There’s more to screenwriting than just having a good idea and trying to turn it into a blockbuster movie. To write, you need the help of software, websites, and books. Software can help you plan and write your screenplay. Websites can give you updated information about the latest movies and the business of Hollywood. Books can help you better understand writing, story structure, and plotting.
No matter how talented or determined you might be, don’t try to do everything on your own. There’s plenty of help, guidance, and information available so use what will help you turn your great ideas into screenplays you can sell.
The main purpose of screenwriting software is to format a script so you can concentrate on writing. A secondary purpose of software is to spark your imagination and help organize your thoughts so you can turn them into coherent stories. The two most popular screenwriting programs are Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter, both of which run on Windows and the Macintosh. Both programs are essentially word processors designed to format the elements of a screenplay so you can focus on writing and less on formatting.
Although both programs are heavily used in Hollywood, they’re also relatively expensive (approximately $249). Don’t deceive yourself into thinking that you can succeed as a screenwriter if you only had the right software. A screenwriting program is only as good as the person typing in the story. A good screenwriter with a typewriter can beat a lousy screenwriter using a computer every time.
Before you spend your money on a screenwriting program, consider Fade In Professional, which not only costs far less ($79.95) but also runs on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux as well. Because so many people need to save screenplays in the Final Draft file format, Fade In Professional makes it easy to import and export Final Draft files. That way you’ll be able to collaborate with anyone using Final Draft. Ultimately, a screenwriting program is like a pencil. Find the one you like best and then worry about using it to create the best stories possible. Once you learn how to use one screenwriting program, you’ll find it easy to adapt to another one.
If you use Final Draft on a computer, you might also want to use Final Draft Writer, which costs $29.99. By using Final Draft Writer, you can write and edit Final Draft files on your iPad or iPhone. If you use Fade In Professional on a computer, you can use Fade In Mobile ($4.99) on an iPad or iPhone.
You may also be interested in a variety of online collaboration screenwriting programs. These programs let you write, store, and edit a screenplay on the Internet so you and a partner can work together no matter where you might be located in the world. Best of all, these online screenwriting programs can be much less expensive than buying Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter:
When using any online screenwriting program, always make sure you keep backups on your own computer. You always want backups to make sure your files are never lost no matter what happens.
Traditionally, screenplays use the Courier font, which resembles a typewriter font. Unfortunately, the Courier font doesn’t always look very good on computer screens. As an alternative, try one of these two Courier font variations specifically designed to be much easier to read:
If you’re going to write screenplays, you should spend much of your time reading existing screenplays. Not only can you learn the general conventions for formatting a screenplay, but you can also see how screenplays often differ from the filmed version. Sometimes screenplays contains too much irrelevant information and sometimes the movie actually improves upon the screenplay through ad libbing, rearranging of scenes, or editing parts of a script altogether. Visit these sites and start reading the scripts of your favorite movies today:
Before you watch a movie, check out the criticism at Rotten Tomatoes. Just keep in mind that sometimes poorly rated movies are actually good while higher rated movies can feel dull. The problem is that movie criticism is so subjective where critics often overlook the story structure of a movie in favor of special effects and action instead. Despite this, Rotten Tomatoes can give you rough gauge on whether a movie is worth watching or not. As a general rule, any movie rated over 90% at Rotten Tomatoes tends to be great while any movie rated lower than 20% tends to be awful.
If you’re curious about the people involved in a movie or trivia details about the making of a particular film, visit the Internet Movie Database, also known as IMBd. Besides listing the cast of each movie, IMDb also provides plenty of movie news so you can learn about upcoming films.
There are plenty of screenwriting books out there and you’ll always find something useful from each of them. However, if you’re just getting started in screenwriting, here are my recommendations for books you should read first:
- Save the Cat by Blake Snyder is one of the few screenwriting books written by someone who has actually sold several scripts and seen them turned into a movie. (Okay, so “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!” may not qualify as a great movie, but at least he sold a script and got to see it turned into a bad Sylvester Stallone comedy.) This book is easy to read and can help you define your movie before you even think of writing a single word. You’ll learn about taglines and titles and why a great concept needs both before you spend any time writing your story. His general screenwriting principles are worth the price of the book alone.
- Story by Robert McKee is about telling a good story whether you want to write a screenplay, a novel, or just a short story. A lot more academic than “Save the Cat,” but loaded with plenty of useful and interesting tips that can only help you in the long run. This is the type of book that you’ll likely reference multiple times and still learn something new each time you read it again.
- The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier provides an excellent explanation on how to use the specific format of a script. If you’ve ever wondered what’s the difference between a voice over and off-screen, or how to identify the inside of a building vs. the outside, this book will teach you the nuances of script formatting and a whole lot more.
- Screenplay by Syd Field is considered the classic screenwriting book. If you’re just getting started, this book will introduce you to the importance of structuring your story long before you start writing. Any of Syd Field’s other books are must-have books for reading and reference as well.
- Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias emphasizes the importance of telling an emotional story beyond the visual action of a plot. The greater the emotional change in your hero, the stronger the audience will bond and enjoy your story. The emotional impact of a story is often what’s missing in many screenplays that rely too much on mindless action and special effects rather than telling an emotional story that has meaning for the characters and the audience alike.
- Story Engineering by Larry Brooks focuses on creating the underlying structure of stories, what makes them work, and how stories fail when they omit common story structure elements. Every story follows certain conventions and if you omit them, your story will likely feel weaker and less appealing as a result. By structuring your story properly in the first place, you can save yourself hours of wasted time and create a compelling story quickly and easily.
Ultimately, you are going to be your best teacher by writing consistently. If you find the idea of writing a 120-page screenplay daunting, start with short scripts. If short scripts are still too challenging, write individual scenes. For example, write a scene between two people breaking up, a woman quitting her job, a man about to ask a woman to marry him, or any number of interesting scenes.
The goal is to get used to writing in the screenplay format, using your screenplay writing software, and thinking in terms of a screenplay. Screenwriting is nothing more than a skill that anyone can learn. While some people may be more talented than others, talent is far less important than perseverance. Talented people lose to more persistent people everyday in every field, so if you’re really determined to write and sell a screenplay, don’t let anything stop you.
Keep writing and learning from your mistakes. Writing will show you what you don’t know so then you can go out and find out how to solve your particular weakness. You’ll always have weaknesses but the more you overcome them, the more strengths you’ll build up and the fewer weaknesses you’ll have left that keep you from writing altogether.
Write every day. Never stop. One day, you’ll be surprised at how far you’ve come.