What are the most vital things screenwriters need to remember when they start a new screenplay?
It’s easy to get caught up in the moment when you start that next screenplay.
You’re excited. You’ve done the research. You’ve completed the front end work of outlining and organizing the primary story and character arc points in your head, on paper, using software, or whatever works best within your process.
And now it’s time to write the damned thing.
You’ve waited long enough — to the point where you not only want to start writing. You need to.
But before you do, here are five things you need to remember before you go down the rabbit hole that is the writing of your screenplay.
If you remember them and tell yourself these things before each script, you’re going to save yourself hours of frustrating rewrites.
1. Remember, It’s a Visual Medium
It’s easy to get caught up in the world-building, the story, and the characters. But you have to remember that the story you are telling is a visual medium.
If you’re writing a feature, that feature has to be told in pictures. The old adage of show, don’t tell is primary, for the biggest mistake most screenwriters make is trying to tell a story through scene description and dialogue.
As a screenwriter, you’re not trying to tell a great story. You’re trying to show a great story.
If your scene description content can’t be visually portrayed on the screen, it shouldn’t be in there. If your dialogue is doing anything more than accentuating what is shown as a visual, it should be deleted.
When a character is mad, happy, or sad, don’t ever use their dialogue — or any other character’s dialogue — to tell us that. Show us. Why? Because it’s a visual medium. There’s nothing more boring than having dialogue showcase emotions.
If the character is mad, have them slam a door, break a glass, or turn over a table.
If the character is happy, have them laugh uncontrollably, smile with happy tears in their eyes, or act out their happiness in some physical form.
If the character is sad, have them cry, stare off into space with sad tears in their eyes, or collapse to the ground in sorrow.
Always remember to focus on the visuals with every single word you write in that screenplay.
2. Remember, Writing Isn’t Just About Typing
Just because you only have a couple of hours a day to sit in front of the computer to type doesn’t mean that you only have a couple of hours a day to write.
Every waking — and sleeping — moment of your life is an opportunity to write your script.
If you’re only working on your script when you’re in front of a computer, typewriter, or notepad, you’re doing something wrong. Writing takes place while driving in the car, walking on the sidewalk, working out at the gym, daydreaming during your work or school day, lying in bed before you start your day, or when you’re trying to sleep.
You should always be asking yourself questions about your story and your characters. Your unconscious mind will do so much of the work for you when you do.
“How is my protagonist going to figure these clues out?”
“How do I transition from my exciting opening into the second act?”
“What are my character’s wants and needs?”
“How can I plant seeds for the revelation that comes in the end?”
Your brain is a powerful thing. Just posing the questions will start to open up doors, offer you answers, and create successful formulas to answer the needs of your stories and characters.
You should always be visualizing the scenes before you get to the point where you’re able to type. How can you possibly describe what you see in your head without seeing it in your head first?
A common mistake screenwriters make is just diving into the typing, making up visuals without first seeing them in their heads first. That’s primarily what leads to bad writing.
Remember that writing isn’t just a typing thing. You should be writing during every waking moment you possibly can.
3. Remember, Know Your Page Count Goal
This question is one of the most overlooked preparation elements in screenwriting.
Most novice screenwriters just write, write, write, with no end goal in sight. Sure, you may know your ending. But what page count are you trying to hit?
How many times have you finished a script and realized that you’re twenty pages too long? How many times have writing peers, managers, or script consultants told you that you need to cut the script down because it’s too long?
When you remember to set a page count goal before you start writing, you become extremely aware of that ticking clock. If you’re on page 30 and you’re still introducing characters, and the core conflict hasn’t even hit your protagonist hard, the page count clock is ticking.
If you’re 70 pages in and you’re not even close to setting up your climax, the page count clock is ticking. You’ll feel your script waiting for you to get to it.
Knowing your page count goal before you start writing helps you with pacing and structure. The page count goal will be your compass for those elements of your screenplay.
Note: 90-110 pages is the sweet spot for most screenplays written on spec by unestablished screenwriters. If you’re a little short, no worries. If you go over a few pages, no problem.
4. Remember, This Is Your Script, Not Your Version of Somebody Else’s
Hollywood wants original voices. That is what they are looking for in new screenwriters and screenplays.
They already have people that can write huge blockbusters. They already have established studio writers that can write great comedy, great action, and great drama.
They don’t need anyone new unless you stand out. Unless you have an original voice that they haven’t heard yet. Unless you write unique comedy, action, or drama. Unless you have concepts that they haven’t seen yet.
Emulating successful movies is a very easy trap to fall into. When we first start, we think, “Well, if I write what Hollywood is making, my odds will increase.”
Actually, your odds decrease because it’s been done before, and those jumping on any bandwagon have already hired established screenwriters to try and emulate successful trends. By the time you get your attempts read, it’s too late.
So remember to remind yourself that you’re writing your script, not your version of what has come before. It will help you make more creative decisions, as opposed to just following the studio formula.
Don’t be afraid to be you. Be weird. Be different. That’s how you stand out.
5. Remember, You’re Writing for Readers, Not Yourself
Yet another critical thing to remember before you start writing that next script. It’s not about you. It’s about creating a visually enticing experience for the reader.
Readers control your destiny. If you’re not writing with them in mind, you’re a step behind.
Writing for the reader means that you show, don’t tell — you’re trying to show them a compelling and visually enticing story.
Writing for the reader means that you embrace the Less Is More mantra.
Writing for the reader means that you’re putting everything on the screen, not in the backstory or in between the lines.
Every single scene description sentence has to be there for a reason. Every single line of dialogue has to be there for a reason. Every single scene, moment, or sequence has to be there for a reason. Not just because you think it’s funny. Not just because you think it’s cool. Not just because you like this or that. You should be writing what you enjoy and love, yes. But it has to serve a purpose within the story and the context of the screenplay.
You have to write for the reader. If you remember to do that, you’ll go into the screenwriting process with that focus in mind.
You have to engage them, compel them, retain them, entertain them, and surprise them.
Yes, you can and should write screenplays that you’re passionate about and enjoy. You can and should engage, compel, retain, entertain, and surprise yourself as a reader and movie-lover. But it’s the reader that matters most in the end.
Writing a screenplay only for yourself won’t get you anywhere in your career. It will only get you a stack of self-entertainment. For some, that’s perfectly fine. But if you want to make this a career, you have to write with the reader in mind.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies