Here are my ten tips to help budding screenwriters hone their craft.
Your best scene should be your last scene
Of course you need a very strong first scene, because it’s the first thing anyone reads. But if you don’t have a great ending, seriously, why do you even want to tell this story? If all your best scenes are in the first act, you don’t have a movie. What you have is an idea for a movie.
If nothing is at risk for your protagonist, the audience can’t care
In story, as in life, character is revealed when tough choices with serious consequences must be made under pressure. We find out who we really are when our backs are against the wall. Have the generosity to allow your protagonists to find out who they really are by giving them something to lose if they make the wrong decision. We love our characters so we don’t want to hurt them. But in fact we have to love them enough to put them through hell.
If there’s an obvious solution to your protagonist’s problem, don’t ignore it: destroy it
Tease that it’ll happen exactly as the audience expects and then obliterate it as a possibility. If there’s a second obvious solution, do the same. Tease. Destroy. Repeat. Force yourself to find the non-obvious solution. This is hard, but unbelievably satisfying, both for you as a writer and for your audience.
If your plot hinges on the contrivance that nobody can simply use a cell, maybe it should be a period piece
If you’re wasting a lot of pages trying to justify certain storytelling choices, accept that maybe they’re clumsy and come up with something more graceful. You might just discover an amazing idea hiding inside what you thought was a plot hole.
Learn the traditional three-act structure
Even if it’s only to blow it apart. You learn the rules by writing and rewriting and re-rewriting. Breaking the rules before learning them is what’s called undisciplined. Learning the rules and then breaking them is what’s called innovative.
Screenwriters often get hung up on dialogue
Because it offers the most direct communication between writer and audience. And of course you should aim to write juicy dialogue packed with wit and insight and punch.
But the really difficult work in screenwriting is storytelling structure.
Your structure must be propulsive. It should fire the audience through your story like a missile, desperate to find out how it ends but agonized it’ll be over too soon.
Dialogue is like windows. Everyone likes big windows that let in lots of light. They allow the inside to look out and the outside to look in. But huge windows can’t make up for faulty building design. Who cares if you have nice windows if no one wants to live in the house?
It’s called a first draft for a reason
You make it better by rewriting. The second draft will be better. The fifth draft will be even better. The same goes for screenplays. Your first script will likely kind of suck. It’ll have a lot of energy but it somehow won’t gel in ways you can’t completely articulate. That’s because it’s really hard to take the movie in your head and turn it into words on a page. It gets easier the more you do it. Your fifth script will be better than your first script, 100% guaranteed.
Ideas are a dime a dozen
What matters is your voice as a writer. Give one hundred writers the same idea and they’ll come up with one hundred unique stories because they each have a distinct voice. Your voice is what makes your writing unlike anyone else’s on the planet. And that uniqueness is what creates a market for your work.
Achieving any kind of lasting success in screenwriting demands preparation …
… perseverance, and providence. You need all three to get anywhere. Preparation requires effort, perseverance requires will, and providence requires hope. But effort, will, and hope don’t all start with the letter P, so I went with preparation, perseverance, and providence.
You no doubt know that film is a collaborative art
But you need to really think about this point. If you don’t want to genuinely collaborate with others, if you’re not elated by what your writing evokes in others and willing to risk disappointment when what is evoked is counter to your aspirations, then maybe you should write novels. Hey, novels are great. But a screenplay, however well-written it might be, is only a flimsy ghost of itself until it gets made.
Elan Mastai is currently writing screenplays for Fox Searchlight and the producers of Juno, Warner Brothers and the producers of I Love You, Man, and Paramount and the producers of This American Life. His produced features are MVP2, Alone in the Dark, and Sk8 Life, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.