Screenwriting 101: What Every Budding Film Writer Needs to Know

Film writing, creative writing’s least loved offspring.

It gets so little respect from the other mediums. Well, just look at the movies—you may say—just look at how many bad ones are made each year! Yet, to judge film writing overall based on a few bad seeds is not fair to the great stories that we have had on the silver screen over the ages. It’s like comparing all literary classics to the work of a few pulp romance or sci-fi novelists.

Film is very different from other story mediums. The limitations are extreme, and many times you will hear people dismiss the medium, not realizing the art needed to work within the strict borders film dictates. Yes, writing for film successfully is an art no matter what your friends who read 1000-page length novels and wear all black say; just as important as a perfectly structured and meaningful poem.

Here are some points I have always felt crucial in beginning an understanding about writing for film.

The Basics

Let’s get this out of the way first. This is the “101” things you need to know:

  1. There is a special format for writing screenplays. There are programs out there you can buy that will you help you. If you bother to write a screenplay that doesn’t fit the special format, I can’t help you with any of my advice coming up (Actually, no one can help you). Personally, I find the programs cheating and like to make the formatting myself. I feel it gives me another chance to review everything written on the page, be closer to my work.
  2. Each page equals one minute. Try to keep each screenplay under 120 pages (in other words, two hours). When you are a successful film writer, you can try to write something longer, until then, anytime you create something longer it will turn off agents and studios.
  3. Learn the terminology!
  4. You are the writer, not the director. Just tell the story and give the dialogue, don’t worry about camera angles and visual notes. I repeat: you are not the director. This confusion is usually the downfall of first-time film writers.

Trust Your Story

One of the strange quirks of film, as compared to novels and theater is that an audience instinctively doesn’t trust it.

I kid you not.

Because it is not in their mind (novel) or live in front of them (theater), they initially always think it is fake… because… well… frankly, it is fake. Every aspect of it is. A successful film writer understands this and needs to create a story that doesn’t care about that. It needs to focus solely on the story. Forget special effects and other visual gimmicks (nudity, violence, etc.) and focus solely on your story, telling what you can visually as compared to in dialogue. If you believe your story is real, it will help convince the audience it is as well. And in film, that faith is more truly needed than in any other mediums since the fakery of it looms over every cell of the final product.

Also, this may all seem self-explanatory, but we can all name films that take us out of the story by a sly wink at the audience. These moments are as obvious as Chewbacca’s Tarzan yell in Return of the Jedi or Spider-Man dancing in Spider-Man 3. Avoid them. Buy into the story you are creating, and others will as well. It is the only way to fight the initial feeling of fakery each audience member feels at the start of a movie.


While on a stage you can have someone simply sit on a chair and speak to the audience, you can’t do that in film. Why can you do that on a stage though, you ask? Because people are keyed into giving a live person at least some attention and respect, as long as they keep it somewhat interesting (it takes a lot for someone to walk away from another human being in mid conversation). In film you don’t have that, they are not seeing live people.

You need action to solve this problem.

There always needs to be action, even during the most important speeches. Let’s look at the classic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V by Kenneth Branagh. In that opening speech by the Chorus, which you can usually expect on stage to be done simply in front of a closed curtain with maybe nothing more than a single spotlight; yet, when Branagh did it on film, he had the Chorus, prepare the audience for the motion of the story to come. It was about forming the action; something not needed on the stage but needed here.

I can even point to the awful adaptation of Hamlet staring Ethan Hawke (Yes, I called it awful film critics). During the “to be or not to be” speech in that horrendous movie he is walking around a video rental store, and the sections he passes add to the story.

Yes, Ferris Bueller may talk a lot but he is usually always in motion when he does it; well, as he says, “life moves pretty fast.”

Keep the eye on the story, keep it moving. So, if it is an important speech and you want the audience to pay attention to it, have the character do something that helps emphasize the point of the speech.

Then what about the dialogue? If it takes you more than five sentences to say something, you need to start over and try again. This is a visual medium first, save your beautiful speeches for the stage.

Show Everything!

Remember, what I said about trust? Here is that point again. While in theater you can have a character die off stage, or in a book have someone recap a bad incident; in a film, an audience will believe it is a lie unless they see it.

They need to see the car crash.

They need to see the casket.

Now that doesn’t mean you have to show every death or suicide, but you need to show enough to avoid the audience doubting the story. Look at the suicide scene from Dead Poet’s Society, and you will see how that can expertly be done.

Short and Sweet!

Strangely, film writing’s closest kin in creative writing is not the novel, like most people think, it is the short story. Because of the limitations of scope (In other words, while in books you can have multiple plots and main characters, you can’t in film), you need to focus on one plot and make it count, just like a short story. You might be able to stretch it to maybe three plots, but the other additions need to be subplots, they cannot take over the main story line. In other words, while the lead female’s character’s romance is the main story line, she is allowed to have some best friends who are also looking for love… just not as aggressively.

So when someone expertly adapts a book to film, they are doing a lot more than just making it visual (by creating a visual language almost entirely out of scratch for it) and changing a few lines of dialogue, they are cutting to fit within the rules of film. You can’t film an entire book word for word, no matter how many reviewers, critics, and fan think you can (I’m sorry all those young adult novel fans out there, it’s true). You are too limited by time and the visual restrictions of film. Frankly speaking again, they are very different mediums and you can’t compare them.

Yes, sometimes stories work better in different mediums, but the medium can’t be judged because of that. They are (well, to bring this full circle), related, but different people still.

Last Thing to Remember

It was Hitchcock that said famously (in not so many words) that a film is made three times: once by the writer, once during the filming, and the final time during the editing. You are only the first step, but as the first step you are the structure all of the different floors of the building are built upon.

Creating that perfect first step is… well… an art.

If you liked reading my article, why not check out some of my published books? I had two novels published in the last few years, A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my author page here, or as an eBook on Google eBooks here.  Thanks for reading!

15 thoughts on “Screenwriting 101: What Every Budding Film Writer Needs to Know

  1. Great article! I used to want to write a screenplay.. Lol.. And I found out after very little research that it wasn’t for me. And I agree with Tina, nicely written article!

  2. Pingback: Writing About Writing About Writing About Writing « The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

  3. Hi, again. Now that I’ve been walking around your playground. I wanted to let you know that I like what I see and read. I also like the toys on your desk. Comparing film to short story is spot on. So is your comment about FX and gimmicks not being recommended to propel the story forward! We are very much on the same page, Scott. It’s great connecting with you. 🙂

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