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How To Write A Screenplay: Can You Be A Self-Taught Screenwriter?

Autodidactic is a fancy word for someone who is self-taught.

Many aspiring screenwriters believe that they can be self-taught and acquire all the skills that they need to master how to write a screenplay. In my experience, and based on what I am hearing from my consulting clients in our mentorship sessions, despite the work they’ve put in, they have fallen short of achieving their goals.

There are two primary reasons for this: screenwriting is both a craft and an art. And it is demanding on both counts. While there are a wealth of resources available on how to write a screenplay, that alone be overwhelming.

What is crucial is determining which steps to take, and in what order.

First, learn the fundamentals of formatting. The requirements of screenwriting craft on the page. They should become second nature to you. That means you no longer need to think twice when it comes to craft.  Once you have laid this foundation of craft, next devote your time and energy to developing the many diverse abilities essential to cinematic storytelling. Those need to be built the through layer upon layer of knowledge over time and integrating them so they work together to support the story.

I’m not trying to discourage you. However, the adage, ”You have to walk before you can run,” is child’s play when you think about the steps involved in learning how to write a screenplay.

This is a more apt metaphor: An infant must gain the muscle strength to lift their disproportionately heavy head, then figure out how to roll over onto their tummy through trial and error. Next they work to get up on their hands and knees and, eager to get somewhere, grasp the mechanics of crawling. Next, they struggle to pull themselves upright by clinging to something solid and – ultimately – mange their first few wobbly steps before falling on their bottoms, and starting over. You’ve got a long way to go baby! Here’s my plan to moving methodically through the steps to teach yourself how to write a screenplay.

How To Write A Screenplay: Mastering the Craft

Of all writing mediums screenwriting may be the most exacting, laden with rules and expectations. Many writers who have excelled in other arenas find that the guidelines and requirements of screenwriting are highly specific and very demanding.

Break the norms, or fall short of meeting expectations, and you are instantly flagged as “green.” That can end your chances to accomplishing a typical early goal such as advancing in a screenwriting contest. And it will utterly rule out the opportunity to be considered for representation, much less becoming a writer for hire. Read more on screenwriting traits that will instantly label you as green and how to avoid these all too common pitfalls.

How To Write A Screenplay: Avoiding Bing Green

(c) Barri Evins

An industry standard screenwriting software – those most often cited for ease of use and quality are Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter – may seem pricey. But it is an investment in your career, and it pays off. It can make you look like a pro when formatting film and TV scripts. Automatic features save time and needless stress. Plus good programs have added advantages, from collaboration tools to tracking changes. And they are always innovating and upgrading. Check out this comprehensive article on screenwriting programs from Top Ten Reviews, with the pros and cons of each, plus free options for writers just starting out to consider.

The Minimum Requirement: Seamless fundamental craft skills. Tip top format,contemporaryformatting – no improvising. Proofed to perfection.

The Bottom Line: Invest in widely accepted screenwriting program, consult experts like Dr. Format, aka Dave Trottier, for any truly thorny problems, and read your script aloud and backwards if need be.

How to Write A Screenplay: The Art Of Cinematic Storytelling

Successful screenwriting demands a wide-ranging scope of expertise.

Industry insiders are relentlessly pursuing a great idea for a story. When it comes to how that concept is executed, we’re looking for distinctive, dimensional characters, vivid description, and dialogue that has an authentic ring – and that’s just for starters. Brisk, followable action that doesn’t direct. Tone that permeates each scene. A resonant, universal theme. And the capper? A writer with a distinctive voice.

Don’t forget: You have to meet all those expectations with the least possible words.

How to master the multifaceted art of cinematic writing? The first thing that springs to mind is the beloved Borsht-Belt joke:

Q: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

A: Practice, practice, practice.

Well, yes, for starters. But even Malcolm Gladwell’s popular 10,000 hours theory has been debunked. Turns out, Malcolm himself was in such a rush, he neglected to consult with Anders Ericcson, the scientist whose work he based this widely touted rule upon. Talk about not doing your homework!

As Joshua Burkhart explains in You Don’t Need 10,000 Hours to Master a Skill:

It’s not exactly how much we practice, but rather how we practice.

According to Ericcson, there are two essential parts to practice:

Purposeful Practice:

Purposeful practice is when you actually pick a target — something that you want to improve — and you find a training activity that would allow you to actually improve that particular aspect.

Deliberate Practice: 

We think of deliberate practice requiring a teacher that actually has had experience of how to help individuals reach very high levels of performance.

Purposeful Practice requires an objective assessment of your screenwriting strengths and weaknesses so you can focus on a specific area for improvement. Purposeful practice allows you to implement notes in a rewrite, such as “The dialogue feels stiff and on–the-nose.” You can consciously work to improve your dialogue skills.

I urge my mentorship clients to think of me like a fitness coach at the gym. I’m there to help them get stronger, and they should trust that even if it feels like we’re starting with light weights, I am methodically building then up to handle more weight, as well as more reps and better endurance.

I guide them through building the skills they need – muscles – until the have the strength to move to the next step. This involves reading articles, reading and watching screenplays, completing exercises and repeating the process. Along the way, abstract concepts become clear. And, just like with a coach, I’m there to insure that their form is top notch to maximize the impact of the exercise.

For me, Deliberate Practice gets to the big picture. This concept allows for “gestalt” another fancy word that means “the whole is perceived as more that the sum of its parts.” That’s some deep thinking.

Over the course of my career, I have learned that, just as each story is different, every writer has a unique approach. My challenge is to connect with you creatively; in a way that empowers you, excites you, and motivates you to get your story to the next level.

Some writers learn best through the Socratic Method. I ask thought-provoking questions that help writers articulate their story goals and reach their own conclusions through debate and discussion.

Other writers need the back and forth of a collaborative mentorship, with give and take bringing out the best in the story.

Often, examples and metaphor best conveys complex or abstract concepts. My job is to ensure that every writer experiences the “Ah-Ha” of understanding. My desire to see every student’s eyes light up in comprehension has pushed me devise an array of  illuminating examples. For instance, I’ve spoken about theme as the hub at the center of the wagon wheel, the peanut butter in a Reese’s®, and for parents, the piece of life advice they would give their child before sending them out into the world – if that were the one and only thing they could say.

Other writers are more visual learners, benefiting most from the Read, Watch, Repeat Method or Read While Watching.

Here’s how to build screenwriting muscles with my Master’s Class Exercise in the Read Watch Repeat Method and more useful writing strength building exercises. The goal is to build skills: construct solid ideas, sculpt sentences. define your voice.

How To Write A Screenplay: Mastering The skills

I’ve also become a fan or Reading While Watching as playing film scenes alongside their scrolling script pages has become one of the coolest new things available on the internet. Check out these resources:

Script To Screen

Disney/Pixar Off The Page

They give you the opportunity to see the exact words the writers’ chose that resulted in the images you are seeing on the screen.

If you are looking to up your cinematic writing skills, Reading While Watching may be a practical and productive way to learn. And this can be a great guide to truly grasp “showing versus telling.”

To get the most of our the Read While Watching ask yourself these questions:

  • How does the writer convey what they want the camera to show without specifying camera angles?

 

  • How does the description indicate what is significant versus what is insignificant?

 

  • How was the action described to evoke the visuals without using camera angles?

 

  • How is description used to convey character through visuals?

 

  • How is subtext – the emotional undercurrent of the scene – conveyed through the characters’ behavior and reactions rather than dialogue?

 

  • How does the choice of words support the tone within a scene as well as across the script?

 

  • How are all the elements working together to support the theme?

How to Write a Screenplay: The Big Picture

Don’t expect anyone else to do the heavy lifting for you. Even with mentorship, you’ve got to put in the work.

Just as strongest screenplays are developed from below the ground up – based on a solid foundation with layers added from there – grow your potential as a writer, one layer at a time. Even though it takes time and patience.

No matter how you learn best, your steepest learning curve will ultimately come from applying what you learn in the theoretical world to the real world of writing.

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