According to the Writers Guild of America, there are over 10,000 members who work in screenwriting – and that’s just the professionals. Scattered across universities around the world there are thousands more talented storytellers searching for the golden screenwriting tips that will inspire them to write the next Netflix big hit.
Opportunities for skilled, visual storytelling continues to build, and understanding the basics of screenwriting – plus what not to do – can help you go a long, long way.
Here are our best screenwriting tips – let’s go!
- What Are The Best Screenwriting Tips?
- Screenwriting Tips: What Are The Most Common Mistakes Screenwriters Make?
- Screenwriting tips: a conclusion
What Are The Best Screenwriting Tips?
1. Write every single day until it becomes a habit
Whether it’s a screenplay, a novel or an essay, writing little but often is the best way to achieve your writing goals.
Ultimately, writing is a muscle that you need to exercise to improve, and to do that you need to do it consistently – however you feel.
Developing a daily writing habit is the easiest way to feel like you are continuing to move forward, which is vital to your motivation.
Most people start fast and then fizzle out – but by making writing into a habit you can make solid progress on your screenplay over time.
How to develop a writing habit:
- Set a very specific goal: Decide what you want to write about and why, and set a specific goal for your writing each and every day.
- Write in the mornings: Get your day off to a flying start and make it a non-negotiable part of your routine. Knowing you have achieved some writing early will also carry your motivation through the day.
- Start in small chunks: Start small and gradually increase it. This will avoid you burning out early. For example, start by writing for 15 minutes a day and gradually work your way up to an hour or two.
- Stop distracting yourself: Find a quiet place to write and get rid of any distractions. Turn off your phone, make sure you have a full stomach, close social media tabs and watch how much more progress you make!
- Strive for consistency: Make writing a regular habit by doing it every single day. Don’t try and double up days, but make it a habit that you stick to it as much as you can.
- Reward yourself when you do it well: Don’t reward yourself for good sessions vs bad sessions – reward yourself for effort. Praise yourself for sticking to your writing habit so that you reinforce the habit.
- Reflect: Take time out to look back on your progress as it can fill you with motivation realising how much you’ve already done.
- Finally, be super patient with yourself. Habits are hard to create and easy to break, especially in the early days. If you miss a day or two, don’t give up, just keep calm and carry on…
Top simple tip: Write an hour a day and stick to it until it becomes a habit.
2. Start with a fixed outline
It can be tempting to charge ahead with the ‘fun’ bit of writing, which is all the descriptions, characters and dialogue.
Sadly, this why most people tangle themselves up until their writing becomes a mess.
A plot outline from the word go is absolutely crucial.
It can help you map out the structure of your story and ensure that you don’t get bogged down in the minor details too early on.
You can always add flavour at a later stage by rewriting your script to fit the plot better.
3. Show, don’t just narrate
Use action, movement and dialogue to show what’s happening in your story rather than just telling the reader.
Screenplays and scripts differ from books where the picture is already painted by what people see.
Therefore, you should lose most of the long descriptive texts and focus more on telling your story through the characters’ actions.
4. Use subtext and more descriptive language
Not everything has to be spoken.
Watch TV and you’ll see that half of the story is conveyed in hidden glances and body language.
Subtext is powerful and it’s the underlying meaning of what your characters say and do.
Plus, remember, what they say shouldn’t always be exactly what they mean!
Descriptive language can help bring your characters and their motivations to life and make your story more real, and deeply immersive.
5. Learn how to write dialogue until you’re seriously good
Good dialogue is where you can separate yourself from the thousands of other writers out there. Put simply, it’s the hardest writing skill to master, so if you do then you’ll stand out from the crowd.
Your characters’ dialogue should show off their flaws (which every character needs), plus their personalities, desires, and even their political motivations.
However, it’s too simple to say ‘write good dialogue’ when in reality it’s far more complex.
So, what should you pay special attention to?
How to write good dialogue.
- Make it as natural as possible: Humans don’t speak like drones (yet!). Good dialogue should sound like something that a real person would say in a given situation. Avoid making your characters sound too formal or stilted.
- Reveal character: People aren’t 2D characters. Very rarely will you have someone who is all good, or all bad – there has to be nuance there. Your characters’ dialogue should reveal their personalities, desires, flaws and secret motivations.
- Avoid too much exposition: Expository dialogue might sound smooth, but it is dialogue that is used to explain something to the reader, rather than advancing the plot or revealing character Therefore it can slow down the pace and be distracting.
- Use distinct voices and traits: Give each of your characters a uniquely distinct voice to help them stand out. It’ll make them far more memorable.
- Keep it snappy: People tend to speak in short, stilted sentences, often interrupting and going off on tangents. Avoid long, rambling speeches that are ‘too smooth’ and can lose the reader’s interest by sounding forced and cliched.
- Use body language and action: They say about 70% of communication is non-verbal. Your characters’ body language and actions can speak louder than their words, especially if it’s done with subtlety. Use these elements to add depth and meaning to your dialogue.
- Write for the screen, not a book. Long, tiring paragraphs won’t translate to a screenplay that engages people.
A screenplay is a visual medium, so it’s crucial to write in a way that takes advantage of that and allows the audience to be drawn into visualising the story.
Use visual elements to help navigate through the plot.
6. Avoid cliches (I wish this was easy)
Perhaps the hardest part of writing is knowing what to leave out, not what to include.
Even in writing this article I can feel myself gravitating towards words and phrases I’ve used or read 100s of times, but it doesn’t cut through to the reader and makes things seem thin and dull.
Put simply, cliches are drastically overused and can make your story feel boring – which is the worst thing it can be.
Try to find fresh, original ways to tell your story by coming up with unusual metaphors, actions, entrances, character decisions and dialogue.
7. Don’t give up too quickly.
This tip could apply for literally anything, but it’s especially relevant when it comes to artistic and creative pursuits.
Having chosen to dip your toes into the screenwriting industry, please don’t expect instant results. If you want inspiration look no further than some of your screenwriting idols and search their backstories on Wikipedia – I bet you’ll find that very few of them made it straight away.
Be self critical and brave enough to accept the honest feedback of others and keep going – you’ll get there!
Screenwriting Tips: What Are The Most Common Mistakes Screenwriters Make?
1. Failing to develop their characters
Flat, one-dimensional characters can make it difficult for readers to connect with your story.
They might be easy to write as larger than life villains, but life – and screenwriting – isn’t as simple as that. If someone has a nasty streak ask yourself questions about why they became that way, and aim to hint at it.
Building rounded 3D characters is the best way to make your work stand out as so few people do it skilfully.
How to develop screenplay characters
Start with the basics: What is your character’s name, age, occupation, and background? What are their goals and motivations?
Give them depth: Make your characters three-dimensional by giving them flaws, quirks, and internal conflicts.
Make them consistent: Once you have established your characters’ traits, make sure to stay true to them throughout the story.
Use their actions and dialogue to reveal their personality: Your characters’ actions and words should be consistent with their personality and motivations.
Show their relationships: Relationships can reveal a lot about a character. Show how your characters interact with others and how those relationships change over time.
Let them evolve: Allow your characters to change and grow as the story progresses.
Avoid stereotypes: Try to avoid using stereotypes and make your characters unique and complex.
Give them a goal: Every character should have a clear goal that drives their actions and motivates them throughout the story.
Make them relatable: Even if your characters are very different from your readers, try to find ways to make them relatable and sympathetic.
2. Including too much unnecessary detail
It’s important to include enough detail to make your story believable, but including too much unnecessary detail can bog down your story and make it less interesting.
3. Not seeking feedback
When people search for the best screenwriting tips, they often overlook the value and impact that others can have. Showing your work to friends and colleagues, and soliciting honest (sometimes brutal!) feedback can help you improve your writing and identify key areas where you can make changes.
Screenwriting tips: a conclusion
No matter how many screenwriting tips you successfully absorb, the key understanding needs to be that writing is a process – not just something that strikes when you’re inspired.
In fact, even though screenwriting is a creative pursuit, being successful at it will come down to your ability to stay disciplined, focused and chip away bit by bit at your screenplay.
Writing every day will help exercise and develop your writing muscles, while the ability to leave your ego behind and take good, honest criticism from those you trust will help you develop your work faster.
Have you got any more screenwriting tips to add? Let us know.