Writing your first screenplay: advice for directors
Writing your first screenplay can be intimidating, both for experienced directors and aspiring writers. Maybe you’re skilled at giving notes or blocking scenes, but do you know screenplay structure or screenplay format? What are common screenwriting cliches to avoid? If you’re an aspiring screenwriter writing your first screenplay, follow these tips!
Do your research
You can find a ton of actual professional screenplay PDFs online, especially at the end of the year, when film companies release scripts to be considered for the Academy Awards and other honors. For example, A24 has released screenplays for Lady Bird, The Florida Project, and The Disaster Artist. Copy the screenplay format used by these pro writers. (Using a screenplay software program will also make formatting easy.) You can also study professional screenplays to learn about the standard screenplay page count, amount of description, and scene length. Many aspiring screenwriters simply don’t read enough professional screenplays, and so their scripts end up looking amateurish. You can also ask other writers and directors for screenplay advice or script feedback — start networking on FilmUp!
Decide on a clear vision and story
Like with directing, writing your first screenplay requires a clear and unique vision. Don’t worry about trying to please everyone or writing what you think people are buying right now. “Remind yourself why you’re telling this story,” says director Ava Duvernay. Think of screenwriting as an art form in itself.
If you know you’re going to direct your own script, you might include shorthand that only you understand. But what if you end up using this script as a writing sample in the future? You’ll want it be comprehensible and complete. Remember that you should be focusing as much on story, plot, dialogue, and theme as on camera shots at the writing stage.
Manage your time wisely
Don’t set up your shoot until you know you’ll have enough time to finish your first screenplay. Remember that a final draft of a screenplay will have taken feedback from others into account, too. It might take people a while to get back to you; it might also take you a while to incorporate everyone’s notes. Scrambling through rewrites after you’ve already begun shooting can make for a stressful and costly environment.
You might also need to set aside specific time for research and outlining before you jump right into writing script pages (a common rookie mistake). Also, remember that a screenplay is typically 90-120 pages, so it makes sense that writing one might take you a while. If you try to follow advice like “how to write a screenplay in a week” you’re probably going to end up with a sub-par screenplay.
Set reasonable goals
For your first screenplay, you might not want to write an ensemble sci-fi period piece set on a distant planet. Of course you don’t want your first screenplay to be boring, but it’s best to avoid overly complicated ideas. Zero in on your script’s protagonist so that you can create at least one compelling lead role with a clear emotional journey. Think about how this person changes by the end of the script. Sometimes they’ve learned a valuable lesson, while in other cases they’ve simply achieved a goal. Decide on a theme, realizing that you might not need to tackle multiple themes at once. If you feel like you nail the simple story this time, you can try a harder one for your next screenplay!
Avoid common screenplay mistakes
“Show, don’t tell” is an old writing adage that will serve you well when writing your first screenplay! Don’t have characters talk about what they’re doing; simply show what they’re doing. Another piece of advice is “enter late, leave early,” which means that you don’t need to show characters entering and exiting every scene. Instead, you can jump into the middle of the scene, cutting out banal phrases like “hi” and “how are you.” If you’ve worked as a director, you know what kinds of scenes or pieces of scenes you tend to edit out of final cuts. Try not to include those kinds of things in your first screenplay! Sometimes first-time writers think that they need to explain everything to the reader or audience. Instead, trust that your audience will understand what’s going on. Try not to dumb anything down or repeat dialogue or information.
Other common screenwriting mistakes including writing too long of scenes, writing typical “stock scenes,” writing dialogue that sounds unnatural (read it out loud to hear it!), writing a script without a clear concept, and writing a script that doesn’t adhere to a standard structure. Perhaps you’re interested in experimental structures, but it’s best to follow a standard three-act-structure the first time around. Break the rules after you’ve already learned how to do the basics!
Lastly, enjoy the writing process — you can do it! If it’s not perfect at first, remember that writing is rewriting.