To Watch a Movie or to Write It: Best Tips on Screenwriting from World-famous Authors

screenwriter writing a movie screenplay or watching a movie

Sometimes picking a movie to watch is like digging in a dumpster. There are so many pointless films which claim to be philosophical that it is better to write one by your own than to choose which one to watch. Most experts know where to start, what skills to have and how to end your screenwriting. Let’s create something special.

Skills of a True Screenwriter

Strange as it sounds, screenwriter should be a psychologist in a way. You are going to take a character through a journey, that is why you need to understand the psychology of people. For example, if I think I am ugly how do I walk through the world? How does a character overcome the belief that she or he is ugly? You want to know that so you can create characters that are deep and interesting. You want to be a great observer of your friend, parents, people who annoy you. So that you can document who they are but also understand them from another perspective.

Be Able to Show, Not Tell

It is one of the main skills of a bestselling writer as well as a screenwriter. You have to be able to ground all of your scenes in moments that are visual, that extent and give all the information but do not tell the audience “and then this happened, and then this happened” at the same time.

Speak from Your Authentic Voice

You probably want so much to be seen and to be heard as a screenwriter, but that desire and longing can pull you out of yourself. When you get pulled out of yourself, you are trying to imitate “Breaking Bad,” “Scandal” or some movie that you love. It means you have lost the sense of what it is you are bringing to the world, what you have seen in the world. So, finding that authentic voice and saying “What I know is valuable” is a skill in itself. It is a practice of affirming your unique vision.

The way you order the Starbucks, the way you like your pasta, the way you like to drive is unique and valuable. The more you anchor into the sense of your own value and the importance of your voice in the world, the more powerful that voice is going to be.

Where to Get the Story

Where does the inspiration come from? They say it all happens naturally and it does take a long time. There are little ideas percolating around all the time; you just have to notice them. But there is a trick.

You should never write for the market. You have to write with passion. The screenwriters who are professionals write from what they love, what embarrasses them, write from their core wounds. Every screenwriter is wounded, and they are trying to write the story to heel it. “My mother did not love me,” “I am badly socialized,” “No one understands me,” “I am alone,” “I can’t be myself,” etc. There are so many questions that are tearing us apart, so write from your core wounds.

Establish the Character Weaknesses

The audience thinks that the story is all about the hero achieving his goal, but that is not what the audience is most interested in. It is all about overcoming the great weakness of a hero. That is what makes us care about that character. Show in the very opening pages of your script the great internal weakness of the protagonist. You want also give him likable qualities that the audience can also hook on to, but those are not nearly as important as establishing the weakness upfront in the story.

Create Flawed Character

Know why your villain is right and why your hero is wrong. Your protagonist can’t be 100% right. People are multi-dimensional, so to find the good in the bad character and the bad in a good character are critical to making a three-dimensional hero. That is a tough thing for a lot of new screenwriters. Their hero usually is a perfect projection of themselves. But the problem is a perfect person is dull; we like flawed people. Dig into yourself and find the bad parts of you and deal with those on paper. Basically, you are taking the things you would not tell your best friend and tell a hundred million people worldwide.

Remember, the point is that the inner journey the character takes has exactly the same structure. The intertwining of the outer and inner journey is where it gets fascinating.

How to Write First 10 Pages: 5 Key Elements

The script reader is the first mandatory test for your screenwriting. A reader might have to evaluate 3 to 4 scripts a night – hundreds every year. In most cases, a seasoned Hollywood reader can tell whether your script is any good within the first few pages. That is why it is essential that you move your story forward quickly because you only have about 10 pages to accomplish 5 major components. Establish the genre, introduce your protagonist, show the world, hint at the theme, and set up the dramatic situation.

Establish the Genre

Action flicks like “Iron Man,” “Die Harder” or “X-men” have one-liners. Fantasies like “The Hobbit,” “Harry Potter” or “Star Wars” are said in supernatural often magical worlds. In R-rated comedies like “The Hangover,” “Bridesmaid,” “40 years old Virgin” use off-color jokes and adult humor. Clarifying your script genre or sub-genre early on is essential because this will set your audience with clear expectations. Although many indie films defy genre, most studio films fit within at least one. Nobody goes to a romantic comedy to see the happy couple die in a car crash at the end. And in a slasher film audience is actually rooting for the killer.

It is important that you understand the rules of the genre you are working in so you can deliver those expectations to your audience. That is why you must clarify the film genre immediately, ideally in the very first scene.

Introduce the Hero

It is one thing to present your character – the mad scientist, the reckless cop, the drunken neurosurgeon, but it is another thing entirely to move beyond stereotypes and introduce a complex, unique, and memorable protagonist. The main character’s introduction should be some of the most powerful scenes of your first pages. Describe your character through an action or situation. Create complexity by adding flaws and quirks to your character’s personality.

Take, for example, the guy in the “Big Lebowski.” The Coen brothers present a man in his 40s wearing Bermuda shorts and sunglasses feeling quarts of milk from the dairy aisle at a deserted supermarket. We learned so much about this hero in this one scene. In a few concise lines, his die is cast, and we move into the meat of the story. You do not have to illustrate every facet of the protagonist, but this introduction is the audience’s first impression of your character, and you must present an interesting and flawed individual.

The other must-have is to create empathy with that character. You have got to connect with this character psychologically. So, you either get the audience feel sorry for the hero or make the character the victim of some undeserved misfortune. In “Avatar” at the beginning, we find out that he has been crippled in the war and he has just lost his brother who was killed, and that is why he is there taking his place. All of that is designed to immediately get us to sympathize with this character. Another way is to create jeopardy for your character, put their lives in danger if it is an action movie, put their job or their love life in danger if it is a drama you are writing. The third way is you make them a nice, good-hearted, and generous person.

So, you have to have at least one or two of those as you introduce the hero so that your audience will actually become that character psychologically. The movies are participatory. They are not something we observe; they are something we step into. So, in Titanic, we are the ones on the sinking ship, we are the ones falling in love with Leo DiCaprio.

Show the World

The world of your story is a crucial piece of the screenwriting. A new rich world is one of the best ways to set your screenwriting apart. Build your world with details and characters, be specific, be exact, take us to a place we have never seen before, make the audience experience something new.

Hint at the Theme

Your theme is a general idea or insight the story reveals. Often theme is obvious, illustrated in a larger or more general sense. For example, in “Armageddon” or “Jurassic Park,” it is a man versus nature. In “Godfather” or “Scarface,” it is the man versus self. In “American Beauty” or “Juno” the theme is the loss of innocence. But a theme is often more specific. Take, for example, individual versus society. “Schindler’s list” explores self-sacrifice while “Erin Brockovich” battles social injustice. “The Elephant Man” is about societal acceptance. In “Fight Club” it is an attack on consumerism and authority. The theme is often overlooked and can be the element missing that “you can’t put your finger on.”

Set up a Dramatic Situation

The dramatic situation is the first indication of what your story is going to be about. It is the essence of your story without plot or character. It is possible for it to occur immediately even before we meet any principal characters.

In the first few scenes of “Jaws,” for example, we see a water lump approaching as a girl swims under the night sky. A ferocious attack, savage violence and then calm. Immediately the audience understands what this world is in for. But just as often the dramatic situation shares screen time with a major plot point. In “Little Miss Sunshine” we do not understand the situation until the dysfunctional family agrees to take a cross-country road trip in order to get their 7-years-old daughter to the finals of a beauty pageant. Six incredibly flawed and tragic characters trapped in an absurd situation.

There is no absolute order that these 5 elements need to be applied. As long as these 5 core elements are executed well and established early on, your screenwriting is one step closer to achieving success.