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Autodidactic is a fancy word for someone who is self-taught. When it comes to how to write a screenplay, many aspiring screenwriters believe that they can be self-taught, and acquire all the skills that they need. In my mentorship sessions with consulting clients, I often hear that that despite the work they’ve put in, they have fallen short of achieving their goals. That’s part of why I created Screenwriting Elevated, a monthly online seminar that offers the best of every thing for a rich and productive learning experience. 

The truth is screenwriting is both a craft and an art. And it is demanding on both counts. There are a wealth of resources available on how to write a screenplay. However, there are so many that it can be overwhelming.

It is crucial to determine which steps to take, and in what order.

First, learn the fundamentals of formatting.

The requirements of screenwriting craft on the page should become second nature to you. This means you no longer needing to think twice when it comes to craft.  Once you master the fundamentals of craft, you can devote yourself to developing the many abilities essential to cinematic storytelling. Those need to be built the through layer upon layer of knowledge, gained over time. Applying and Integrating these skills means they will 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 it comes to the many steps involved in learning how to write a screenplay!

Learning to walk is a more apt metaphor for how to write a screenplay:

An infant must first gain the muscle strength to lift their disproportionately heavy head. Then, through trial and error, they figure out how to roll over onto their tummy. Next, they work to get up on their hands and knees and, eager to get somewhere, grasp the mechanics of crawling. The next step toward walking is pulling themselves upright by clinging to something solid. Finally, babies take their first few wobbly steps, only to fall on their bottoms, and start all 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 could end your chance 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 Being Green
(c) Barri Evins

Industry standard screenwriting software – those most often cited for ease of use and quality – are Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter. They might seem pricey, but think of it as an investment in your career that will pay off. Software can make you look like a pro while 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, contemporary formatting – 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.

Once you have the tools and have mastered the craft, you can move to the next level.

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. In truth, 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 pick a target  – something that you actually 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 your weaknesses. This enables us to focus on a specific areas for improvement. Everyone is different. One writer might excel at dialogue yet struggle with description. Purposeful practice does two things. It helps writers understand notes, and it enables them to address them in a rewrite. A good example is, “The dialogue feels stiff.” You can consciously work to improve your dialogue skills.

I urge my Screenwriting Elevated Seminar students and my mentorship clients to think of me like a fitness coach at the gym. I’m there to help them get stronger. Beginning with light weights, and then building up, helps writers develop screenwriting muscles they can rely on throughout their careers.

I help writers build the skills they need to be strong enough to move to the next step.

This includes: reading articles, reading and watching screenplays – both contemporary ones and the classics – 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,” meaning “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.

Everyone learns differently.

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 metaphors best convey 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. I’ve spoken about theme as the hub of the wagon wheel – it supports the whole story. And each spoke, the primary characters, connect to that central idea. I’ve compared it to the peanut butter in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup® because we want some in every bite. I suggest parents think what 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 Through Practice

“Reading While Watching,” means screening a film clip alongside the corresponding script pages.

This is very informative, and I use it in my seminars and talks. I think it is one of the coolest new things available on the internet. Check out these resources:

The Script Lab “Script To Screen”

Script to Screen Pixar

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 is a practical and productive way to learn. And this can be a great guide to truly grasp “showing versus telling.”

How to get the most out of 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?
  • Is subtext effective? Is the emotional undercurrent of the scene supported through the characters’ behavior and reactions?
  • Think about the sentences. Do word choices support the tone within a scene and throughout 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.

Are you ready for Deliberate Practice?

Learn more about the Screenwriting Elevated Online Seminar here. Next series begins in Fall 2022.