I learned to swim at a young age and was raised with a healthy respect for the pool as well as never to pee in it. I was terrified the first time I decided to jump off the diving board. I inched toward the edge of the board, testing the feel of the scratchy surface beneath my toes. The blue watery abyss grew larger as I adjusted the bright orange floaties that held tight to my tiny biceps. I could hear my mom somewhere below encouraging me to jump.
“Don’t be a baby, just jump,” she called. I looked back toward the safety of land. Why should I jump? I was five. I didn’t have anything to prove.
The first time I attempted screenwriting, I got the same anxious feeling. I was surely going to drown in the unknown. No one would be there to catch me. Did screenwriting come with a set of floaties?
Have you ever found yourself feeling similar about trying new things? In 2007, I was approached to write my first screenplay. I was initially overtaken by the excitement of writing a movie, being on set, and seeing it on the big screen. I was sure to become instantly rich and famous, so I immediately said “Of course, I’d love too!” As I walked away I cringed, I had no clue what I was doing. I hugged my knees to my chest crying alone in a corner and than I began researching a way out of this hole my ego had put me in. If you find yourself in a similar state, here are a few tips to help you avoid the setbacks I faced when I started.
- Scriptwriting software is your floaty.The first screenplay I ever wrote was in Word. Yikes! It was the worst time in my writing career because I spent the whole time hitting TAB and ENTER while throwing small objects at the wall in frustration. If you have money to spend, the best software to buy is Final Draft. This software is approved and accepted by Hollywood. If you’re broke and single like me, save some cash and download free software called Celtx. It’ll do the trick until you’re ready to take the financial plunge and become the next Orson Welles.
- Follow the pool rules.A rule of thumb for screenplays is one page of script is equal to one minute of film. Knowing this in advance allows you to judge the length of your movie or TV show as you write it. If you end up with 230 pages for a two-hour film, you may find yourself with a one-way ticket to the rejection pile.
- Only write what can be seen or spoken. I started out writing novels—where I could share a character’s thoughts to keep the story moving. Not being able to write my characters’ thoughts was a struggle when I began writing scripts. As tricky as it is, there are ways to bend this rule: use a character voice-over, a flashback, a dream, or instigate the use of text bubbles above their heads like in the show Sherlock Holmes (well done, BBC). Try to find ways to show, not tell.
- Learn how to swim from others. Plenty of scripts are posted online. Review them to help you determine acceptable format and structure. How much action vs. dialogue should be written? Do you need to say anything about camera angles? What do all those odd acronyms stand for? Reading scripts will equip you with the format and lingo to use. I found it helpful to download a script of my favorite movie, play the movie and read along. For the visual learners this is the best technique. If you know proper structure, you’ll separate yourself from the amateurs!
- Outline your work before jumping in the pool.Some people like to wing it. Those people also think jumping into the pool without knowing how to swim is perfectly safe. Outlining your work is helpful in two ways. First: it helps you determine the pacing of your story. You can see a broader picture of your script as a whole project before you start typing. You can make adjustments beforehand, instead of moving large groups of dialogue after the fact. Second: when you are in the middle of a scene, it can be easy to forget what scene is next. Having the outline is a great way to focus on each scene individually. This is helpful for writing novels as well, but really helpful in screenwriting, because you work in a fast-paced style of storytelling.
- Recognize that half your writing is dialogue.Grammatical rules cannot only be broken in scriptwriting; they can be tossed in the trash. Why? Because you are writing dialogue. Last time I checked, “We don’t speaketh as though we are the human incarnate of The Chicago Manual of Style. (Sorry editors, I know this rule goes against every fiber of your being but yay writers, let’s party!) Write the way your characters speak, and don’t overthink grammar. Still use spellcheck, because it’s the right thing to do and keep in mind you don’t want your script filled with broken rules but at least you have room to swim.
- Ask readers you trust for feedback. Having someone review your work will save you the embarrassment of hearing: “You’ll never work in this town again, ya filthy animal.” I’d rather hear my shortcomings from a trusted friend. If you hear it from the fancy producer you’re hoping to impress, than you might have just peed in the pool my friend.
- Copyright Law: Sink or Swim. Most people don’t want to get into a lawsuit over your script, but its just plain smart to protect your work before you send it out. You can submit work online to the U.S. Copyright Office and it can take up to three months to get it back. If you don’t have that kind of time, you can pay for a rushed copyright. You can also copyright it through the WGA (Writers Guild of America), or mail yourself a certified copy and not open it. The latter options may not stand up in court, but if you’re on a deadline, you may have to use one of those options while you wait for the official copyright in the mail.
- Submit a query letter when presenting your script to a producer. Research producers and directors online. Occasionally you can find their email on their IMDBPro account or personal website. You may even find comments from them on their submission standards. I sent a script to a producer who I discovered didn’t like “Taglines.” Normally, a tagline is standard in a query letter, but I removed it on his letter, because he had expressed he had no need for them. There are a lot of websites that give advice on query letters—do your research. Be sure to have an editor or someone with amazing grammar skills read your letter before submitting. You spent months writing a script, and you want the producer to read it. If your query has spelling errors, or is outside industry format, they won’t even look at it. Do you watch movies when the trailer is terrible? Neither do producers. The query letter is your script’s trailer. Make it great.
- The NO Swim Zone. It’s a standard rule in Hollywood when you are submitting a television script, that the writers and producers that work on that show will not look at any scripts directly related to the show they are producing. They are opening themselves up to a lawsuit by reading your work. So, how do you become a writer for a TV show if they won’t read your script? Send them something unrelated but similar. If you want to write an episode for Continuum, which is a science fiction cop show, send them a script from Almost Human, a similar show. They are looking for your ability to write and tell a story within the same genre. This may not apply to movies as they are individual, but it doesn’t hurt to follow the same rule.
Jumping into screenwriting can be like jumping off the diving board for the first time, but the truth is you’ll never know until you try. I did jump off the diving board that day. It might have taken 20 minutes to convince me. There may have been a bribe of candy involved. But…I jumped. I wanted to prove to myself I could do it. And guess what? It was fun!
I’ll leave you with the encouraging words of my mother, “Don’t be a baby, just jump.” You now have tips to help you get started, tips I didn’t have when I sat down to write my first script. Having multiple scripts under my belt, I’m here to tell you it can be done. You are ready to swim in the pool of screenwriting, and it is a ton of fun.
Have any feedback not mentioned above? Feel free to share it in the comments below, so that others can avoid spending excessive time in the screenwriter’s learning curve.