A Beginners Guide to Scriptwriting

“Screenwriting is the most prized of all the cinematic arts. Actually, it isn’t, but it should be.”
– Hugh Laurie.

This quote is perfect and a hundred percent true. When it comes to film and television scriptwriting, the writer, known as a screenwriter, has the most important job in the whole filmmaking process.

Maybe, though, you are not familiar with what Script Writing is and why screenwriters are so important.

Have no fear, that’s what we’ll dig into today.


Photo Credit: Writers Store

What is Script Writing?

Every film or television show that has ever been produced first started off as a script.

The script is the film (or television show) in written/text form. Scene by scene playing out on paper.

Every action. Every image. Every line of dialogue. Every plot point. If it’s on the screen, it came from the script.

In the most basic set of terms, a script is the blueprint for the film you’re going to bring to life.

In the world we live in today, some people may think that the script isn’t the most important part of the filmmaking process (looking at you major studios). Some will say that if you can hire a talented actor, that actor can elevate a poor script into a good movie.

Or someone might have the thought that if the film can just attract an A-list director, they’ll be able to fix problems with the script.

The only issue is, a poor script will never turn into a good movie, because the script is your film’s foundation, and if that’s not solid, your film will never be strong enough to stand on its own.

With that said, on the other side of the coin, if you have a solid script, your film will only improve when you add talent in front and behind the camera.

We as an audience can overlook bad acting and crappy special effects if we are engaged with the story we’re watching. If we have a connection to what we’re seeing on the screen, we’re more forgiving for those other flaws because the story we’re following makes sense and we’re invested.

There’s no other form of writing quite like screenwriting (aka scriptwriting) because there are certain things you have to be able to do that you don’t necessarily do in another form of writing, like when writing a novel.

In a script, you must SHOW and NOT TELL.

This means, any information that you are going to share with the viewer must be done in one of two ways;

  1. Visuals
  2. Dialogue

If you haven’t pick one or the other, your script has been written incorrectly.

A lot of first-time screenwriters get themselves into trouble when it comes to this because they believe that they can write their script just like they would a novel.

That is WRONG.

The great thing about writing a novel is that you can really get into a character’s head. The writer can tell you exactly what that character is thinking/feeling. The character can express themself to the writer in a very personal way.

The write can reveal information to the reader that has nothing to do with the story but gives the story context. The writer can change perspectives and get into the heads of several characters in the story.

If you are writing a script and looking to write the script correctly, you can’t do any of that.

If you need to key the audience in on something you either have to show it as a visual, or a character needs to say it as dialogue.

Unlike a novel, which we the reader hold in our hands and read for ourselves, the script is never seen by the viewer. The viewer only sees and hears what is taking place on the screen.

Also, unlike a novel, everything written in a script has to be written in the present tense, as the action taking place on the screen is happening in real-time whereas a novel can summarize the events that have taken place.

This can make conveying information to the audience exceedingly difficult as a screenwriter and can lead to what we call “heavy exposition”.

You ever watch a film or television show and come to a moment when it feels like a character is just telling you, the viewer, things you need to know because they’re important to the story? That’s exposition. It feels forced if not done properly.

Think of your favorite and least favorite film and television shows. What did you pick as your favorite? What did you pick as a film you hate? If you analyze things closely for a moment you’ll realize, that while you might hate or like a film because of an actor, or who directed it, you’re remembering the film as a whole based on the story it told.

If I were a betting man, I’d say that the difference between your favorite film and a movie you hate, comes down to the story, and that is all on the screenwriter and how he wrote his/her script.

Script writing has many elements to it and can take a while to learn how to do all those things correctly. It can take even longer to become good at it. But it is also one of the most rewarding writing mediums there are.

I’d like to close out by writing a little scene to show as an example of what I’ve talked about here today when it comes to writing a screenplay compared to a novel, and how you SHOW in a film and TELL in a novel.

First, we’ll write a very quick scene as if it were inside of a novel.

Novel

Mike paces the room back and forth. He’s covered in his own sweat from having just come from the gym, a place he goes every day for at least two hours.

As he paces the room, a familiar face, Jill, enters the room with him.

Jill’s face, filled with a giant smile. She looks at Mike slightly confused having not expected to see him at this moment. She’s very thankful that she decided to come to the living room by herself.

Just moments earlier, she told her boyfriend, the man she’s cheating on Mike with, to not come out to the living room with her to investigate the noises she was hearing. If he would have come with her, Mike would certainly find out about her cheating ways.

“I didn’t think you’d be here till later tonight”, said Jill. “I was feeling restless and just had to see you right now”, Mike replied.

Jill starts to get butterflies in her stomach. What could Mike need to see her right now about? Does he know she’s cheating on him? She starts to lose her smile as she waits to hear what else Mike has to say….

Now, let’s write this small scene like we would in a screenplay and not a novel. Remember, all the information we need to convey must be in visuals or dialogue to tell our story.

Screenplay

INT. HOUSE – LIVING ROOM – DAY

Mike, paces the room back and forth. He wears his gym gear, holds a large,
almost empty, bottle of water. His face covered in sweat.

He stops pacing as he sees, Jill, joining him in the room.

Jill greets him with a big smile on her face.

JILL
What are you doing here?

Jill looks slightly behind her where the bedroom door is slightly cracked. We see a
shadow on the wall moving around. Appears to be in the shape of a man.

MIKE
I was feeling restless and just had to talk to you right away.

Jill’s eyebrow slightly raises. Her smile starting to fade away.

JILL
(nervous)
About what? Is everything okay?

Mike stops pacing the room. He looks towards Jill. He goes to speak when…
he sees the shadow from inside the bedroom with his own eyes.

MIKE
I knew it!

As you can see, we wrote the same exact scene as in the novel, except we didn’t tell the audience any information. Instead, we used visuals and dialogue to tell all the important information to the audience.

We do not tell the audience that Mike has been at the gym for hours. We show that he’s wearing gym clothes, he’s sweating, and almost out of water. As the audience, we can take this information and figure out what it must mean.

Personally, this is an aspect of screenwriting that I LOVE. Finding the right way to share information with the audience. The more you learn the art of screenwriting the more creative you’ll find yourself presenting the information.


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