To distinguish yourself as a prize-winning screenwriter you need to master organizational skills, take creative risks, and learn how best to present your final product.
Screenwriting is a competitive trade. To distinguish yourself as a prize-winning screenwriter you need to master organizational skills, take creative risks, and learn how best to present your final product.
For the aspiring screenwriter, Tom Lazarus’ book, “Secrets of Film Writing” is one of the best. An exceptional screenwriter with five produced screenplays, Lazarus developed this book for beginning writers enrolled in his classes at UCLA.
This article examines a few of the many techniques outlined in “Secrets of Film Writing” and provides examples of screenwriters who succeeded with Tom Lazarus’ guidelines.
ORGANIZATION IS KEY
Master organization and you’re closer to producing a stellar screenplay, not a mediocre one. Ask yourself these questions:
- Does the screenplay have a clear beginning, middle and end?
- Does the story drift aimlessly or does it make its point successfully?
These may seem like basic questions, yet many screenwriters grapple with organizational problems.
Lazarus addresses this issue in his book; he recommends writers use one of four organizational methods to ensure their screenplays flow smoothly: outlines, treatments, index cards, and scene lists. All four of these tools are equally effective. Writers need to be discreet to decide which organizational crutch best suits their needs.
In writing the screenplay for the Hollywood feature film “Stigmata,” Lazarus chose to use a scene list for organizational support since he already had specific ideas about the chronology and action details of his story. To writers who have difficult organizing and prefer a different method, Lazarus says, “Go for it, because no one is going to see it. It’s a process. There is no wrong way.”
MAKE IT INTERESTING
Writing is a process. Great screenwriters take creative risks. Without an interesting story, even the most organized screenplay will be unmarketable. The goal should never be to copy another writer’s style; instead exercise your own imagination and experiment with different ways to spark your story.
When Warner Brothers hired Tim McCanlies to adapt Ted Hughes’ famous English novel “The Iron Man” for the screen, he struggled with whether he should remain true to Hughes’ vision or develop a new story based loosely on the original book’s events. McCanlies chose to do something risky and wildly creative; he Americanized “The Iron Man” by setting the story in the 1950s during the Cold War terror and renamed it “The Iron Giant.”
His calculated risk proved worthwhile. American audiences related to the film and appreciated its examination of an unusual time in their nation’s history. Also, English audiences embraced “The Iron Giant” despite its variation from the original English text and awarded it the 2000 BAFTA Award for best feature film.
McCanlies’ success lends a valuable lesson: when you risk nothing, you gain nothing. McCanlies, Lazarus, and other successful screenwriters embroil themselves in chances, write creatively, experiment with different ideas, and raise their characters’ stakes.
SUBMIT YOUR SCRIPT LIKE A PRO
Once you have written an interesting, well-organized screenplay you need to submit your script neatly and according to studio standards. Lazarus warns his UCLA students about several technical errors in script presentation that annoy studio readers. Follow these guidelines:
- A feature length screenplay should be longer than 95 pages and shorter than 125 pages when you submit it for studio consideration.
- Don’t include a synopsis or character biographies with your script as it gives studio readers an excuse not to review the whole screenplay.
- Don’t put scene numbers on your script until it is sold. This is a rule of the game; readers find scene numbers distracting and use them as an excuse to dub a screenplay “amateur” and unworthy of further consideration.
- Studio readers prefer to receive scripts bound with circular metal brads. Using folders and binders hog office space and interns may discard scripts unintentionally during spring cleaning.
- Finally, use one of the many screenwriting programs to help format your script, such as Movie Magic Screenwriter, Final Draft or Script Wizard.
Make sure you proofread your script several times before submitting a script for Hollywood review. Busy studio readers will not peruse screenplays riddled with basic errors like confusing “it’s” with “its” and using “are” when you mean “our.” Use a program like Style Writer to remedy such embarrassing grammar mistakes. When you’re ready to submit your script, grab a Hollywood Creative Directory to find markets for your script.
THINK SUCCESS AND BE A SUCCESS
Remember to take risks with plot and character development, and follow studio standards for script submissions.
Studying resources like “Secrets of Film Writing” by Tom Lazarus, “How Not to Write a Screenplay” by Denny Martin Flinn, “Crafty Screenwriting” by Alex Epstein, and “Alternative Scriptwriting” by Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush can be helpful for aspiring writers.
Developing strong writing skills takes time, a willingness to learn, and perseverance. Writers who constantly improve their skills and experiment with new ideas will succeed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brian Konradt is a freelance writer and graphic designer whose advice has helped many aspiring writers find their niche and achieve success.