Mr S and I have been writers-in-residence at a rather lovely school in Kent this week. There was a blizzard on Wednesday night and we woke to Narnia. And, last lesson was cancelled – after leaving school I never thought that I would once again experience the joy of a snow day.
We’ve been running workshops on writing fiction and screenplays. Lots of the the girls had questions about how to get started on your first screenplay and Mr S wrote them a how-to list. I think it’s really useful so am posting it here.
There are far too many screenwriting manuals out there. Anyone who has ever brushed up against the film business seems to think it qualifies him to tell the rest of us how to write for the movies.
So, first, a warning. Reading too many How-To books will almost certainly paralyse your writing aspirations. Unless you want to be deluged by off-putting jargon and prescriptive advice, I suggest that before you pick up a single manual you start at the source and read a bunch of screenplays.
You can get hold of many of your favourite films here:
All of these sites are run by fans so there’s one thing you should watch out for. Make sure that you read the actual screenplay (i.e. the draft written by the screenwriter(s)) and not a transcript that a fan has put together after watching the film three hundred and eighty-seven times. The sites usually tell you which is which.
Nothing will teach you more about how to write a screenplay than reading one.
And if, after that, you still want to write one, I suggest this book. It sounds cheesy (it is) but I used it at the start of my career and, hey, look at me now.
‘How To Write a Movie in 21 Days’ by Viki King
It’s strangely compelling and inspiring and utterly practical. You feel as if she’s holding your hand throughout the process, and who doesn’t like to have their hand gripped by a complete stranger? But don’t expect to turn out a great screenplay. This is about practice.
If you prefer something a bit more serious to get you started, then Syd Field’s ‘The Foundation of Screenwriting’ might be your thing.
Many people will suggest that you pick up Robert McKee’s comprehensive tome, ‘Story’. It is fascinating, it is dense, it is a cohesive philosophy, it makes many, many insightful points. And it will probably kill you. Stay away from it for a few years, that is my advice. Early in my career I glimpsed thirty seconds of a McKee lecture on a DVD, and was unable to write for the next six months. Seriously.
I suspect that the book which inspired me won’t have the same effect on you. Mostly, because the films he references are ones you probably won’t have seen. The book is ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ by William Goldman. He is one of the true greats. ‘All The President’s Men,’ ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ ‘Marathon Man,’ ‘Princess Bride’ (I’m going to guess that you do know this last one). He writes about the process of writing and making several of his movies, with excoriating anecdotes about the business mixed in with practical advice, especially on what to expect when your screenplay is turned into a movie.
So now you’ve read a couple of books and many more screenplays. You know how to format your work, you’ve got a sense of story and structure. My advice would be to stop reading and start writing.
In the film business, you will be met by unceasing hordes of people telling you what works, what doesn’t work, how to do it, how not to do it, but, as the great William Goldman so succinctly put it, the truth is that Nobody Knows Anything.