Usually, when I’m about to start a new screenplay I’ll hunt down and watch TV episodes or films in the genre I’ll be writing in, to get myself reacquainted with their format, how and why they work and how quite often why sometimes they don’t. This helps me to avoid common errors and write the most interesting, original screenplay I can.
The next feature screenplay I’m gearing up to work on is set mostly in one very claustrophobic space, where two people will face off against each other. This is quite different to anything I’ve written before, so research is vital to ensuring the tension and conflict are gripping enough to hold the reader’s attention for ninety pages. To help with this I’ve downloaded and printed off three screenplays – PHONE BOOTH by Larry Cohen, LOCKE by Steven Knight and BURIED by Chris Sparling.
Two of these films I have seen, which means I can directly compare how scenes were written in the script and how they played out on the screen. A valuable insight into getting the best out of my own screenplay.
Of course, this research is just to help get the tone and feel of my screenplay right, not to steal scenes or ideas from other screenplays. That would be stupid and lazy and very wrong.
It’s also worth mentioning that whatever level of writer you are, you should be continually reading all sorts of professional screenplays, at the very least one a month.
Writers write! If you just talk about it then you’re not a writer. You don’t have to write much, a page a day will do, just make sure you do something every day. We learn best by doing after all.
Rewriting is also very important to improvement. I’ve known writers write one draft and think their screenplay is good enough to send out. And they wonder why they get rejected every time.
The more you write and rewrite the more your writing will improve. It sounds so simple… and it is. The more you write (and read), the more you’ll recognise what doesn’t work and what does. Gradually over time, you’ll learn to distill and refine the words you write, to the point you will eventually learn to use the minimum to make the biggest impact. Words are power after all.
This is something I bang on about repeatedly. To learn screenwriting you don’t need to go to university (although you can if you want to), you just need to do the two things above and read as many books on screenwriting your grey matter can absorb.
Eventually, after reading a few, you’ll naturally take what you need from each to shape your own voice and the way you write. No one book offers the RIGHT way to write. What might be right for someone else might not work for you. So read as much as you can, take what you need and forget what you don’t.