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20 Steps to Screenwriting Success

By Michael Schilf · April 11, 2011

Screenwriting is a skilled trade, and a good screenplay must be molded and managed with craftsman hands. But so does a screenwriting career. It takes dedication, fortitude, and time – ten years to have overnight success – but if you’re willing to do the hard work to turn your ideas into completed screenplays as well as build a screenwriting career, follow this 20 step roadmap to screenwriting success:   Click Here to Start

1. Watch Tons of Movies
Lots of them. Good, bad, old, new. All genres. Make it your quest to become exposed to all things film. It’s a badge of honor to earn film nerd status, because as we all know, “Nerds Rule the World.” The more movies you see, the easier it’ll be to identify plot points, sequences, and act breaks. You’ll even start watching the clock when viewing DVD’s at home, as you’ll be inundated with the desire to analyze, but you’ll know when you experienced something truly great when you stop thinking and just enjoy the ride.

2. Read Tons of Screenplays
As many as possible. This helps to understand screenplay form as well as see how the page translates to the screen. You get a sense of different screenwriting styles and voices, and most importantly you will be exposed to the application of clear, concise writing, while using creative brevity to maximize the visual medium. Learning how not to direct on the page and maximize white space is all part of it. Check out some websites that offer free downloadable screenplays, such as SimplyScripts or DailyScript.

3. Have Lots of Ideas
Lots of them! And make sure your ideas are fresh, original, and unique – because a plethora of great ideas is truly your ace in the hole. As soon as you finish writing one script, immediately begin another. Always be creating something new. Imagine: If you write one script a year, in a decade (and it does take that long to have overnight success), you have ten finished screenplays, and the chances of achieving success with ten spec scripts versus one is obvious. Fresh, original ideas truly are the lifeline of Hollywood.

4. Create a Writing Schedule
Eat right and exercise: you’ll start liking what you see. Save your money and put 20% down: you won’t lose your house. And if you call yourself a screenwriter, you absolutely must follow suit. Schedule your writing because a writer’s schedule is the writer’s salvation. Make it a part of your daily routine, and stick to it like crazy glue. But be realistic about your own situation. Being a writer – paid or not – is absolutely a job, so treat it like one. Be accountable. Be responsible. Be on time. Show up and write – Everyday!

5. Find the Magic Within
There are stories in all of us, and the old adage "write what you know" is always a good place to begin. It only makes sense to steal from your own experiences. But it’s also just as important to “write what you love.” You have to get to where you’re inspired, because the real magic originates from inside. And if the spark isn’t ignited from within, there will be no fire in your script – no passion. And the best way to conjure up the passion and maintain that magic is to focus on who you are creatively and be true to yourself.

Go to Steps 6 – 10

6. Create Unforgettable Characters
A story is only as good as the characters within them, so you better create some damn memorable, flawed, outstanding characters. When developing characters (protagonist, supporting roles, archetypes, etc.), using a Character Questionnaire and Character Exercises is a good place to start. The moment you begin to imagine character relationships – how your character deals with his parents, his siblings, his coworkers, and all that – you start to explore the world of your story, and suddenly the whole story begins to emerge.

7. Develop Engaging Stories
A good story is about an interesting character, who wants something badly, and is having trouble getting it. (Character + Want) x Obstacles = Story. But there’s a lot more to the final execution of that story than just the broad strokes of an equation. A Story Questionnaire can be a great asset, because even if you’re telling a story we’ve heard before, you must create and develop an original Location (world of the story), Population (protagonist’s objective, polarity, character arc), and Situation (plausibility, rising action, obstacles).

8. Know the Theme
Even with the most fantastic characters in the most amazing situations, if there is no point to the story, there is little point in writing the screenplay. Why? Why? Why tell the story? The central theme of your story is the foundation of everything and the most important motivating factor for writing the script. And since theme and conflict are crucially linked, it is through an exploration of your central character that will guide you into that conflict because theme is always rooted in the protagonist’s primary goal.

9. Outline Before Writing
Give a carpenter a truckload of tools and a bunch of wood; he'll build something. But hand him structural blueprints as well, and the end result will be amazing. Screenwriters work the same way, and the outline is your blueprint. It gets you thinking and keeps you focused. The most basic outline must include these five core elements: the protagonist and his/her goal, (2) the supporting cast and what they each want, (3) the beginning and the end, (4) the five major plot points, and (5) the basic order of events.

10. Utilize a Structure
A screenplay in three acts is your framework. These act divisions, often literally taking place in different worlds – physically and/or figuratively – can work independently of each other, yet when connected, they build a solid whole. And structuring these acts with sequences (self-contained portions of the entire story, usually about 10 to 15 pages in length, that have their own tension) can be a huge benefit. Using the Eight Sequence approach is not an absolute formula to building your script, but it is a great place to start.

Go to Steps 11-15

11. Develop an Original Voice
All good writing has a distinct voice: your scent, your soul, the abstract elixir of your core. And as a screenwriter, voice is the way you describe the action, it’s your style and word choice, it’s the pulse of the page, it’s rhythm, and just as important, it’s also the decisions you make to grab the reader’s attention and connect with the audience. A good original screenplay with a unique, memorable voice is hard to come by, and finding ways to bring your voice to the page is key, because you don’t always sell your script, but you do sell you.

12. Master Screenplay Form
Screenwriting is essentially filmmaking on paper. But this visual storytelling has an incredibly specific form, and if you ignore that form, you will no doubt destroy your screenplay. You must write in present tense – only what the audience can see and hear. You must be clear, concise, and creative in your execution of the page. Both in description and dialogue, script economy is the screenwriter’s steadfast ally. You must avoid directing on the page; and instead, describe the shot. Applying the art of white space is also an asset.

13. Understand Film Genres
When it comes to most genres, people rarely go to the movies to be surprised. They know the action hero will survive, that the girl will get the guy, and the villains will get their just deserts. In reality, however, love hurts and sometimes the bad guys win, but in the movies, love is a holy elixir and the hero saves the day. Screenwriting is almost never about reinventing the wheel. The key to writing a sellable script is to understand genres (and sub-genres) and meet the expectations of its audience.

14. Connect With Your Audience
If the audience isn’t invested with the story, if it doesn’t care about the characters, if it’s not intimately involved, discovering, anticipating, predicting, and reaching conclusions… well, then you’re in big trouble. Remember, as a screenwriter, you’re selling to an audience. They’re your everything. You write for them – so they can laugh, cry, hope, and fear. But don’t force-feed; your audience is smart. Never just tell the story. Show it, and let them add up two plus two, because when you do, they love you for it.

15. Write Successful Scenes
The scene is essential to movie making. After all, a film is just a bunch of scenes strung together to create a comprehensive whole. And the trick to great scene writing begins with asking questions, doing scene exercises, learning scene types, and juxtaposing those types. Start scenes at the last possible moment and get out early. Creative brevity in a screenplay is a necessity, so writing scenes that are clear and concise, while always moving the story forward and/or revealing character while still engaging the reader is key.

Go to Steps 16 – 20

16. Deliver Dynamic Dialogue
Screenplay dialogue has a rhythm, and therefore is easily spoken. It’s brief, moving rapidly, verbal exchanges volleying back and forth between characters, shifting power from one side to the other, until somebody scores the point. It’s full of conflict, lots of it. And rarely do characters say exactly what they mean: dialogue is all about subtext. And when faced with the need for exposition, utilize the visual medium. And avoid the temptation of voice over unless its use compliments the story to improve the script.

17. Develop True Grit
Dedication. Determination. Fortitude. Pick your noun of choice, because if you want to be a screenwriter, it's the only way you'll survive. Screenwriting is a "nose to the grindstone" business, but if you follow a writing schedule while striving to incorporate The Three C’s and the Writer’s Triangle, you will persevere. Your courage and endurance to fight through the adversity of writing a screenplay will only make you stronger. And then all you have to do is do it again, and again, and again… and eventually (in ten years) you will have overnight success.

18. Embrace That Writing Is Rewriting
A first time writer can construct a quality screenplay. Jon Favreau did it when he penned Swingers; Diablo Cody did it with Juno. But they are the exception. To put it a different way, Lance Armstrong didn’t win the Tour de France the first time he got on a bike. Writing is a lifestyle, not a diet. You write, you rewrite, and you rewrite some more. You should never love your screenplay simply because it exists. The final product is only good because you busted your butt, draft after draft after draft. All writing is rewriting. Period.

19. Get Critical Feedback
So you finished your screenplay, and now it’s the agonizing process of waiting for feedback. Without feedback, you’re lost. And forget about sending that script to Mom or Dad. You need brutally honest feedback… from other writers. Why? Because they’re swimming in the same shit as you are, and generally, they care. So, what’s the solution? Create a writer’s group. Six members is ideal, both men and women. If you meet once a month, you’ll present new material twice a year: that’s two features! Not too shabby.

20. Network, Network, Network.
“It’s not what you know, but who you know.” And when it comes to Hollywood, the cliché is verifiable: it's all about relationships. So how do you go about building a network? Join a writer’s group, and if you can’t find one locally in your area, start one yourself. Working on independent films is another great way to build relationships – doing freebie jobs on student and low-budget projects. And you never know who you’re going to meet or where, so always be ready to pitch: your screenplay and yourself.