How to write screenplays and scripts - ten top tips
There is a surprisingly large market for scripts, ranging from unpaid local work to potentially lucrative national productions. For an example of the latter, look no further than the BBC, whose excellent Writers’ Room website gives details of a number of opportunities and promises that all unsolicited scripts will be read and considered. The scripts they produce include TV film and drama, children’s programming, and comedy for both radio and television.
1 Find a market for your script.
On a more local level, you may be able to get involved with a local drama group and their productions. Most am-dram companies buy their scripts in from existing writers, and are often on the lookout for well-written material. Or, you might prefer to write for children, in which case you may be able to work with local schools and colleges, particularly if you have an educational background.
The saying "write what you know" applies to most forms of writing, not just scripts. Use your existing knowledge of any genres that you particularly enjoy watching yourself – these might include TV soaps, crime stories, horror films or period dramas, for example. Think about what makes the script so gripping, or the characters so interesting and believable, and try to capture the same effect in your own writing.
2 Write to suit your interests.
Similarly, if you have young children and find yourself watching hours upon hours of programming with them, turn this to your advantage. Find out what they enjoy so much about their favourite shows (the songs, perhaps), and you have an instant starting point for your own work.
The potential problem with writing scripts in your own favourite genre is that you might just be a bit too closely inspired by existing plays, programmes or films. There’s very little point in writing a sitcom script about six friends who live in New York, who enjoy discussing the ups and downs of their lives over drinks at a local coffee shop, as this has been done pretty well already!
3 But make sure your script is original.
Having said that, there is much to be learned from studying existing scripts by well-established writers who really know what they are doing. The wonderful BBC Writers’ Room website already mentioned has a wide selection of sample scripts in all genres that can be freely downloaded and printed out, from radio plays to sitcoms. Find a script that you enjoy, and try to pin down exactly what it is that makes this one so good – is it the humour, the storyline, the characters?
Telling a story entirely through action and dialogue is actually much harder than it first seems – many of us are far more familiar with novels, where narrators are generally used to fill in additional information and aid our understanding of both characters and story. However tempting it may be, you should try to avoid the easy option of using a narrator in your script to tell the audience things you think they need to know; unless of course, the narrator is an important character in their own right who adds something to the story, such as The Book who narrates The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
4 Do you need a narrator?
As with a novel, it is easy to become a little self-indulgent or lazy with characters – remember, each one should be convincing as an individual, and even minor characters should have a reason for existence; perhaps to further the plot in some way, or reveal more about the main character.
5 Choose your characters wisely.
Your characters should also be convincing in the way they reveal information about themselves. In real life, people do not walk into a room and simply announce that they’re fed up with work because they’ve been there ten years, and the boss hates them, and they want to retrain to do something else, and they’ve been arguing with their partner about the whole situation. Your job as a scriptwriter is to find a way of revealing this information in a natural and realistic way, through the character’s actions or interactions with others.
It is harder to produce convincing dialogue than you might think, as every person has their own unique way of speaking – this is known as your idiolect. You also need to avoid making the talk sound too formal – we speak in a far more casual way than we write, using slang, shortened words, incomplete sentences and so on.
6 Aim for realistic dialogue.
In terms of dialogue, you could always consider collaborating with someone else to produce a better script. Many authors prefer to write alone, but scriptwriting is one area where it can actually be easier to work with a writing buddy (or buddies) rather than in solitary confinement. Unless your piece is a monologue, the script will consist of different characters conversing with each other, and this is where another writer can help by contributing a different voice to proceedings.
When we speak, we tend to do it spontaneously, meaning that our talk is full of mistakes and inconsistencies, and we often chat about topics that would be of absolutely no interest to a wider audience. If you compare a transcript – real speech written down – with a script you will soon see that a lot of the time everyday talk makes no sense at all, and it certainly wouldn’t be very entertaining! Aim to include some natural speech features as discussed above, but make sure you don’t go for complete realism.
7 But not TOO realistic.
There’s no such thing as a standard script; a script for television, for example, will vary enormously from one written for radio. Although hugely rewarding, writing for radio can be extremely challenging, as you need to remember that your listener does not have the visual elements available to television viewers.
8 Remember your medium.
This means you have to be far more creative with use of sound effects – the sound of a knife against a chopping board, for example, could indicate that the scene is set in a kitchen just before dinner time, or the sound of traffic on a busy road would suggest the character is outside at rush hour. You should also try to avoid having too many characters in a radio play, particularly ones whose voices sound the same – make sure you have characters of both genders, and perhaps of different ages and accents so that your audience will always be absolutely sure who is speaking.
As you toil away at your computer, carving your script out line by line, it is very easy to forget that although a script has a written format it should actually be crafted as a spoken piece. The only way you can tell if your script is working – if it sounds natural, if it’s the right length, if the audience will understand what is going on – is to test it out loud, either by reading it out yourself or, better still, roping in some friends to perform the script while you watch and make any necessary amendments.
9 Make sure you give your script a test performance.
You should always check specific submission guidelines, as individual preferences vary, but some basic, common-sense rules will always apply. Script Smart, a set of Microsoft Word templates, is a free formatting tool available from BBC Writers’ Room which automatically formats a script to industry specifications as it’s typed. Your typed script should above all be user-friendly for the actors who will perform it, so you should indicate very clearly in the margin who is speaking at any one time.
10 Make sure you lay out your script professionally.
Stage directions should also be clearly separated from the lines of dialogue, and if you want the actor to deliver the line in a particular way (‘loudly’, for example) then put this direction in brackets just before their line of speech. Remember this is particularly important in a radio script, as the actor cannot rely on facial expressions to convey emotion, and can only use their voice to show how they are feeling.