Screenwriting, One Step at a Time

by David Joyner

Consider the following sample scene from a screenplay:

INT. JONES ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, CLASSROOM – DAY

School is in session and students are working at their desks. First grade teacher MRS SMITH (40) is looking over the shoulder of JANE (6) who is drawing something.

MRS SMITH

That’s lovely! What are you drawing?

JANE

I’m drawing God!

MRS SMITH

Oh but deary, no one knows what God looks like.

JANE

They will in a minute.


 

In the beginning . . .

Odd formatting aside, the child Jane is drawing a picture in Mrs Smith’s classroom. Pretty clear isn’t it? Yes, the formatting is funny at first, but don’t worry about script format. Simply put, the basic idea is to tell a compelling story in a visual medium, and the formatting is there to efficiently give the cast and crew necessary information on how the scenes should be set up and performed.

Suppose you are interested in learning about movie scripts. The way I look at it, reading and writing a movie script is, in the end, not much different than reading or writing a short story or a novel. You need (a) a compelling story and (b) some knowledge of the genre you are writing in. If you are really new to this, the format might look strange at first, but you’ll get used to it. Writing the story down is the hardest part, and besides, there are lots of computer programs out there that will help format it for you as a script (for example, both Trelby and Celtx are free).

How to start? Scott Myers, a very experience teacher and screenwriter, whose blog Go Into The Story is one of the most popular screenwriting blogs on the planet, has a recommendation that he expresses succinctly as “1-2-7-14”:

  • Read 1 screenplay per week.
  • Watch 2 movies per week.
  • Write 7 pages per week.
  • Work 14 hours per week prepping a story.

You all know how to write and prep, but how do you find scripts to read? You would be amazed how easy it is to find good scripts for free on the internet – just google “(movie name) script”. For example, if you google “Casablanca script” you will find the script that the Writers Guild of America voted as the best script of all time. Sadly, not every script ever written is on the internet but there are plenty out there to learn from and enjoy. Check out dailyscript.com or imsdb.com and try to find your favorite movie or TV show there.

Homework: watch a movie!

Here is an assignment: pausing as necessary, watch a movie while reading the script! If you want to get started, here are two movie and script suggestions:

Scene from the movie His Girl Friday

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (source)

1. His Girl Friday, by Howard Hawks, starring Cary Grant and Rosiland Russell. The film in public domain in the United States and can be watched online or downloaded to your computer, and the script is available online as well . All free, no hassles with registration or anything like that.

Logline from imdb.com: A newspaper editor uses every trick in the book to keep his ace reporter ex-wife from remarrying.

Scene from the movie Charade

Audrey Hepburn in Charade (source)

2. Stanley Donen’s Charade, starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Like His Girl Friday, this film in public domain in the United Stattes and can be watched online or downloaded to your computer, and the script is available online as well. All free.

Logline from imdb.com: Romance and suspense in Paris, as a woman is pursued by several men who want a fortune her murdered husband had stolen. Who can she trust?

Interesting story about Peter Stone’s script: Apparently, he and Marc Behm had tried to sell a script to Hollywood executives, and failed. They gave up and Peter Stone rewrote the script as a novel and sold it to Redbook (a women’s magazine which still is published today), where it was serialized. Someone in Hollywood who reads Redbook liked it. They bought the book rights, from which Peter Stone wrote the script!

Loglines and The Quest

Note the two “loglines” above. A logline is essentially a very concise description of the story and plot. Lots more examples are given in the Script Lab’s Logline Library, as well as the BlackBoard’s Logline Workshop (go to The BlackBoard, but you must register – it’s free and easy – to see the logline workshop webpage).

I mentioned Scott Myers already. He has a exciting contest called The Quest. If you have a screenplay you are serious about, and you are not already a professional screenwriter, I urge you to check it out, as the rewards of winning are huge (basically, six months of one-on-one mentoring, and more . . . ). The contest starts Wednesday, May 22, 2013, and runs through Saturday, June 8, 2013. Entrants may submit up to three loglines to enter. See the GITS announcement for all the details.

Finally, there is at least one MWA critique group for screenwriters, including one started by past MWA president Scott Morrow. If you are serious about screenwriting, join one or start one yourself!

Happy writing!

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