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How many times have you sat in a movie theater watching events unfold on the screen and thought, "I could write a better story." Maybe you can! You'll never know until you try.
Screenwriting is an art and science that is distinctly different from the creation of novels and stories. Movies are a visual medium, and from the first day you start learning screenwriting, you will hear over and over again: "show, do not tell." It is often difficult for story writers to make the transition to writing movies. In a short story or novel, the feelings, thoughts, emotions, and sensory impressions of the characters can be described in great detail. In a script, you must create visual actions that evoke those same thoughts and emotions. Dialog must be kept to a minimum. You will not be able to sell a screenplay where the players spend hours talking about their inner thoughts and emotions. The actors and director need to be trusted to convey their conflicts in actions, not words. In the best dramatic screenplays, every word of dialog exists to drive the story forward. There is no small talk.
Fundamentals of Screenwriting
As a beginning screenwriter, you will most likely create "spec scripts", or scripts written "on speculation" as opposed to scripts written on assignment. You are speculating because you will devote several months or years to writing the screenplay with no guarantee that it will ever be sold. After you become an established and known screenwriter, you may be offered writing or rewriting assignments for fees negotiated in advance.
Standard Manuscript Format
All scripts submitted to readers must adhere to proper and established manuscript format. Improperly formatted scripts, no matter how good the story, will be rejected without ever being read.
Fortunately, there are numerous software products to facilitate and enforce proper formatting. "Screenstyle" is an affordable plug-in for Microsoft Word used by many beginning screenwriters. Professional packages include Movie Magic Screenwriter and Final Draft. Each product is excellent and has its own cadre of industry professionals eager to tell you why it is the best choice.
Show, do not tell
This bears repeating. If you are already a writer of stories or novels, you have habits that must be un-learned before you can express stories as proper screenplays. In a story you may tell about a character feeling a stab of fear while crossing a rickety bridge. You are free to describe the rush of adrenaline they feel and the panic and vertigo they must fight as they look down into a chasm.
In a screenplay version of the same story you must establish actions to show the same excitement and tension and to evoke them in the viewer. You may show a frayed suspension rope beginning to give way, or a drop of sweat from the hero's brow sitting a cracking board at his feet.
This is the challenge of good screenwriting; to fashion a compelling narrative that tells a complete story in about 110 pages in primarily visual form with as little dialog as necessary. Doing it well can easily be as difficult as writing a 500 page novel.
Selling your Scripts
The business side of movie writing is equally important to the creation of great scripts. You may write a brilliant screenplay worthy of multiple Oscars, but if the manuscript merely sets on your desk it will never be made. Established screenwriters are able to sign with agents. Starting out, you have to pay your dues by writing several solid scripts and selling at least one or two on your own before any agent will give you the time of day.
Every script must have a logline. A logline is a simple description of the story, usually one short sentence that encapsulates and distills the plot or theme. The logline must grab the reader's attention and compel them to start reading the script. A great script with a weak logline will not be read, and can not be sold.
A treatment is a summarized expression of a movie script in a synopsized short story form. It is critical that you be able to pitch your script in an effective and well written treatment form if asked. Many screenwriters create a treatment as part of the planning andlining process while writing the script.
Simply sending your screenplay all over Hollywood in hopes that someone will decide to read past the cover page is futile. You need to be able to write a persuasive letter explaining what your script is about and why you believe it will be an attractive and marketable project. The goal is to get responses from buyers asking for a copy of the script so they can read it. Sometimes a writer will send out query letters based on a concept, before the story is even written, just to test the water and see of there is industry interest. That can be risky, and clearly you have to be ready to deliver a script in a timely manner if you do get interested responses.
As if just writing a great screenplay is not enough, there is a sales effort required above and beyond capturing a buyer's interest. You must be ready and able to make a convincing "pitch" to the buyer. Making an effective pitch starts with truly believing in your story and having the conviction that it will make a profitable movie that people will want to see.
Screenwriting is challenging and takes time and practice to learn. If you can write, and most importantly if you can conceptualize and express stories in a visual way, you can do it.