32 Indispensable Screenwriting Tips

1) Follow accepted industry story structure.  If you don’t know it, write and I’ll send you my Structure Chart.

2) Write about somebody who needs something desperately.  What is needed is deep not trivial.  He needs to survive. She needs self-esteem.  He needs family.  She needs health.

3) When you know what your protagonist needs then you show how she takes action to get it.  This is your plot.

4) Story = Change.  In the quest to get what he needs, your protagonist changes.

5) The ending is the answer to the beginning.  The beginning of your screenplay asks a question: Will your protagonist get what he or she needs? The ending is the answer: yes, or no.

6) Make us care.  Write characters who are dimensional and at least occasionally sympathetic.  If everyone is cruel, vindictive, mercenary and greedy, why would we bother?

7) Something has to happen.  In every scene.  Pace your events quickly.  Delete all scenes that don’t  contain an event.

8) Get in late, get out early.  Each scene must be cut to the action.  Delete chit-chat.  Nobody cares if your characters say hello and good-bye. End a scene on a question that makes us keep reading.

9) Avoid long speeches.  What will the camera do while that character is speaking on and on? Dialogue must be riveting but spare.

10) Build suspense.  There should be at least three unanswered questions on every page.  Always: Will my protagonist get what he needs? Scene-by-scene: Will he hold onto the rock-face, or fall? Will she finally erupt at her abusive husband? Will he succeed in picking out just the right gift?

11) Stay to your through-line.  Your protagonist is going after something, desperately.  Don’t veer off the path.

12) Movies are visual.  We see them.  You cannot tell us what your character is feeling or thinking.  You must show us through actions.  Wrong: Cyndi is very nervous.  Right: Cyndi wipes the sweat off her brow.

13) Make sure your opening scene is a grabber and establishes tone and through-line.

14) Everything happens in the “now” in your movie.  All descriptions are in the present.  Avoid the “ing” form of the verb.  Wrong: Connor is driving through town.  Right: Connor drives through town.

15) Don’t do the director’s job.  Keep your screenplay to the basics and do not indicate the kind of shot, the mood of the shot, or anything that is rightly the director’s province.

16) Decide on the time frame of your story.  Most movies take place in a year or less.

17) Decide on the world of your movie.  If there are supernatural elements, for example, write them from the start. Don’t introduce a ghost on p. 50.

18) Use flashbacks sparingly and only to inform us about something we are already hooked on, in the present.  If you find that you’re using a narrator (V.O.) to tell your story, chances are you’re being lazy.

19) Use correct screenwriting protocol.  Your screenplay is a blueprint that a director builds on.  You have to write  accepted format for shooting a movie.

20) Go through your screenplay word by word and be sure there are absolutely no typos or spelling errors.

21) When you are writing a major character, name that person.  When a minor character, identify generically such as: POLICEWOMAN.  When introducing a character, the name is ALL CAPS and followed by a comma, then the age.  TALISA, 30.

22) Name characters differently.  For example, do not name two characters Angela and Agatha.

23) Write characters that movie stars want to play.  Interesting, outspoken, larger than life, and portrayed with exciting dialogue that actors will love saying.

24) Keep your screenplay to 110 pages at most.  If it’s going longer, it needs restructuring.

25) Chances are that you, a new screenwriter, are not going to pen the next major studio blockbuster.  Stay away from stories that are cosmic, intergalactic, demand expensive historical sets, or deal with apocalypse.

26) Consider the cost of making your movie.  Scripts that can be shot for under $10 million (usually, indies films) are easier to sell.

27) Know what you’re up against.  The competition is enormous.  If you are a woman, the odds are ten times greater.  Spec scripts are less and less likely to get made.  Studios and production companies work with writers they know.

28) Know when to quit.  Believing in your dream only goes so far.  When you have spent more than you’ve made–on classes, pitching lessons (that you will rarely need in the real world except when you’re paying to learn how), contests and books and seminars–unless you write for the fun of it, then it’s time to hang up your pen.

29) Master the basics of marketing your screenplay.  Learn what a logline is; what a synopsis is; how to write a query letter, and how to get your foot in the door.

30) If you have learned your craft, started with a modicum of writing talent, and are burning to see your movie made, persevere.  Grow a thick skin.  Expect rejection.  Stay with it.

31) Write the story that only you can tell.  This is different advice from “write what you know.” Write what you and you alone know.  This makes your screenplay more marketable.

32) Acquire discipline.  Write every day.

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  1. I really liked the suggestion you gave to name the characters differently. This is something that personally I wouldn’t be that aware of because it’s such a small detail! The small details, though, is where it really matters, so making each character distinct and easily identifiable will definitely help what I’m writing be more polished! Thank you for sharing.

    • Diana Amsterdam says:

      Hi Lauren,

      Thanks for your comment. It’s true that the small things matter but big things like whether or not your story matters, whether it’s built to last, structure and character development are all of supreme importance. Diana

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