cliff Robertson. The screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel was adapted from the 1974 novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady. The book was a short novel, about 234 pages long, around 50,000 words. While the screenplay was around 118 pages or approximately 21,240 words.

Why am I telling you this? To show you that when adapting a novel, you must remember: You can’t get 4 pounds of S…tuff in a 2 pound bag.

Another thing about Screenwriting you should know:

A “Screenplay” is the adaptation of a “Story” to the screen.

Think about that. What’s that mean? A “Story” adapted to the screen?

If I were writing a novel, I would take a story idea and start writing. Not so with a screenplay. Remember: “A 'Story' adapted to the screen.” 

 “What if one of a set of Siamese Twins was accused of murder?” isn’t a story. It’s a story idea.

In order to write a screenplay, you first have to write a story. We screenwriters call that developing a “treatment.” 

Another thing you have to remember, when you begin scripting your treatment (writing your screenplay): “Always write visually.”

In a screenplay, you can only describe the things that will actually be SEEN on the screen or HEARD by the audience. Anything else is superfluous. And while we are at it, because you can only describe what will actually be SEEN on screen or HEARD by the audience, we always write screenplays in the present tense.

Keep your sentences short and always use strong and expressive verbs that paint a picture. When writing “action” do not use “to be” verbs: is, are, am, was, were. “To be” verbs in action sequences do little more than turn a perfectly good verb into an adverb. "To be"dialogue verbs are fine when used in dialogue. That is the way we talk. It’s natural. But in action lines, do yourself and the reader a favor: Use strong and expressive verbs that paint a picture.

Another thing to add to your list of things to remember: Try to limit your action paragraphs to no more than four lines or less.

The best screenwriters keep their action description at two lines per paragraph throughout most of the script. Shorter paragraphs create “White Space” on the page. Why is that important? You are writing a Spec Script, a screenplay you hope will catch the eye of a producer who will buy your creation and turn it into a movie. But you see, before the Producer sees your screenplay, it has to impress a reader enough that the reader will pass it on to the producer with a recommendation.

These readers are inundated with scripts: piles of scripts on their desk, piles of scripts at home. They really don’t want to read your script. They would rather go on a date and drink beer, but they are stuck reading your script. And if they open that script and it looks like a novel, every page crammed full, little or no white space, if it’s full of typos, or it’s not formatted properly… Without hesitation, they will deposit your masterpiece, the next Oscar Winner, in the old “round-file” with only the slightest cursory look.

Remember the Golden rule: Great screenplays aren’t written, they’re rewritten.

Always do a rewrite and remember: White space is your BFF.

Wally & Betty

Teachers:

So You Want To Write A Screenplay 1

Wally Lane is a former Boardmember of the Northwest Screenwriters Guild (NWSG). He is an award-winning writer and filmmaker, a published poet, and has written articles and book reviews for several publications, including Journey. Wally’s film, “Winos & Pigeons”, was honored at WorldFest Houston. As long-time Chairman of the NWSG’s Compendium committee, Wally has mentored hundreds of new screenwriters by helping them write to “Industry Standard.”

Wally has been writing screenplays since 1990. He and his writing partner, Wash Phillips, have scores of screenplays completed or in development across a wide range of genres. Many of these scripts either have been or are currently optioned.

Wally is an alumnus of the U. of W. Extension Certificate Program in Screenwriting and The Film School, a Seattle-based institution of national repute. He is also a former panelist at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s and the Surrey International Writers Conference’s annual Writing Conferences.

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Betty Kim Lierman with her dog

Betty Kim is a screenwriter, children’s book author, singer, songwriter, actor, and former ballet dancer. She has been active in the Northwest Screenwriters Guild, serving as president, vice-president, treasurer, secretary, and head of the compendium. She is featured in Save the Cat Strikes Back for her pitching method. She has taught her pitch method at TheFilmSchool, the NWSG, and SIFF. She focuses on writing feature length comedies and children’s books.

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