Written by Constance York

Film Slate Magazine Screenwriting Tips: The Ten Most Important Rules of Screenwriting

Screenwriting is hard. If you’re thinking of becoming a screenwriter, the sooner you realize this the better. I don’t make this announcement to dissuade anyone from fulfilling their dream of writing a screenplay. By all means, write away. But if you want your screenplay to have a chance of ever getting made, then do your homework and be prepared to work hard.


When I first started writing screenplays, I searched every website I could find on the subject, joined every workshop and bought every book I could afford on the craft. Then I took college and university classes for screenwriting and became a reader for a producer.

If you are lucky enough to get your screenplay read by an agent or producer, chances are very good it will first pass the desk of a reader. If the reader passes on the screenplay, the higher ups will most likely never read it.

Here are ten good rules to write by so you may get the “recommend” that will keep your script alive.

1. Know formatting. Screenplays follow a standard format. Learn it. Don’t deviate. Don’t use colored cover sheets, fancy, or any font other than 12 point courier. Screenwriting software, such as Final Draft can assist with formatting but isn't necessary and can be costly. Make sure to bind the scripts between two heavy stock pages and bind with two brads.

Two really good books on formatting are: "The Hollywood Standard" by Christopher Riley and "How Not to Write a Screenplay" by Denny Martin Flinn.

2. Don’t give stage directions. A good screenwriter has a way of writing the script so that their directorial vision shines through in a way that makes the director see it, and actually think it was his idea.

3. Writing is rewriting.  Wait a week then read and rewrite again. Then wait 1-6 months and read it again. Time will give you a better perspective. Check for spelling errors, and typos. Then have someone else check for you. While you’re on hiatus, watch movies and read other scripts. Drew’s Script-o-rama (www.script-o-rama.com), is a great resource for the scripts from made movies. It helps to see different styles of writing as well as check your formatting.

4. Don’t include suggested music, unless it’s a general description like “jazz”, and don’t suggest actors.

5. Write at least three screenplays before submitting anything. When you hear about the “first-time screenwriter” striking it rich on his first time out, what you don’t hear is that he, or she wrote for a newspaper, or magazine beforehand, or had experience in the film business.

The more you write the better you will get, and if your first screenplay is the first thing you’ve ever written, then it’s very likely not up to par. Don’t get me wrong. It may be well written and a good story, but it most likely won’t be something that will get past a reader.

When I first started writing screenplays, someone told me that it takes writing 7-10 screenplays to get good at it. When I look back at my first screenplays, I see how true that is. But at the time, I truly thought that first one was wonderful.

6. As with any good writing, less is more. Readers love white space. Don’t write large blocks of action unless absolutely necessary, and then break it up into two and three sentences between white space. But that doesn’t mean you can cheat and add white space to add pages to an unfinished story. Screenplays should be 90-120 pages.

My first screenplay was 140 pages. I edited it down word by word to end up at 120 pages and I found that I did that without ever losing any of the story, just extra words that weren’t necessary. Screenplays aren’t novels, you want to say as much as possible, but with as few words as possible.

Don’t write what isn’t film-able. Don’t tell us what the character is thinking, show us what he is thinking by his actions. Does he run his hand through his hair nervously, bite his nails, or keep checking his phone? Does she watch him leave, or never look back?

7. Read your script out loud. If possible, have someone else read it. You will pick up on unnatural phrases, or unnatural word choices this way. Final Draft also has a read out loud option.

8. Attend a workshop or take classes. Asking friends and family to read your script and give their opinion is better than nothing, but they won’t want to hurt your feelings and most likely they have no idea what a good script looks like, so they will give you undeserved praise because they will actually be impressed.

Zoetrope.com is a good place to start. This website follows a workshop format in that you are required to read and give feedback on other people’s screenplays before you are allowed to post your own. Once posted, it can be read and reviewed by other members who rate it. After receiving feedback, you can also re-post the updated draft.  UCLA, Academy of Art, Full Sail University, Gotham and Sundance also offer online screenwriting programs.

9. Don’t forget to register your script for copyright purposes. This can be easily done online through the Writer’s Guild website www.wga.org, or wgaeast.org.

10. Lastly, and this is the most important part, have a great story. Anyone can learn how to write well and anyone can learn format, but a good storyteller is hard to come by. Write what you know, or do your research until you do know it. Your story must have a beginning, middle and end.  What is your story about? If you can’t explain it in a way that makes sense in a sentence or two then it probably isn’t ready. Not to say that a screenplay is that simple, far from it, but the concept should be.

Finally, a number of screenwriting books are out there to help you through your journey, but the most well known are "Screenplay" by Syd Field and "Story" by Robert McKee. Other books I found helpful were Syd Field’s "Screenwriter’s Workbook" and "The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters" by Karl Iglesias.

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