If you’re writing a novel, you’ve probably daydreamed about having it made into a Hollywood blockbuster. Maybe you’ve spent time on IMDB casting the actors to play your characters. Or pictured yourself stepping out of a limo to walk the red carpet. Maybe you’ve even practiced your Oscar acceptance speech in the mirror.
While most authors who make it to the movie-making stage do not get to adapt their novel into the official script, you should still experiment with screenwriting. It’s a great writing exercise and can improve your skills in many ways.
I first tried screenwriting about ten years ago due to a fun online contest. I ended up loving the format. I also noticed improvements in my “regular” writing, so I kept dabbling in it. Amazingly, two of my short scripts won grants to make them into movies: Saying Goodbye and High Heels & Hoodoo. While they weren’t grand Hollywood productions, I did get to dress up for red carpet photo shoots and watch my story on the big screen. Not gonna lie, there were tears.
But as incredible as those experiences were, the true benefit to writing screenplays has been the improvements to my writing. So what kind of improvements am I talking about?
PlottingBecause movies are much shorter than novels, they need to be more efficient with their storytelling. Have you read Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder? It breaks down the necessary beats found in most movies and is an excellent read no matter what kind of writing you do. In fact, the Save The Cat! beat sheet is now used as the basis for many novel writing courses. Much of screenplay structure is about getting from one beat to the next in the most efficient and entertaining way possible. Once you practice this beat-sheet plotting while writing scripts, it becomes part of your writing muscle memory, and you find yourself doing it instinctually in all of your other writing.
DialogA large chunk of screenplays is dialog, so if dialog is a weakness for you, writing a script is like pushing you into the deep end to help you learn to swim. Due to the way scripts are formatted, it’s basically pure dialog – you don’t have to worry about overwrought or repetitive dialog tags, weaving in movements to show who’s talking, or detailing voice tones or other emotional cues (because the actors will eventually handle that part). So when writing screenplay dialog, the only thing you have to worry about is the actual spoken words and how they drive the plot and convey character. As you practice writing dialog without the distractions that come with regular prose, you’ll get stronger at writing meaningful and impactful conversations that will carry over to your novel writing.
ShowingWhen writing a screenplay, you only include what a movie viewer can see or hear. You don’t include sections of interiority describing what or how a character is thinking or feeling because the details cannot be conveyed to the audience. Well, you can use a voiceover, but that’s a device to be used sparingly. Instead, you must focus on conveying characters’ states of mind through their actions and words. As a result, when you switch back to your novel, you are better equipped to write scenes that pop for your readers because your prose will be more concrete and vivid. Put another way? You’ll now be an expert at the whole show don’t tell thing!
ConcisenessA screenplay is more like a blueprint of a story – it focuses on the plot and the characters – so you don’t have to worry about details because someone else makes those decisions when a movie is made. For example, when a character walks into the living room, you don’t have to say the couch is red unless it is important for theme or plot purposes (like it’s disguising blood stains). In fact, unless your character interacts with the couch specifically, you don’t have to mention it at all. The set designer will decide what furniture is in the living room and what color it is. Since you don’t have to worry about details that don’t move the story or characters forward, you can concentrate on more vital elements. When you move back to novel writing, you will again need to set the scene, but your descriptive elements will be tighter and more keyed to driving the plot and character elements.
How ToNow that I’ve shared some of the benefits of experimenting with screenwriting, how exactly do you go about writing a screenplay? That’s too much to cover in a blog post, since there have been shelves and shelves of books written about it. If you’re really serious about giving screenwriting a go, I highly recommend The Screenwriter's Bible by David Trottier. I keep it by my side whenever I write a screenplay. Not only does it cover technical aspects like how to format a telephone conversation, it also covers bigger picture items like bringing your idea to life.
If you just want to experiment with the format as a writing exercise, you can look up “how to write a screenplay” to find tons of articles that explain the format in a way that works best for you. I like this one because it actually explains screenplay format in screenplay format. So you get the visual as you read the info. This article is also a quick rundown of the different elements of a screenplay, as is this one.
These articles about formatting might seem overwhelming, like, “What?!? How am I supposed to remember all of these weird margins and formatting rules?” Fortunately, there are several software programs that take care of all the formatting for you. Final Draft is the one most professionals use, but it’s expensive. I always use Celtx to write my screenplays – it’s extremely easy to use and even better, it’s FREE! You use the Tab and Enter keys to toggle through the various format sections, so you can focus on writing your story without worrying about formatting rules.
Another great way to learn about writing screenplays is to read the scripts of some of your favorite movies. Many of them can be found here. Look for movies you’ve watched multiple times so you can see how the script itself handles the action, dialog, plot, and characterization of the scenes you love.
Finally, this article breaks down many of the differences between novel writing and screenplay writing, and it reiterates several of the things I mentioned about how writing scripts improved my regular writing.
So after wading through all of that, have I convinced you of the benefits of experimenting with screenplay writing? How about another potential benefit?
The chance to win $500!!!
My brother and I are creating an anthology of short horror films called Grave Intentions. In addition to the contest we’re running to find short films for the anthology, we’re also running a contest for short screenplays that broadly fit into the horror genre. The winning screenplay will receive $500, with the potential for us to produce the script into a short film for the next volume of Grave Intentions!
That’s a great incentive for giving this whole screenwriting thing a whirl! And even if you don’t win, you will have improved your writing skills.
The screenplays need to be 15 pages or less, and since there’s still two months until the final deadline (2/28), that’s plenty of time to write something creepy and submit it to us.
As even more incentive, we’re offering a 50% discount off the entry fee for all Adventures in YA Publishing readers. Click here to enter and use the discount code AYAP.
Actually, if you know any short filmmakers with a bent for horror, please tell them about the anthology. They can also use the code AYAP for a 50% discount off of their short film entry.
Make writing a screenplay one of your New Year’s goals - it’s fun, it will strengthen your writing muscles, and you just might win $500!
Have you ever tried screenwriting? Do you think you might give it a whirl? If you have any questions about the contest, give me a shout in the comments.