screenwriting 101

Because I promised Erika to talk a little about screenwriting, here’s what I learned during my “conquest of Hollywood” between 2006 and 2008.

First, the easy part. When you write a screenplay, you don’t have to wonder what person or what tense to choose: it’s always present tense and third person. Try to avoid passive voice, of course, and also the “we see”. Write only what can be seen or heard – no thoughts or things that cannot be filmed. Wrylies (or parenthetical) are to be avoided at all costs in dialogue, apparently actors won’t read them anyway, so it’s useless to add them, unless the line is intended to be sarcastic or it’s totally unclear how it should be said. But again, the less the better.

Second: movies are action, not dialogue. Dialogues should be kept short. Monologues are for theater, not movies. Some say more than four lines of dialogue should be cut. And Talking Heads are boring, make sure to put some action between the characters’ lines (and never ever put the actions into parenthetical).

I’m not going to talk about the rules of having something happen by page 10 or the act breaks, or anything like that – feel free to check either the Screenwriting bible or How NOT to write a screenplay (my favorite, giving examples of both good and bad screenplays). For proper formatting, use either Celtx or Final Draft. Don’t give camera shots – you’re writing a spec script, and all the technicalities are for the shooting scripts.

Length is between 85 and 120 pages with the belief than one page equals one minute – don’t even try to sell a three hour movie, they’ll trash it without reading it. I’ve also heard drama doesn’t sell, and avoid children and animals. Your spec script will be considered a writing sample, and probably never actually shot. You might land some assignments, but before you see YOUR movie out there, it’s better if you write something low budget and shoot it with your friends! 😉

To “direct” without camera shots, simply put a new paragraph. Avoid big blocks of text and descriptions and purple prose, of course. And then… check Bekah’s article on screenwriting, she certainly knows a thing or two as well! 😉 Questions? Feel free to ask. Can’t think of anything else at the moment… *blush*

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  1. So interesting, Barb. I was thinking that the rule about dialog is a good one for fiction too–it’s so easy to fall into the trap of the monologue in fiction–to build up to that big reveal and think we need our character to go blue in the face explaining all in an endless stream of dialog. It’s so helpful to learn about other structures in writing. Helps to draw us out of our own and maybe think outside the box for a time.

    Thanks for the mention, too!


    • you’re welcome! I had promised more on the topic…
      I’m a big dialogue-fan, but after my attempts at screenwriting, I learned to spot the info-dump in dialogue (how many “this is too on the nose” comments did I get, sigh!), and now I try to use it less. I attempted a couple of plays (in Italian), but my readers didn’t get back to me with comments, so I don’t know how I did – and I don’t know any English company who could try my texts, so I just gave up for the moment…
      Comics are also dialogue-heavy, BTW. Guess I grew up with too many of those! 😉


  2. I have a question and I know I am going to sound so naive but…is screen writing different for TV? Ive never ever thought about writing for TV then recently a friend said he might have something for me to work on. I was pretty excited and then I realised…I cant do it! I dont know how!


    • it’s slightly different in format and length. Movies are 90/120minutes long, TV shows have different lengths depending on the kind of show (comedi, drama, soap opera, etc). And of course if you write for a pre-existing show, you’ll have to study the show’s “bible” to write accordingly! The only screenplays that look similar are the MOV (movie of the week) scripts, as they’re around 90minutes like the theatre releases.
      The BBC has a lot of screenplays of its show available on-line, and I’m sure if you research American TV shows, you’ll find something too. I didn’t consider TV, because the only thing I could offer were mini-series, but you don’t break in with your own mini-series, you have to start by sending a spec script as writing sample, then write on a pre-existing show, then maybe you can become showrunner and have either your own show or mini-series. And I haven’t watched TV since the early 92s, so I felt I was out of touch with that world… but I also have a friend who suggested we collaborate on something for TV! 🙂 I had to say “no”, but you go for it!


      • Thanks Barb. Ill have to do a lot more research before I go down that path but Im thinking about it!


  3. Great tips! I’m curious, why is it that drama doesn’t sell? Or do you mean it’s more difficult for new writers to attempt? Thanks for the info!


    • I’ve heard over and over at all the screenwriting events that “Drama isn’t sellable”, at least on the big screen. You might sell a movie-of-the-week for TV, but that’s another market altogether. Feature screenplays should be either comedies or action movies written for male actors 35/50 (fits most of the A-lister, rigth? ;-)). They’ve even been trying to remake The Goonies, but with this new idea, how can you do a movie for kids with kids protagonists without throwing in an A-lister? Hence the boredome of feature movies in Hollywood…
      More on my experiences in Hollywood if you search “Barb goes to Hollywood” on this blog!
      Thanks for stopping by!


  4. Bekah

     /  21/11/2010

    Hello!! I just realized that you linked to me. I haven’t been keeping on my blogging as much lately. Screenwriting in can be a lot more difficult because of how important dialogue is- crucial!1 In other ways it can be a ton easier because you can leave out all of those descriptions! Thanks again : )


    • Blogger and WordPress aren’t completely compatible… I’m sure somebody on Blogger linked to me and I have no idea it’s done! 😦
      Anyway, thanks for showing up! 🙂 And yes, that lack of descriptions is the only thing I like of screenwriting! 😉
      Happy writing!


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