Movie Making Manual/Screenwriting

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This Module is part of the Movie Making Manual

Writing for the Screen

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"I like the idea of making films about ostensibly absolutely nothing. I like the irrelevant, the tangential, the sidebar excursion to nowhere that suddenly becomes revelatory. That's what all my movies are about. That and the idea that we're in possession of certainty, truth, infallible knowledge, when actually we're just a bunch of apes running around. My films are about people who think they're connected to something, although they're really not." - *Jean-Luc Godard

Screenwriting is different from other literary forms. The script is essentially a "blueprint" that will guide the other filmmakers through the production of the film. Often, the final film will differ from what was on the page. These differences can be as small as a few simple dialogue changes, or as large as a complete change in tone, direction, and intent. Accepting this process is key to being a screenwriter who not only writes well, but will work well with the other people involved in the film's production.

In addition to being the blueprint for the film, the script also serves as a way to get that film made in the first place. Based on the strength of your screenplay, budget, talent, and enthusiasm, the film will fall into place. It is the strength of the story that can secure financing and production talent. It's not innovative and thrilling setpieces or even a smattering of really great scenes peppered throughout your script, but a cohesive, intriguing story that holds the reader's (and eventually the viewer's) attention from beginning to end. This is such a basic concept, and yet one that seems utterly lost on some screenwriters, even those already established in Hollywood.

Finding a Story

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Write what you Know

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This adage is always "Write what you know". This is excellent advice as writing from your personal experience will make the story, characters and tone believable.

The flip side of this is the joke that all first time scripts by writers who have recently moved to Hollywood are about...the struggles of a young writer recently moved to Hollywood. So write what you know but choose something of interest to an audience. You would be amazed at how easily a little known hobby of yours or a quirky friend translates into a scene or a character. Shamelessly mine your personal history and cut and paste characteristics of your friends together and you will be surprised at how little you need to spin from whole cloth.

The first ten pages of script are said to be the most important. They should begin to show how the entire film will work as a whole.

The Right Budget

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More often than not, the beginning screenwriter will find that his first sold screenplay will result in low-budget film. This also applies to those writing for the independent film scene.

With that in mind, it may not be a good idea to call for giant six-legged creatures scurrying up the side of a skyscraper or epic space battles across multiple solar systems in your script. While such effects can be done on a limited budget, they will not be of similar quality to those features for which money is not a constraint.

It is not only extended special effects sequences that can break a budget, but also a large cast and/or sets. For low-budget films, try to keep both the cast and the different locations as few in number as possible. While this may seem limiting to a writer's creativity, many find the opposite to be true when they are confronted with the challenge of creating a compelling and memorable story within the confines of a low budget.

Of course, if money is not an issue, feel free to create a Lawrence of Arabia-style epic with a cast of thousands and CGI that would break ILM.

low-budget movie tips

Screenwriting Books and Authors

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Screenwriting books come in two forms: those written by successful screenwriters in Hollywood and those by, well, other types of people. And while you may be thinking that you would prefer to read a book on screenwriting by someone who has actually sold a script, both types of books actually have their strengths and weaknesses.

Successful screenwriters have a certain pedigree to their "how-to" books because they have actually been there and done that. However, success in artistic fields is rarely formulaic. They themselves may be confused as to what it was exactly in their script that allowed them to sell it in the first place. These books tend to be slightly muddled in thought and offer a strong temptation to handle things the way this particular author did (because, after all, he did sell his script).

While his method may have worked for him, it may not work for you for any number of reasons. These books are worth reading because they do offer a glimpse into the thought-process of a successful screenwriter, along with the usual samples that you can study, but just remember to take their pathway and alter it to fit your writing style and personality.

The other type of screenwriting books usually comes from academia: often from a professor who has never sold a screenplay, but seems to know a lot about the format. These books are useful in learning the mechanics of the screenplay. It is crucial for a first-time writer to remember that all the characterization and pathos in the world cannot help a script that doesn't hold true to the basic foundation of what makes a screenplay a screenplay in the first place. While it is true that there are plenty of scripts that break convention, knowing the convention is the only way you can break it successfully. The writers of these books can take a more generalized view of the process and focus in on things like act structures, climaxes, and inciting incidents, but rarely offer the advice on making your characters and story come alive. So any good writer will have a library that has at least two books from these two separate categories.

Syd Field and Robert Mckee

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These are the two most well known screenwriting "gurus," though neither has written a successful movie. This does not mean they have nothing worthwhile to say; both writers are good analysts of structure and form.

William Goldman

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Goldman won an Academy Award for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", another one for "All the President's Men" and he has written (among others) two famous books on screenwriting, Adventures in The Screen Trade and More Adventures in the Screen Trade. The oft-quoted "nobody knows anything" (meaning you can have all the right elements for a great movie and flop at the box office) is a quote from "Adventures in the Screen Trade". Although he does not teach structure, as Syd Field or Robert McKee do, he does provide often funny, sometimes heart-breaking insights into the life of a working (striving and surviving) screenwriter in Hollywood. His books are no screenwriting manuals, but the life and heart that are lacking in McKee's or Field's books are abundant in his memoirs. Read McKee once, so you know what people talk about when they mention "inciting incident" and other McKeeisms,... but read Goldman every now and then, to be inspired, and know that, as hard as you think writing is for you, it is even harder for him.

Cherry Potter - Screen Language

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An excellent counterweight to the more structural and formalistic screenwriting guides. Includes inspiring and original suggestions for approaching the process of generating and elaborating story ideas. Also contains insightful analyses of a number of classic films, concentrating on the sequence (a series of scenes) as an essential building block.

J. Michael Straczynski - The Complete Book of Screenwriting

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The Creator of the Emmy-winning series Babylon Five (as well as other credits too numerous to mention), J. Michael Straczynski provides a notable tome that marries insider experience with practical tips for outlining, writing, finding an agent, pitching and more. While his topic is broad (with sections on writing for movies, television, animation, radio, theatre and the business itself) his grasp and the script examples alone make it a worthy read. Producing between 2000 and 3000 pages of published or produced material every year, authors don't get much more credible than this.

Elliot Grove - Write and Sell the Hot Screenplay

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From the director of Raindance, this book presents a down-to-earth, systematic approach to all the elements of writing a screenplay, plus a detailed strategy for selling it once it’s written. It covers a lot of ground and is therefore inevitably concise, but the clarity of the concepts and practical advice is hugely valuable. Elliot Grove regularly presents a two-day workshop of the same name, which is well worth attending

Stephen King

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Okay, so he's not a screenwriter. He is, however, one of the best-selling authors of all time, so anything he has to say about writing is probably worth listening to. King's book On Writing is excellent as he tries to come to grips with what causes us to create, and looks at where the writing comes from. Anybody doing any sort of writing will find this book most useful.

Screenwriting Websites

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WORDPLAY / is a phenomenal resource. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are working screenwriters who co-wrote the DreamWorks animated feature SHREK, winner of the first Academy Award for Best Computer Animated Film in 2002. These guys have written a number of brilliant essays and articles on the art and business of screenwriting that are essential reading.

The Artful Writer

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A blog on "information, theory and debate for the professional television and film writer". Lots of useful info.

FreeFilmSchool.Org has extensive articles on all phases of independent film production from developing screenplay ideas to marketing the finished film.


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At authors will find an Introduction to storytelling explaining the basic concepts then a Working Method which describes the creative process of writing a script in 5 steps.