10 Tips on How to Write a Screenplay

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Are you interested in becoming a better screenwriter? Of course you are! No matter where you are in the game, you should always strive to improve your writing abilities. This constant ambition and effort to become a more skilled writer is what separates a doer from a dreamer!

I’ve learned a lot of tips and tricks to hone my skills over the past several years to get me where I am today. I found these helpful from back when I was writing as a hobby in undergrad, leveling up during my MFA screenwriting degree at UCLA, and now as a paid, professional writer.

While the universe works in mysterious ways, I can guarantee that after reading and implementing some of these screenwriting tips, you will become a better writer. Listed in no particular order, here are 10 tips to become a better screenwriter!

1 Absorb media all the time.

The best thing for a beginner screenwriter is to READ a lot. Read scripts of your favorite shows and movies, read scripts that you wish to write yourself. You can find many scripts if you google "movie or tv show name + script pdf". (Or check out this list of 50 scripts) Read broadly and a variety of scripts as well. Similarly, if you want to write for one hour dramas, then you need to keep up with one hour dramas. Same with comedy or movies etc. You don’t need to watch it all, but at least be aware of what the industry is gravitating towards.

2 Watch and read like a writer.

Absorb everything while you are reading. How are characters introduced? What does the script do particularly well, and how? How much white space is on a page (hint, the more the better)? What is the pacing like? How many scenes are in each act? How many acts are there, total? A good exercise is to watch a similar movie or tv show and try to write a beat sheet based on what you see.

3 Write often.

I don’t stick to the “golden rule” of writing everyday. I think if you have other obligations, then writing everyday can be intimidating, right? Find what works for you, whether that be Monday through Friday, three days a week, or whatnot. Some writers abandon ship halfway through one script to start another (multiple times over) or other writers work on the same script (and only one script) for 3+ years. Find a happy middle ground there.

4 Receive constant feedback from trusted peers.

Find a writing partner or group that can give you good, quality notes. I don’t mean comments like “you need a comma here”. Someone who can tell you that act three wasn’t set up correctly or that you need to delete the first 10 pages of a script or that a character is extraneous and can be deleted or combined. Sometimes, for these notes, you need to look beyond your best friend or parent (sorry, Mom!). Websites like this are a good place to find other writers.

5 Don’t be the best writer in the room.

Do not be the best writer in the room. I am a strong believer in this! Until you are the WRITTEN BY / CREATED BY / EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, you have much to learn. Sharing your work is hard - it’s like sharing a bit of your soul. But better writers can give you better notes and you will be forced to level up as well. If you are the best writer, it can be easy to let your quality drop. Don’t let this happen!

6 Find mentors and friends that are only one step ahead of you.

Having friends that you can brainstorm with and commiserate with is great - don’t get me wrong. Having friends that are showrunners or executives is great too. But oftentimes friends at the same level know as much as you and EP’s aren’t aware of the current industry at your level.

The key is to find someone who is just a little more advanced than you are. If you are an undergrad student, find a MFA student mentor. If you are in grad school, find someone who has been out for 2~3 years. They are able to clearly explain the path that they took, the steps to get there, and may hear of more opportunities.

7 Realize that there are no minor leagues in screenwriting.

If you are interested in getting that WGA card in the mail (with benefits and all), then know that your writing has to be ready for major leagues. For non-sports people, that means your writing needs to be of a professional quality. Someone hiring for a writer’s room is not looking for “aspiring writers” or “student writers”. They’re looking for someone ready to hit the ground running. If you are not ready, they have plenty of other options.

8 Have a running list of ideas.

You never know when you might need an additional 4-5 script ideas. This situation can arise at any time - whether you find a Twitter pitch event, get accepted to another writing workshop, are hanging out with friends, at a networking event, or even while pitching to executives. If they don’t like your current project, it’s good to have a few ideas ready to pitch.

9 Take breaks.

When you are constantly watching, reading, analysing, and writing, it can be really easy to burn out. Burnout may be one of the worst things for your creative process! You cannot write your best work if you are burned out, lethargic, and not focused. Combat this by taking breaks regularly. It sounds counterproductive, but even getting that daily walk or calling a friend will work wonders.

10 Have a life besides writing.

I’m serious! Having a life outside of writing is important, even if you are fortunate enough to only focus on writing. It can be a weekly board game night, playing tennis twice a week, or whatever floats your boat. Not only will it help you take breaks, but you will become a more interesting person as well. Everyone and anyone can forge a bond over film or TV in this industry - that’s not that special.

But if you love to collect first editions of old books and you find someone else does too? Boom. You volunteer at the shelter on the weekend? That’s a deeper connection than just shooting the shit about last week’s episode of whatever. It shows that you are more than a writer - you’re human.

~ ~ ~

I hope you were able to find this article useful in your writing careers! Thank you for reading.

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About author
Kira
Kira writes stories about diverse young women who make their own way in the universe as troublemakers, crime-doers, and shit-stirrers. Within months of graduating from UCLA’s MFA Screenwriting program, Kira staffed on two web shows that will air in March 2020. She is a staff writer, winner of the Writer's Assistant Network Pilot Competition, and Women in Film scholar.

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