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Monday, September 15, 2014

SCREENWRITING........What is it that appeals? Are you interested? By Gail L. Jenner

Have you ever watched a movie and said, "I can write a better storyline than that!"  or  "Why aren't there more movies that I like out there anymore?" or even, "My novel would make a great film!"

                                                                Are you interested?

For many writers, the idea of tackling the art and science of screenwriting seems intimidating. In my view, screenwriting is to novel writing what poetry is to short story.....

Truly, screenwriting is an exciting road trip! In addition, the benefits for any novelist/short story writer are many: writing scripts intensifies a writer’s focus; improves a writer’s use of dialogue; helps a writer shift from ‘telling’ a story to ‘showing’ a story; and sharpens a writer’s ability to discern the essential elements of a powerful story. Even if you never sell a script, however, learning the craft will improve your writing immensely.

Basically, a script is broken into the 3 same basic story parts every story must have: Beginning, Middle, End.  But the fact is, a script is roughly 90-130 pages and every page equals one minute of a movie. That means that EVERY scene must MOVE the plot forward and have a clear purpose for being included; there can be no scenes that exist just for the pure pleasure of examining life, for instance. In fact, movies that do take off on rabbit trails, rarely make it into the “keeper” category of films. I think that’s because the audience “knows” where a story needs to go and when it drifts, it’s disconcerting or disappointing or frustrating.

Most screenwriters follow some general rules, but as in everything, these are not hard and fast, merely guidelines by which to begin the process. There are exceptions to everything.
*          How many pages long is the average screenplay?        120 pages

*          How many acts are in your average screenplay?          Three

*          How many scenes are in your average screenplay?     Forty-Sixty

So, if we say our story is 120 pages, then the Beginning or Part I of the story equals about 30 pages, the Middle or Part II equals about 60 pages, and Part III or the Resolution equals about 30 pages.

As in any kind of excellent writing, revision and more revision is critical. EVERY word in a script must be consciously and carefully crafted. There is no room to move randomly from scene to scene. This is one of the reasons that even trying one’s hand at script writing can be a great edge on which to hone one’s writing craft in general. Like poetry, the writing must be terse and clear.

One hard and fast rule, however, is this: FORMATTING IS CRITICAL. Anyone looking to write a screenplay MUST adhere to the formatting guidelines, or invest in script-writing software, like Final Draft.

Thinking of trying it? If so, there are a host of excellent books to help the beginning screenwriter, especially when examining what makes a film work and work well. Cynthia Whitcomb's course on Screenwriting (she now lives in Portland, Oregon, and is actively involved with writers at every level) is a great place to start. She has written more than 70 screenplays, including:

These are three of Cynthia's movies with which you may be familiar. She has won 2 awards and been nominated for 6 other awards... including the Emmy, the Edgar and the Humanitas Prize.

Cynthia Whitcomb’s The Writer’s Guide to Writing Your Screenplay (also her Selling Your Screenplay) are excellent books for someone starting out. Other great books on Screenwriting include: Stuart Voytilla’s Myth and the Movies: Discovering the Mythic Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films; Robert McKee’s Story (often considered one of the bibles of screenwriting) or any books by Syd Field; and for those looking to convert a novel or story into a script, Richard Krevolin’s How to Adapt Anything Into a Screenplay.

Of course, there are many great teachers, eg: Linda Seger and Syd Field; I have studied under both Cynthia Whitcomb and Richard Krevolin and found their materials “user friendly.”  I’ve also taken coursework under David Freeman and Hal Croasman, both well-known story gurus.

The most important tip anyone can give, however, is to READ scripts. They are easy to download and you can also find them at B&N or other bookstores. Again, formatting is critical; I have started using Final Draft, but there are other software programs, too.  Registering a completed script is also critical; the steps and information on that can be found at wga (Writer’s Guild of America).

            When reading scripts, here are some suggestions on how to study them:

*          Write down a list of every single scene – then write a one-sentence summary of what happened in each.

*          Count the separate story strands or plot lines (major characters, minor characters/conflicts, etc).

*          Look for structure, including act breaks and scene lengths/structure.

*          Look at when the hero is introduced, the villain, where they first meet, when they have their face to face confrontation. Look for the inciting incident that kicks the story into action.

*          Look at the balance between action and dialogue.

*          Look at the formatting, including narrative vs. dialogue.

*          Look for subtext vs. on-the-nose dialogue. Sub-text has often been said to be the critical difference between a good and great story.

*          Look for what has been included or left out; examine what you think are the “story questions” and how are the resolved?

*          Look at how the conclusion/resolution occurs: what unexpected twists or payoffs occur? Be sure and note anything that seems “unresolved.”

As a step into the film world, a great place to begin is by entering contests. There are hosts of them now, but a few remain at the top: the Nicholl, Scriptapalooza, and the Chesterfield are three of the most prestigious. Winners, even finalists, get a chance at representation or a sale through such contests. I’ve been fortunate enough to finish as a finalist, a semi-finalist and a quarter-finalist in several contests, including the Chesterfield…..although, thus far, I have not yet sold a script :-(

But I hang onto what Cynthia Whitcomb says: “Write dozens of scripts. That way by the time you’ve sold your first, you’re well on your way to building a career!”

One question most of us have is whether a screenwriter must live in Hollywood; many outstanding writers live outside LA., and if writing for television or working with production companies is part of your goal, then living near the “center of the film universe” is necessary. And the schools that feature film departments include USC and UCLA. But there are other cities outside Southern California that are becoming noted for film and the number of regions is increasing every year. As the world of independent film companies grows, the world outside Hollywood for working in film grows as well.

Remember, film is the 6th largest industry in the state of California and even in this dismal economy, it is doing relatively well. Isn’t it remarkable that Hollywood suffered little during the Great Depression! That should tell us how important the industry is to Americans and movie-goers all over the world...

As with everything, selling a screenplay is another step in the process.....
and I hope to accomplish that goal someday soon.....
Until then..... for more about my writing, both nonfiction or historical fiction, check out my website at


  1. Hello Gail. What an interesting post! Ever since my first book for my English publishers came to me in a dream which looked like a movie, I have wanted to see that one as a movie. I didn't think I could ever write the script though. After reading your post, I might just be working on that, unfortunately I am in UK and I don't know if it would ever find a 'home' here! I never knew where I could buy copies of scripts from to study, so thanks for that information too. I have learned so much from this post, I might even print it out and keep it close as reference material!! Thanks so much for this. (English Rose).

    1. Jill - Great! Go for it......actually there are a variety of ways to market your script and I may just do another post on that.....lots of websites where you can get information and avenues to submitting, etc. It's such a worthwhile process, if you already SEE your story as a script, it may lend itself very well to one :-) The formatting and the process are easily gathered from the books I mentioned, and others, and there are classes/courses online for the beginning screenwriter, too! Hope you do try :-) Keep us posted on your progress.....and thanks for stopping by!!

  2. Gail, You are so correct. Screenwriting is so concise in telling a story. I've spent years, as an actor, studying scripts. Subtext really comes alive when the actor gets it. I've helped others in their efforts, both as actors and writers. (I've even directed a short written by some students, and of course plays.) I would also suggest stage plays as a great exercise, for that is even more focused due to logistic constraints.

    I wish you well, and hope you and anyone who gives this a try. Anyone who is interested should give this a try. Great post, and obviously I resonated with the subject. Here is to great stories, told in many venues. Doris

  3. Doris! Wow - I know that actors can extract and contribute to a story in many ways. My niece, a director/producer/writer, has taught me so much as well, but while watching her direct her first feature, HEATHENS AND THIEVES (see, it was revealing to see how the actors interpreted and contributed to the process. Stage plays are another avenue to learning and are much more focused, as you pointed out. The words are not subject to change like they are in a film. Thanks for stopping by!

    1. That first time directing is such a joy, and your niece hit it right coming out of the gate. What a great gift. Doris

  4. Gail,
    A very informative post. I've not written screenplays, but have read a few by my nephew. They were excellent. It made me realize what a unique way of writing this is, and it showed me right off that this isn't for me. But I'm glad others do it since I love visual storytelling.

    1. Kristy - Reading scripts is a great exercise for anyone who is writing, in my pov. It is unique, but it also teaches how important and powerful images are, and it also reveals the impact even a single word can have on the reader. I think we often ignore screenwriting as not being a literary art (especially in schools), but it is and must be recognized for its impact on our world! I think most of us also love visual storytelling :-)

  5. Gail,

    Wow! You packed a lot of information into a few paragraphs. While the thought of writing a script is intriguing to me, I've never ventured in that direction. I'm with Jill in that I'm tucking this away for future reference. Best of luck in your script-writing endeavors.

    1. Hi Kaye - Thank you for stopping by. I hope you do venture into this genre sometime, if only for the revelations that can come from the exercise. Thanks for your encouragement.... :-)

  6. Gail what an awesome post! I needed this! I have a mss. that I've had two agents say, "That would make a great movie!" about! But I need to learn to write a script. I bought Final Draft a few years ago, but have had so many irons in the fire, I only got halfway through on the script. The formatting is the hardest thing for me, even with Final Draft. (I'm not a techie at all.)

    Thanks for this--great tips and ideas and some very valuable info here.

    1. Thanks, Cheryl! It is a challenge putting together a script, but it's a ball -- and I can't underscore how revealing it is in the whole imagining of a story. I think it behooves any novelist to consider at least one script!! Hope you're able to work out the kinks. I'm not a techie either, but formatting is one of the absolutes in the process....Good luck!

  7. Gail, Wow! You are so ambitious. I have toyed with the idea of writing a script. I did attend a class on how to make a movie trailer being taught by a Professor at the University of Louisiana. He wrote the trailers for Robo Cop and Juno. It was very interesting. I know their not scripts but it was interesting just learning how to make things come alive on screen.

    1. Actually I think envisioning a trailer is a powerful thing -- I've never done it, but I know from my niece's movie (again, check it out - -it won six best feature awards!), HEATHENS AND THIEVES, that putting together the trailer is huge! It's like writing the logline or a synopsis... hard but powerful. I have thought about doing book trailers but haven't taken time to jump in!