Screenwriting 101: 6 Tips To Writing Cheap

By Shaun Leonard · September 19, 2017

Some screenwriters make a living purely from the page. They pitch an idea, and sell it. They write a script, and sell it. For whatever reason, their story doesn’t make it all the way to the theatre or the web. Some screenwriters go their whole careers without anyone ever calling “Action” on their work. But that’s not you, is it? You want to write a movie so exciting it simply demands production. A surefire hit. Creatively exciting, but financially sound. Actor bait and a producer’s dream. Or perhaps you’re an independent filmmaker looking to make the next Clerks, Brick, or El Mariachi. Either way, the question is the same:


The answer? Write cheap. Any script analyst will tell you it’s easier to say yes the cheaper a script could be. This means avoiding certain things that can’t help but cost money. For example, if you’re hoping to keep a budget down, don’t write about the world’s biggest explosion. Whether it’s lasers, C4, or dilithium crystal overloads, booms cost bucks. That tip might be obvious, but the following should be more useful tricks for keeping your script’s hypothetical budget within reasonable margins.

Note: This list is not for every writer or every script. We love explosions. If your script demands the world’s greatest ball of fire, then write your action line accordingly. These suggestions are simply things to avoid when possible. If something cheap can be just as dramatic as something expensive, then why not make financiers happy? The better a writer’s track record when it comes to writing profitable films, the more budget they get to play with in the future. Write thrifty now, write epic later.

Write Modern

Period films cost more. Making 2017 look like 1776 is expensive. Think about the costumers, the propmasters, the set designers and dressers, the location scouts, the continuity editors, the researchers, and won’t somebody please think of the children?

Whether it’s practical effects or CGI, transforming even one location and the people in it from “now” to “then” can cost an unconscionable amount of money, and time, which is also money. The same can be said for setting your film in a far flung future. Making technology futuristic can cost just as much as making it historically accurate. Some films get around this by setting their timeline only a few years ahead of now, with an appropriate level of socioeconomic or environmental collapse to explain why there are no cyborgs or dry land.

Don’t Write In Famous Songs or Landmarks

If “Happy Birthday” costs money, think about how much a Lady Gaga, Kanye, Bowie, or Dylan song could cost. Don’t make an expensive song the hinge about which your plot turns, because it makes your script exponentially more expensive. The same can be said for writing in scenes that absolutely must take place in Times Square, in the Louvre, or on the Great Wall. Doubling these places, or getting permits to shoot and block off areas while doing so, will be so costly as to inch your script ever closer to the pile marked “PASS”.

However, as long as these songs and locations are suggestions rather than story necessities, then perhaps you can feel free to namedrop the latest chartbusters or one of the ancient wonders of the world.

Small Number of Characters

The more people on screen the more money that scene costs. If you have a cast of ten important characters, your casting director will have to find and price ten people. If you can, consider whether or not characters can be cut or combined to enhance your story. Editing involves eliminating any fluff or padding, not solely of plot or adverbs. Characters can be edited out too. You’d rather do it on the page than after you’ve shot the scenes, wouldn’t you?

No Crowd Scenes

The more people on screen the more money that scene costs. Whether it’s main characters or background, you’ll have to pay for the day. There’s also the possibility that your hundreds of extras will take time to corral and organize, which could cause shooting delays, which could mean you have to pay those hundreds of extras for more time at a more expensive rate. Before writing a giant protest, consider whether the noise of a protest from inside a building could get the job done. Before writing a massive war scene, consider whether a more surgical mission could accomplish the same character and story goals.

No Dangerous or Fantastical Elements

This was mentioned in the introduction, but it bears repeating: explosions tend to cost money. This is true of any dangerous stunts or practical effects. You’re not just paying for the pyrotechnics, you’re also paying for people with the expertise to have them boom at the right time, in the right way, and to do it all safely. This means stunt crews and various experts. And yes, you’ll probably pay more for insurance depending on the kind of script being produced.

And again, the more fantastic the story, the more people, time, and money it takes to make the impossible possible, to make the magical real.

The Shorter the Script, The Cheaper the Movie

Good things when short are twice as good. Brevity isn’t just the soul of wit, it’s a core tenet of screenwriting. If you can say something in two words just as well as twenty, take the two. The same goes for action lines and scenes. Whether it involves trimming handles or choosing your words more precisely, shave as many pages off your script as possible. The fewer scenes, the fewer setups for the camera and crew. The fewer setups, the shorter the shoot. The shorter the shoot… well, you get the picture.

These tips are not intended to cramp your imagination. If anything, they’ll help focus it, and make you more conscious of your choices as you make them. There are endless ways for anything to happen, and some will inevitably be cheaper than others. If you can find the one that’s the best and it happens to be cheap, great. If you can find three that are just as good as each other, maybe choose the cheapest. Script readers will probably like your writing better, and their bosses definitely will.

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