Ready to be a screenwriter? The best thing to do is just jump in and start writing. We can be prone to using “learning” about screenwriting as a good tool to put off the business of actually writing.
Our goal with our first screenplay is not to write something as good as Schindler’s List. We’re not going to, so it’s simply a fool’s errand to try. All we are aiming to achieve is to get a story down on paper in a format that is recognizable and readable as a screenplay. That’s it. And if we set ourselves that goal then the chances of succeeding are very good indeed.
I have met new writers who have spent up to five years “planning” their first screenplay. Oh, the research they’re doing. The studying. The books they’re reading. Boy, when this screenplay gets written the whole world is going to stop and take notice. “Who is this great talent?” they will say. “Where has his genius been hiding?”
The truth is, that screenplay is most likely never going to get written. And even if it did, I guarantee that it would be the same cliché ridden, hammy dialogued, plot-hole filled mess that the rest of us write the first time out.
We have so much to learn at this stage, but the best way to learn it is to get on and do it. Is research useful? Of course. Does studying our craft make us better? Absolutely, but none of that will teach us as much as putting finger to keyboard and crafting a screenplay from beginning to end.
Let’s switch this up and make it about sports for a moment.
Let’s say we wanted to become a professional golfer. Would we refuse to go out onto the course until we had spent years reading books about golf? Studying the world’s great swings? Watching videos of the masters? No. We’d pick up a club and get swinging. And we’d be terrible, but if we stuck to our goal we would get better and better, and we’d keep going until we were the best in our club, and then we’d try out for the PGA, and at first everyone else would be better than us, but we’d keep practicing and keep playing and keep studying and we’d get better—but all the time we are playing golf!
Is everyone’s first screenplay terrible? Yes—to some degree. Some people are more natural storytellers, just as some people are more natural athletes. This is exactly the same for screenwriting. We do not sit down and write Gone with the Wind. It is just as unlikely and unrealistic as picking up a golf club and beating Tiger Woods.
There are always exceptions to the rule. You can find someone who sold their first ever screenplay if you go hunting, but their journey and level of success has nothing to do with our own. We are seeking our own accomplishments on our own journey.
Lawrence Kasdan was 30 years old when a screenplay of his was finally put into production. That screenplay was Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. The year after that he wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark. That’s not a bad couple of years. Did he just turn up in Hollywood and say, “Hi, can I write your sequel to the most successful movie in history please?” No. He turned up and wrote and wrote and pitched screenplays to anyone he could find until someone recognized his genius and hired him to write the sequel to the most successful movie in history.
Successful writers don’t talk about writing; they do it. A lot.
So what do we need to get started? Very little actually; an idea and some writing software. But we are not going to care how good our first screenplay is compared to all the other first screenplays in the world, because there will always be someone whose first screenplay is light years ahead of his or her counterparts’. That person might even be you, but we still don’t care, because we are still nowhere near our goal. A first screenplay that is better than all the other first screenplays that have ever been written is still a massive way behind the best screenplays that are written in Hollywood each year, and that’s what we are striving to achieve.
The industry standard writing software is Final Draft. Available from www.finaldraft.com, it will cost you around $250. It is incredibly user-friendly and has all the formatting built in so that there is nothing to learn and very little to get wrong.
$250 is still a lot of money, though, and our journey should not necessarily be an expensive one at this stage, so thanks to some very lovely people who believe that resources should be free, you also have Celtx at www.celtx.com
This has developed over the years from a free writing software program to a full suite of paid-for production tools, but the writing software is still free and does essentially the same job as Final Draft. So for a few minutes downloading and no money down, we have all the tools we need to start writing.
If you haven’t done this yet, go and do it now and then come back.
Done it? Good. Now all we need to decide is what to write about. Let’s not make our first day too difficult. Let’s keep it really simple. All we need to do right now is choose a genre. There is usually a genre that is our favorite or has been our inspiration over the years. For me it was comedy. I enjoy all genres but my favorites and go-to movies are nearly all comedies. It makes absolute sense to write in the genre that inspires you. The following is an exchange that I have been a part of more than once.
INT. CONFERENCE ROOM- DAY
I stand with a WRITER, (23).
So what is your screenplay?
It’s a low budget horror.
Okay. Great. What’s your favorite horror movie?
Er… Well, I’m not really a horror fan to be honest, but
horror is really in right now and I know that studios are
looking for the next “Paranormal Activity”.
Right, but if you don’t really like horror movies then how
do you know if yours is a good one?
Oh, it’s a good one, believe me.
I don’t believe them. At all. And neither does anyone else.
Write what you love. Write what inspires you. Write what you enjoy. Writing is hard enough as it is; don’t make it any harder by writing to impress other people. If Happy Gilmore is your favorite movie ever, then write something that would entertain you just as much. If you can’t go to sleep without enjoying twenty minutes of a Nicholas Sparks movie, then find a love story that would make you weep for a week. And if The Piano plays on strict rotation in your house then get strapped in for creating the bleak drama to end all bleak dramas.
Choose a genre and we are done for the day. Well done, we have just started our first screenplay.