5 lessons screenwriters need to know

Posted on: 30/09/2014

screenwriterShow, don’t tell.

Make it visual. Screenwriting doesn’t have the flee-flowing prose of novels. It’s the blue-print for a visual film and screenwriting is writing at its most condensed and brutal. There should be no unnecessary words and every scene or joke, however good, needs to push the story forward. If not, get it out of there!

Unnecessary dialogue

Early drafts are often riddled with reams of unnecessary dialogue. Go through each section of dialogue and write down how it develops the characters and plot. Then cross out everything that is superfluous to this. Once you’re down to the bare bones of the dialogue, you’re on the right lines.

A screenwriter once said that dialogue should be the icing on the cake, and used as sparingly as possible. I agree. Have a look at the opening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood or even Wall-E. You’ll notice how much tension, character and subtext they get across without any dialogue.

Subtext is king

In real life people very rarely say what they mean. Think of the non-verbal utterances that signal your partner’s mad at you. A simple “hmm” or an expression can speak a thousand words. Paint a visual picture with your writing and please avoid blunt, expositional lines like, “I’m becoming attached to you. I hope you don’t break up with me.”

No one would actually say this and you need to think of other ways you can get this information across. The scene near the end of Rain Man is a great example of subtext being used powerfully. We watch Charlie Babbitt’s heartbreak as he realises that his autistic brother is unable to answer whether he wants to live with Charlie or not. No dialogue is necessary, his crest-fallen expression says it all.

Create a believable world

This is a common mistake, especially when writing comedy. Many young writers think, “so what if it’s unrealistic? It’s funny”. I’ve made this mistake myself. Anything that takes your reader out of the story and makes them question the world, simply has to be addressed.

Even comedies have to be rooted in reality and if not they’ll lose any pathos and charm.

Formatting errors/ typos

Technical, boring note. Get a reliable proof reader to read your work as there’s nothing more annoying to a reader than typos. And if you’re serious about screenwriting, invest in Final Draft software. It’s costly but it avoids layout issues and speeds up your formatting endlessly.

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Written by Martin Stocks | @Stocks1986