10 Proven Tips for Becoming a Better ScreenwriterFrom overcoming that blank page to finding industry representation.
“Learn to embrace failure and risk, and you’ll become a better writer for it.”
If you’ve written a screenplay and are wondering what to do with it, then you might check out Austin Film Festival, often referred to as “the writer’s festival” on account of its screenplay competition and celebration of the screenwriter’s contribution to the filmmaking process.
Lights Film School was fortunate enough to have Courtney Hope Thérond on the ground at this year’s Austin Film Festival, as she was in attendance with her screenplay Between Us Girls, a finalist in the Scripted Digital Series Competition. The weekend was a whirlwind of inspiring events and panels. Speakers included Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy, Ghostbusters); Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy); Michelle Ashford (The Pacific, Masters of Sex); Marta Kauffman (Friends, Grace and Frankie); Stephen Falk (You’re the Worst); and Nancy Meyers (What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday), to name only a few!
Here are Courtney’s top 10 takeaways from Austin Film Festival, culled from the screenwriting and production experiences of some of the most successful filmmakers in the industry today.
1. On finding your idea.
Mirroring the progression of the writing process, the first wise words from the panelists focused on how to tackle the blank page. Each panelist had their own approach, but the general consensus was that real life experiences will make you a better writer. Taking an improv, sketch, or acting class is a great way to let loose, play, and better understand natural dialogue as well as the ways in which people – and thus characters – interact. This is also a great way to explore the traits and tics that make characters pop off the page.
Another suggestion was to listen to the world around you for dialogue inspiration. Sometimes the greatest inspiration comes from overheard conversation. Of course, be discreet!
Once you’ve dug into the real world and have your first kernel of an idea, you’re on your way to developing a screenplay.
2. On developing your character.
Whose journey are we sharing? How will you introduce us to your characters?
Help us discover your characters by showing us what they do. Actions speak louder than words, a truism that applies to screenwriting as well as to life. Don’t get bogged down by exposition.
When we think of the people we know and love, there’s often that caveat of, “I love you, but…” The same holds true for characters. Complex human beings are vulnerable and have flaws. This inspires audience sympathy. This applies to the bad guys, too! Make your villain worthy of your hero to raise the stakes and keep your audience engaged.
A fantastic exercise is to write a single early scene that establishes your character. This is a great practice of “show, don’t tell”, that will help you get to know your character more intimately.
Now, how does your character change throughout the film? What is their arc?
3. On creating your outline.
Time to make your outline! Remember that the keys to your script are: character, theme, and tone. Strive for consistency as you sketch your hero’s quest. Place a question at the center of your story and ask yourself how each scene moves the story forward toward answering this. Ensure there are real stakes at risk for the protagonist and antagonist.
Many of our favorite films and television shows surprise us. How does your script surprise its audience? Memorable moments are often inevitable but unexpected.
Of course, you’ll also need to ensure you’re embracing the best format for your story. Should this be a feature? A pilot? A digital series? Why?
4. On writing.
GET TO WORK! You have to write the script if you want people to read it.
This is simple and self-evident, but for many of us, getting started is a real challenge. Remember, “the most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit” – but we can beat it.
As you write, make sure you’re explaining things in storytelling terms. This goes back to that classic “show, don’t tell” mantra. Your job as a screenwriter is to paint visual pictures with your words. Don’t get bogged down by too many characters and too many details. The economy of language is important.
Make sure you understand why we’re entering the story when we are. A common mistake you’ll want to avoid is taking too long to get to the heart of your character’s journey. Don’t get lost in the setup. You may create worlds and backstories that go beyond the scope of the script, which is great, but make sure to cut away what isn’t necessary for the audience to know. Common advice is get to who your character is, and where they are going to take us, in the first 10 pages. If the audience doesn’t feel where your story is going to take them by then, you risk losing their interest.
Re-read your work and make changes until you feel it’s ready for fresh eyes. Some writers like to take a break from their writing before revisiting it. That’s up to you. Just don’t put your screenplay in a drawer and forget about it. The actual writing is only one of many steps – “writing is rewriting.”
5. On pitching.
Once you have a draft of your script, you’re ready to share it and collect notes on what you can change and make better. Great! But what, precisely, is the next step? Well, you’ll need to be able to pitch your screenplay clearly and concisely in order to get people to read it. We’ve all heard of an elevator pitch, and you should be able to do this for your script. Can you share the logline and premise in a way that conveys the driving tone and idea of your story? This will help people understand what the story is and get excited about reading it.
Imagine you’re telling your story to a five-year-old. Keep it simple and get to the point. Test it out on people to see where they get lost, and tweak accordingly. Talking about your screenplay aloud can help you find gaps in your story. When you pitch your screenplay, do you paint the picture of what if feels like to watch your movie or show?
What makes your film special, and why do you love it? Why are you taking us on this specific journey? If you can get someone excited in a few sentences, then it will be that much easier to get them to read your script!
6. On taking and giving notes.
Now that people have agreed to read your script, they’ll offer you notes on your work. Of course, no one love getting notes – we want to believe our first draft is already perfect! It’s important, however, to listen to the notes given.
When getting feedback, choose battles carefully. Notes come from somewhere. Even if you might not agree with them, that doesn’t make them invalid. If people are getting stuck on your screenplay at the same spot, then perhaps you should revisit that area. Be flexible. Return to your draft with your notes with an open mind. It’s much easier to find and knead out the problems on the page than it is to fix issues after the footage has been shot.
In the same vein, one great way to improve your writing is by reading other people’s work and giving them notes. It will help you to learn what works and what doesn’t. This is often easier to perceive in other people’s scripts because you’ll have less of an emotional attachment to the material.
7. On producing your own work.
If you can make your own work, do it! You don’t have to wait for someone to “greenlight” your script. Write projects you can make yourself or with friends. Sharpen your producer skills. Wearing many hats will help you become a better writer. You’ll understand the process that your script sets in motion. Sometimes the best way to test an idea is to try it out yourself.
It’s a learning process; learn to embrace failure and risk, and you’ll become a better writer for it.
8. On finding representation.
Whether you’re looking to produce your work or looking to find representation, do your homework. If you’re looking to have your work produced, then find 10 companies producing similar material and start there. If representation by an agent or manager is your goal, then research who has the career path you want and find out who represents those writers. Start by reaching out to the junior agents and assistants at those companies, asking them if they would read your work. It will be much easier for an assistant to pass your script along if they like it than it will be for you to have your work read by a manager or agent without a referral. If you are cold submitting, be prepared to sign a release form, too.
If you’re not getting the enthusiasm you hoped for right away, that’s okay! Rejection is part of the game; don’t take it personally. Just keep working and learning. Hone your craft and find your audience.
9. On networking.
The ability to collaborate is important. This is especially true in television. Be comfortable talking to people. Remember those improv and sketch classes? They can help with this, too! Be ready to pitch your projects, and be ready to listen to what others are working on. There’s little more inspiring (or motivating) than being around your fellow writers.
Did I mention? Film festivals are a great place to brush up on these networking skills!
10. On writing, writing, writing, writing, writing…
Start a writing group or read and offer notes for your screenwriter friends. Set deadlines and hold each other to them. We’re in this together! We’re a community, and the more we foster each other, the better we all become.
Keep at it! Building a career as a screenwriter means committing to a long and involved process, but keep writing and keep making content. Patience, hard work, and a little bit of hustle will take you far!
Check out the digital downloads (podcast and video) at Austin Film Festival’s On Story to learn more and experience some of the panels for yourself. And don’t forget that you can submit your screenplay to the festival’s screenplay competition next year!
Courtney Hope Thérond, with
Looking to get started on the path to screenwriting success? We’d love to point you in the right direction with our in-depth online filmmaking course, designed to keep with your vision and schedule from concept through final cut – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.
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