I attended a screenwriters’ course a while back and bought most of my books from the recommended reading list. Stuart Hepburn, the lecturer, is a professional actor and successful screenwriter who, at that time, had written for ‘Rebus’ and adapted Christopher Brookmyre’s book, ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’, for the screen. I think it’s safe to say my list is from a reputable source.
To fast forward into the screenwriting world, I would recommend understanding plot points first. Within every film, a turning point spins a story in a different direction at a specific time throughout the feature. Syd Field’s,’ The Screenwriter’s Workbook’, teaches you how to set up these plot points and also shows you how to build characters. His exercises are well worth the effort in tackling and should result in your completion of your character biographies.
The protagonist within every story normally has a Character Arc. The character will go through a series of changes from being one type of person to another. Christopher Vogler’s, ‘The Writer’s Journey’, will show you where these changes take place and how they come about. For example in the film Thelma and Louise, Thelma’s character arcs from being a scatter-brained, jittery, people pleasing woman, into a self-assured, stronger character who takes control.
I know this sounds formulaic, that’s because it is! Most films will follow a similar pattern although it’s been advised not to follow it too rigidly.
Changes must happen within each scene, though. No scene should ever be included purely for exposition. ‘Story’ by Robert McKee shows how a character’s situation will change from a positive to a negative or vice versa within each scene. It’s a fairly complex book but provides an excellent understanding of screenwriting… once you can get your head round it! This book also explains the beats within a scene: the series of actions/reactions by characters. It also advises how to use imagery. This has been said to be more of the Director’s problem but McKee advises the writer to include some of their own. The unconscious mind is at work all the time when a film is running and images help to lead the audience. For example, if you look close enough at the old Sean Connery film, ‘Entrapment’, you will notice the light beams that Catherine Zeta Jones climbs through are similar to a spider’s web.
‘Story’, in my opinion, gives the best all round advice including tips on dialogue and subtext.
‘The Screenwriter’s Bible’ by David Trottier should help sharpen your dialogue so that all your characters don’t sound the same; seemingly, this is a common occurrence with all new writers. This book has sample dialogue and shows how to include, for example, an intercut between scenes, montage, etc.
The general layout for dialogue and text must be precise. Courier Font 12, must be used and the spacing between dialogue and action, etc, must be exact; hence the recommended purchase of ‘Final Draft’ software which sets everything out to perfection, although I understand there are some other freeby downloads, apparently just as good.
The downloading of film scripts is also crucial to learn screenwriting. The Internet Movie Script Database has tons of free downloads. This is particularly useful when picking up old movies from the charity shops then you can download the matching scripts and sit with the two together to pick out Plot Points, Character changes, etc.
Missed anything out? ‘Making a Good Script Great’ by Linda Segerhelps you check just that. This book reiterates pretty much what’s been covered already but also helps to sharpen your plot and ensure you have an appropriate theme running through. Seger helps to ensure you have an audience point of view character and a balance character, etc. making sure you’ve covered the story from all angles.
Having said all this, I’m still an amateur with a script ready and waiting. Any producers out there who would like to come and lift it off my shelf? Never gonna happen! Back to the ‘Screenwriter’s Bible’ which provides sample query letters, how to perform your pitch and how to find an agent or producer.
Subscribing to ‘IMBd’ allows you to access information on hundreds of movie people including writers, actors, agents, directors and producers and provides a history of their movies produced to date. Perhaps one day your name will be in there too.
It can take years to learn the craft and to research material for your story itself and it requires patience to produce re-write after re-write. Still want to be a screenwriter? It seems a daunting task, but don’t focus too much on the big picture. Take one small step at a time and your enthusiasm and love for your project will drive you forward. The Scottish Screenwriters in Glasgow provide assistance to new writers. Their co-workers, ‘Write Camera Action, (WCA)’, provide the actors to act out your short scenes. Both groups are great for networking and WCA especially is highly entertaining and a great night out!
Lastly, screenwriting is apparently the hardest writing industry to break into, and I read it somewhere, in order to increase your chances of selling your script, it might be best to adapt it to a novel first. But at least at this stage, your plot is written, your characters are formed with all the necessary changes happening; it’s just a matter of converting it to prose. Easy? Aye Write! Can anybody recommend a ‘How to write a novel’ book….?
Gail McPartland

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