SHORT CIRCUIT: So You Want To Be A Screenwriter (Vol. 1)

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The fact that your browser has landed you here is an indication that maybe you’re interested in becoming a screenwriter. But what if you have no idea where to start? Where do you look for answers?

I teach screenwriting each year for the Sidewalk Film Festival Youth Board. Many of the teens there have never even read a movie script (screenplay) before I cover the fundamentals and then walk them through their first script read. By the time these kids have gone through the full course of mentoring provided by Sidewalk (screenwriter, director, producer, cameraman, etc.), they will write, produce, and shoot their very own short film.

You may not be ready to produce your own film after this series, but you will have the skills necessary to write your very own short screenplay. So, I am going to lay out for you the basics of how to get started as a screenwriter.

Script EXTRA: Why You Should Write a Short Film Screenplay

Step 1. Identify a couple of your favorite movies.

The first step is picking out a couple of your favorite movies. It would be best if they weren’t anything too obscure, so that there’s a decent possibility that a screenplay for it can be found somewhere out there on the internet.  A while back, finding a script was incredibly difficult. Today, it’s incredibly easy if you can even just spell “Google”… There are a plethora of websites with copies of movies scripts. Just a few of them are:

There are many, many more. Just search in your browser for “movie scripts online” and you’ll come up with dozens of sites. Most scripts are available in PDF format, so you will be able to view them exactly as they were printed out when the writer typed, “THE END”.
Now, go find the screenplay for your movie.

Script EXTRA: 7 Critical Tips for Short Film Ideas + FREE Download

Step 2. Get the DVD for your those movies that you found screenplays for.

Just start with one or two movie DVDs. (You could stream the movie, but you’re probably going to be doing a lot of pausing and backing up, so a DVD player is usually easier to control.) Once the movie starts, let it run for around 5-10 minutes and find a pause point. Now, read the screenplay. Notice how what you saw on the screen was reflected in what was written on the page. (Sometimes they don’t match. A script can change, even during the course of filming. You may have to find the latest “draft” (version) of the “shooting script” (the script used for filming).)

Step 3. Now grab a notebook, rewind to the beginning and go through the rest of the movie.

Make notes as to when important things happen (i.e. time: “at 30 minutes, he revealed to the crew his plan to steal the sub”. ). These are plot points. There’s a whole school of theory that refers to important points as “beats” in Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat” (down the road, you’ll want to read and understand it, even if you don’t agree with or choose to follow it). You’ll be pausing a lot, which is why you want to start with a movie you’ve already seen.

The very first time I fully realized how a script was magically made into a movie was at a screenwriting group’s session on THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. Once I saw how the movie came from what was put down there on the page, I was totally hooked.

Step 4. Find a movie you haven’t seen (one which you can also find the screenplay).

Now, here’s where it really hits home. Make a list of movies that you want to watch, but haven’t seen yet. Find the screenplay for them. But this time, don’t watch the movie yet. Just read the screenplay. All the way through. Get the film pictured in your head, from beginning to end, just from reading the script. Now, go watch the movie. Look for how what was written on the page made its way onto the screen. That’s the magic that all began with the screenwriter!

Step 5. Start learning on your own to be a screenwriter.

Film theory is a subject that can’t be covered in an article, or even over a few pages. It’s probable that no one person can ever learn everything there is, but let’s touch on some of the absolute basics you need to know. (The famous William Goldman famously said about the movie industry, “Nobody knows anything!”, but we’ll beg a bit of leeway.)

A film is made up of Scenes. Scenes are segments of actions and people that occur in one place over one specific period of time. They are usually indicated in a script by the presence of what are called Sluglines. , which, for beginning purposes, can be thought of as the “headings” for a scene, and usually start with INT. or EXT. (Interior or Exterior filming location).

Films are usually broken up into Acts, which are a collection of scenes. To begin, think of a film as three acts: Beginning, Middle and End. No, sorry. That just slipped out. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but it’s relatively true. In the Beginning, set up who and what your story is about, The Middle follows your characters on their journey (either physical or psychological) toward what they want, encountering obstacles along the way. In the End, the biggest obstacle is encountered and overcome (or not). The Acts are usually not labelled, but are intuited by when there are major shifts in the story.

There’s a ton of things to learn.

While movies are a visual medium, a lot of learning to write for them comes by reading instead of watching. I have the following books in my home library and can recommend them. Many public libraries will have copies of them. This list is in no way complete (I do have a whole home library, after all), and I’m sure others might recommend other titles, but this is just for starters.

  • Syd Field’s “Screenplay
  • Linda Seger’s “Making a Good Script Great
  • David Trottier’s “The Screenwriter’s Bible
  • Robert McKee’s “Story

In the next installment, we’ll actually get into some of the details of actually writing your own screenplay, including the tools available to you, and how to go about writing your first short screenplay. In no time, you’ll be a screenwriter!

More articles by Dan Goforth

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